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How Social Media Use Mitigates Urban Violence: Communication Visibility and Third-Party Intervention Processes in Digital Urban Contexts

Abstract

There is growing alarm among the media and public that digital social media amplify the frequency and severity of urban violence. Contrary to popular imagination, however, emerging research suggests that social media may just as readily offer novel tools for informal social control and de-escalation. Toward building an empirically grounded theory of urban violence in the digital age, we examine a key mechanism by which social media afford communities newfound capacities to mitigate conflicts. Drawing on digital, urban, ethnographic fieldwork in Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, we argue that social media afford a historic level of what new media scholars refer to as “communication visibility.” Specifically, social media allow onlookers to observe others’ online behavior and, in turn, exert influence over subsequent relationships, exchanges, and actions in ways that can prevent and reduce violence. First, we examine how young women protectors and a street pastor exert direct third-party influence by monitoring and manipulating social media communication to extricate potential combatants from risky situations. Second, we examine indirect third-party influence whereby potential combatants, in anticipation of onlookers’ intervention, proactively alter their own behavior in ways that encourage peaceful conflict resolution. These findings not only improve contemporary theories of violence, but also provide actionable lessons for enhancing the life-saving work of violence intervention and street outreach programs.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank Jessa Lingel, the editors of Qualitative Sociology, and the anonymous reviewers for insightful feedback on an earlier version of this article. This research would have been impossible without the young people and community members in Harlem and Chicago, who shared their intimate experiences regarding social media, violence, and intervention.

Funding

This research was funded in part by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation (https://www.hfg.org), the National Science Foundation Sociology Program (https://beta.nsf.gov/funding/opportunities/sociology), the University of Chicago Women’s Board (https://womensboard.uchicago.edu/), and the University of Chicago Urban Health Initiative (https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/about-us/community/urban-health-initiative). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, or preparation of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Forrest Stuart.

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Lane, J., Stuart, F. How Social Media Use Mitigates Urban Violence: Communication Visibility and Third-Party Intervention Processes in Digital Urban Contexts. Qual Sociol 45, 457–475 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-022-09510-w

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Keywords

  • Social media
  • Digital urban ethnography
  • Neighborhood violence
  • Violence intervention
  • Communication visibility
  • Onlooker effects