'Going Viral' and 'Going Country' the Expressive and Instrumental Activities of Street Gangs on Social Media

This study considers the role of the internet in gang culture and activity in the UK. The authors analyse the expressive and instrumental uses of "trap rap" videos posted on YouTube as a means of gaining insight into gang-related activity, such as drug dealing through "working the country lines".

Authors Michelle L Storrod and James A Densley

Published by Journal of Youth Studies, (2017)

Background and study

Online interaction plays an important role in building collective identity and engaging young people in gang-related activity. Smartphones and social media are integral to social interaction in young people's lives.

Data for the study was derived from two sources:

  • Focus groups with young people in an area prioritised as one of the 33 Ending Gang and Youth Violence local authority areas across England and Wales. Each of the 12 focus groups consisted of 16 to 26 students in five secondary schools and one pupil referral unit. They explored young people's perceptions of gangs and use of social media.
  • Systematic social media content analysis of "digital artefacts" shared by members of two gangs in this same area through social networking sites. The focus groups provided key direction, language, and techniques used by young people on social media that was then used to examine the same social media content. The sampling strategy began with locating the two "most viewed" YouTube videos featuring the two most "talked about" gangs from the focus group sessions.

Key findings

  • The focus groups explored young people's perceptions of gangs and experience of social media. Focus groups and videos reinforced the identities of gangs as providers of illegal goods and services with "making money" the key motivator to gang membership.
  • Focus groups provided insight into gang organisation and rules of interaction, particularly in relation to younger and lower-ranking members and sanctions when breaking rules of engagement. Social media appeared as a means by which new members are engaged in gang activity, such as running errands and testing "county lines" for drug selling.
  • Social media was a means of communication but also control, manipulation and monitoring of young people, including real-time tracking.
  • The most dominant and consistent themes on videos were "trapping" (drug dealing) and violence. The main focus of the videos was on enhancing a gang's reputation, putting down rivals, promoting the sale of drugs, including new markets such as "going country", and sometimes monitising videos on websites such as YouTube. According to information gathered from focus groups and from performers in the videos, the majority of videos are professionally produced with selected young people featuring and promoting their skills in gang "business" and the "olders" (senior gang members) paying for production.
  • Videos and online discussions included frequent references to "working the county lines" (commuting from urban centres to sell drugs in other parts of the country).

Implications for practice

It is important for practitioners to understand the culture, pressures and actions of young people who identify as involved in gang activity and the wider influence of gang-related cultural activities:

  • Online interaction and culture are important components of gang practices, relationships and identities and a means to promote, organise and recruit young people's activities. Trap rap videos are a cultural output that express, celebrate and reify gang culture.
  • Practitioners' strategies for safeguarding and outreach need to cover street work and the digital space. The use of social media by gangs overlap with safeguarding areas such as cyberbullying and exploitation where phones can also be used to monitor and control young people.
  • The issue of "going country" is reflected in online expressions of gang life.



Related resources

  • APPG on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults
  • Centre for expertise on child sexual abuse
  • The Contextual Safeguarding Network
  • County Lines Violence, Exploitation and Drug Supply, NCA, 2017
  • Study of data held by Cafcass in cases featuring radicalisation concerns, June 2016

Related resources by Research in Practice

  • Complex safeguarding: understanding and responding to different forms of exploitation of children and adolescents: Webinar, May 2018
  • 21st century social work with children and young people with disabilities: Evidence Review, April 2018
  • Online abuse - recognition and response: Tips and links: Frontline Tool, December 2017
  • Working Effectively to Address Child Sexual Exploitation: Evidence Scope, October 2017
  • Young person-centred approaches in CSE - promoting participation and building self-efficacy: Frontline Briefing, July 2016


The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on exploitation and vulnerability. Click here for more

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