The trigger goes click: How social media is fueling Philly-area gun violence

The trigger goes click: How social media is fueling Philly-area gun violence

Online threats can turn to real-world violence. Officials in Philadelphia and the surrounding area are finding more and more evidence that social media postings can lead to blood on the streets.

In December 2020, Shaquille Love was murdered in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Officials there believe it stemmed from a friend's social media posting six months prior.

Love, a 21-year-old from Croydon -- whose only previous interaction with the police was a trespassing charge -- was killed just two days before Christmas. The case is currently making its way through the courts.

And according to court documents, a friend of his said that the bullet that killed Love was instead intended for him.

Police believe it.

"A young, innocent man was murdered," said Jennifer Schorn, an assistant district attorney for Bucks County. "He was not the intended target."

Schorn said that the shooting was fallout from a graphic video posted online. A friend of Love's posted to social media a video showing someone urinating on a memorial for Tommy Ballard and Zyisean McDuffie, teens who had been killed in a double murder two years prior.

That video led to the revenge shooting that caught Love in the crossfire.

"Shaquille Love was an innocent young man who had nothing to do with these rival factions," said Schorn. "He happened to be in a car with someone who was part of a rival faction, and it all came back to individuals urinating on the grave of another murder victim.

"And then it just continues to put forth this fire, this catalyst for these factions to continue warring."

The two factions that Schorn referred to were groups from Bristol's Winder Village and Bloomsdale neighborhoods. Court documents in the case of Love's murder note that these two groups have been at odds at least since Ballard and McDuffie were killed in May of 2018.

"We have countless cases from various parts of our county that there is a clear connection to criminal activity following taunts that were put forth on social media," Schorn said. "We have had warring factions for over six years now in two communities in Bucks County where the teens, the young adults, are utilizing social media and they are flashing symbols and they are taunting their warring factions, their rival factions.

"It has a name: cyberbanging. And those taunts have absolutely resulted in shootings and resulted in murders."

Kelvontae Nasheed Perry, 28, of Bristol, is charged with Love's murder. His next court appearance is set for September. He has not yet entered a plea in this case.

But, Bucks County is far from alone in seeing online postings have real world consequences.

After charging four individuals following a series of deadly shootings in Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in May, District Attorney Larry Krasner said that social media was increasingly playing a role in street violence.

"This is a trend that we have seen in the last few years that does not resemble what was going on a decade ago," said Krasner at the time, "and does, to some extent, coincide with trends and availability of social media."

These individuals, members of what Krasner said was the "Big Naddy Gang," were posting videos and bragging in an effort to self-promote and "have reputations for being terror."

The case is far from a rarity for the DA's office in Philadelphia.

When there's a first homicide between two groups ... what determines whether or not this is going to turn into a feud is often what happens on social media afterwards.

Jeffrey Palmer, Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia

Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Palmer believes social media plays a role in Philadelphia's gun violence and that postings have even led to some of the city's homicides.

"We've definitely seen conflicts that have started on social media, or just conflicts where the flames have been fanned on social media," Palmer said. "When there's a first homicide between two groups, I think what determines whether or not this is going to turn into a feud is often what happens on social media afterwards."

In a recent conversation with NBC10, Palmer detailed how his office has investigated a recent case of gang violence, explaining how social media can be used as a way for those who plan to commit violence to strategize before a planned crime -- or to regroup after one.

Palmer also discussed how his office can use these posts and online conversations in its investigations.

"We will look to the victim's social media accounts," said Palmer.

"Because what we want to see is, are they in a dispute with anybody? Are there any direct messages in their Instagram account where they are in an argument with somebody in the days leading up to the shooting? Have they been posting anything publicly where they are coming after a certain group? Have they insulted anybody in their public posts?

"Anything like that, just looking for any sort of motive."

Palmer shared evidence pulled from direct Instagram messages in a case involving 22-year-old Dashawn Packer, who was convicted at trial and is serving 10 to 20 years in prison for attempted murder and other charges.

Packer's social media activity helped put him there.

A depiction of an Instagram direct message sent by Dashawn Packer and provided to NBC10 by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. In the message, Packer is telling a friend that he just shot somebody.

"Bro, I'm on wheels matter fact," Packer wrote. "I'm not nm just blicked on sum but yea yark ima slide bro."

"He's kinda like, 'Hey, I just shot somebody, on my way to you now,'" Palmer explained.

The DA's office also shared with NBC10 an image from Packer's Instagram account, showing him holding a firearm with a "drum"-style ammunition holder on it.

Witnesses described seeing a similar firearm in a shooting on the 6000 block of Race Street in 2018.

Yet, just as law enforcement entities can track social media to help solve crimes, those who intend to commit violence can use social media to help track down an intended target. Looking at the friends they post photos with or pictures of their car allows them to narrow down a search for their victim, officials noted.

"For as long as I've been doing this, which is more than two decades, there's gang violence, there's rival drug factions and the violence that ensues as a result," Schorn, the ADA in Bucks County, said.

"But with social media being utilized to cyberbang, so to speak, your reach is so much further," she continued. "If you are on a street corner and you verbalize a threat to an individual, you might anticipate a violent response thereafter. When you are cyberbanging you are creating this content and then, using social media, your reach is going far and wide.

"And, quite frankly, I think it allows for the rival faction to take stock and plan and figure out how they are going to exact revenge. It is just escalating the violence."

Revenge ends up online as well.

Tracking feuds between rival gangs, pointing fingers at potential shooters after a homicide, and sharing details of the harsh realities of those who live their lives with a finger perpetually on the trigger. It has all become something of a cottage industry online.

In many cases involving gang crime and social media, drill music may be involved as well.

Drill music is a subgenre of hip-hop that originated in Chicago in the early 2010s before moving to other cities across the United States as well as the United Kingdom.

Breaking down the beefs involved in drill music has become popular subject matter on the Internet. On YouTube, you can find channels like Say Cheese TV that share interviews with drill rappers, or the Philadelphia-focused American Confidential, which attempts to provide context to violence in the city's streets.

It's also something of an open secret that depictions and discussions of gang violence often appear on online communities, such as Reddit's r/PhillyWiki.

That particular Reddit section -- known in the site's parlance as a "subreddit" -- has nearly 70,000 members and hundreds are active on the forum at any given time. According to Philly ADA Palmer, users there "generally" know about activities of different gangs throughout the city.

"They seem to have good knowledge generally of the feuds, and who's involved, and what the groups are and who is fighting who," he said.

"Unfortunately, for a lot of young people, the streets seem to be the only answer. And in those streets are talented young entrepreneurs and young black men, a lot of times, who then are expressing their talent in their rap, and that are also talking about their life which is now a struggle life. It's a trap life. It's 'I'm going to shoot you'."

Sajda “Purple” Blackwell

Palmer warned, however: "In terms of who is actually responsible for certain incidents ... [the posts on Reddit] probably doesn't meet the standard that responsible journalists would find reliable."

It's important to note that hip-hop music -- which historically has been scapegoated for urban gun violence -- isn't necessarily tied to crime in the city.

Any rapper knows that, for example, if you say that you want to kill someone, it doesn't mean you're actually going to do it. Gun violence in major cities has also been an issue decades before drill music emerged on the music scene.

Yet, Sajda “Purple” Blackwell, owner and radio personality at, said that drill music tends to be more "diabolical" than other forms of rap.

"Life imitates art, some would say art imitates life, and I think we are seeing that duality right now in our music," she told NBC10's Randy Gyllenhaal.

She noted how hip-hop has evolved from party music, to more detailed stories of the lives of the musicians who craft the songs, to more boastful tales of the things they may -- or may not -- have done.

"We are at a different time now," said Blackwell. "Young people feel left alone. We are out here, feeling like we are fighting for ourselves.

"Unfortunately, for a lot of young people, the streets seem to be the only answer. And in those streets are talented young entrepreneurs and young black men, a lot of times, who then are expressing their talent in their rap, and that are also talking about their life which is now a struggle life.

"It's a trap life. It's "I'm going to shoot you'."

Blackwell worried that instead of sticking to the money, power and respect themes that have been the core values in hip hop, drill music can instead tell stories tied to specific, actual instances of violence or real-world feuds on the streets.

"If you don't have any opposition, what you rapping about these days?" she wondered.

The death of rapper Deek Loko, a.k.a. Sadiq Dove, is a recent example of how music and social media can entwine.

Sadiq Dove was an 18-year-old rapper who claimed an association with a South Philadelphia street gang. He was gunned down in a July 2023 ambush at the corner of 17th and Christian Streets.

In his own music he admitted that he was involved in a long-running feud between rival gangs. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported such violence between groups in the city's Grays Ferry neighborhood dating back to at least 2015.

The content in the YouTube video above contains sensitive language and may be disturbing to some viewers.

Those online videos and Internet bravado led to real world violence.

A photo of Dove's dead body, laying face down on the sidewalk along the 900 block of South 17th Street, was posted to Reddit shortly after his death.

The photo was viewable to the public for weeks, though it has since been deleted.

A post on r/PhillyWiki showed the dead body of Sadiq Dove in the hour following his killing in South Philadelphia on July 26. The post has since been deleted from the platform. NBC10 has blurred the original image.

Dove discussed violence against rival gangs in his music, but stopped short of taking responsibility for any specific slaying.

Online, however, commenters in several instances implicated Dove in the killings of at least four people.

Comments from users on r/PhillyWiki in the moments after a photo of Sadiq Dove's dead body was posted to the platform. Usernames and other sensitive material have been redacted by NBC10.

At the time of his death, Dove had no record of arrests as an adult.

NBC10 has reached out to find out if he was known to police, but as of the publication of this article, law enforcement officials would only say that they could not comment on ongoing investigations.

American Confidential broke down more of Dove's story in a July video with over 35,000 views.

The content in the YouTube video above contains sensitive language and may be disturbing to some viewers.

A spokesperson for Reddit told NBC10 that the site's policies "prohibit harassment" when asked about depictions of violence on the platform, specifically that the image of Dove's bloodied body on a city street languished there for weeks.

“Our site-wide policies prohibit harassment, bullying, threats of violence, and content that promotes hate against marginalized or vulnerable individuals or groups of people, as well as content that calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or group of people," the spokesperson said.

"We regularly review the communities on our platform through both human review and automated systems (such as image-hashing), and action content or users who violate our policies.

"The image in question has been removed and we’ve implemented automated measures to prevent it from being re-uploaded.”

A dead body popping up in your feed.

Being called out or insulted online.

Constantly reading threads full of threats, boasts, and put downs.

What impact might the exposure to this type of social media activity on a daily basis have on the audience that consumes it?

Assistant District Attorney Palmer said he worries that the prominent criminal activity and threatening boasts on social media, especially in the case of young people, can lead to further acts of violence.

"It's one thing to privately do this to somebody," said Palmer. "But to do it as something that can be seen as so publicly embarrassing often in the eyes of these groups demands a response.

These people who are not directly involved in the violence themselves are feeding this endless cycle of retaliation, like it's a soap opera on TV."

Jeffrey Palmer, Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia

"Somebody puts up a post insulting say, Joe Smith, and then everybody goes online and says 'Oh, so-and-so just called out Joe Smith, what's he going to do?' Maybe under ordinary circumstances Joe Smith would have been willing to let that roll off his back, but now everybody is saying 'what's he going to do, what's he going to do?'

"And these people who are not directly involved in the violence themselves are feeding this endless cycle of retaliation, like it's a soap opera on TV."

Unlike in the past, threats online live in the public square rather than being whispered in a school hallway or in passing, according to Dr. Nicole Machinski, a psychologist and executive director at Dr. Robin Lowey & Associates.

"Where bullying used to be something that took place in school, in the school yard, you could escape it," said Machinski. "That's no longer a thing. You can't escape it right? 'Cause your phone goes with you to all those places. You can look at, see that someone is saying something cruel about you. You can see that you're being taunted, you can see that you're being threatened everywhere."

Ninety-seven percent of kids have some sort of social media access, and 75-percent are on social media every day, according to Dr. Machinski. With that much time spent online, social media interactions can be just as important as face-to-face conversation.

"Social media has a huge role in teens' lives," she said.

She also noted that the most popular content filtered to the top of a user's feed can often be the most negative, because negative posts fuel more interaction than positive ones.

"The stuff that has the most likes and the most comments are the things that are the most threats, or the cruelest language," she said. "Those are the things that are going to bump to the top of people's feeds. So, they are going to be more likely to comment on it, more likely to share it. More likely to like it.

"And that's a cycle that continues right? So that's going to become the post that gets to the top of the next person's feed and the next person's feed, and more and more people see it."

If social media companies know negative posts generate more engagement, are they knowingly profiting off of divisive, negative content that puts teens in danger?

Bucks County officials think so.

The suburban Philadelphia county is part of a lawsuit against TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube and Snapchat. The suit claims that these social media platforms are designed to be addictive, and that they purposely target young people in ways that have led to a mental health crisis in Bucks County and beyond.

"Social media has also played a role in perpetuating youth violence by, for example, amplifying gang communications promoting and calling for violence or promoting fight compilations to millions of viewers," the lawsuit reads.

Read the full lawsuit brought against social media giants by Bucks County.

Assistant District Attorney Schorn said that the fact that so many find no good news in their feeds is intentional.

"They have to regulate this," said Schorn. "The content that they peddle is divisive. They have spent millions of dollars studying what draws somebody in -- that clickbait that's going to get you to be drawn in, and the addictive quality by then further providing content that fuels whatever that initial draw was. It's clear they are making money off of this divisive content."

In announcing the lawsuit, Bucks County solicitor Joe Khan went as far as to compare social media companies to the corporations that profited off the opioid crisis.

"The algorithms they are using aren't accidentally getting children addicted," said Khan. "They are purposely getting children addicted to using their products and they are doing it in insidious ways."

NBC10 reached out to Meta when we initially reported the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the company responded by sending a link to their "Violence and Incitement Policy."

It's also too late to turn back the clock on the damage that social media may have already done, according to Dr. Machinski.

"There's no really turning it back" she said. "Social media has become a huge part of our lives."

For members of the most-impacted generation that spoke with NBC10, the pervasiveness of violence or negative online postings has had a profound impact on their lives.

For "Bikestar Jay," a 19-year-old aspiring Internet influencer from North Philadelphia -- who asked that we use his online name -- gun violence is an everyday concern.

When he spoke to us in July, Jay had lost his brother to gun violence just three days before.

"Everybody wants to be famous. So, that's a quick way to be famous. Something that's traumatic will blow up super fast so they do it for the likes and the views."

Bikestar Jay tries to focus on bike stunts and videos of professional bikers that he hopes to emulate. But he admitted that because of where he grew up and the people he knows, he sees "a lot" of gun violence on social media that involves people in his circle.

"Everybody wants to be famous," said Jay. "So, that's a quick way to be famous. Something that's traumatic will blow up super fast so, they do it for the likes and the views."

He also said violent content keeps popping up when he's online even if he tries to avoid it.

"Gun violence I see a lot and I feel like it just shouldn't be there," he said. "I try my best to stay away from it."

For Derrick Hailey, 11, of West Philadelphia, images of gun violence that he has seen on social media has made him fear for his own life.

"I think, it's for clout so, you could look like a bigger person, even though you scared." he told us. "I think, for children like this, it could corrupt their minds so if they see gun violence, they could try to do it."

John Saunders, 16, also lost a friend to gun violence -- in the July 4 mass shooting in the city's Kingsessing neighborhood.

He's hoping to find ways to help end the cycle.

"I recently lost my friend to gun violence so, it's kind of like a thing that I'm trying to avoid," he said. "I have a lot of friends that do it and I just try to calm them down in those kind of situations."

For Jon McKay, president of Life Outside The Streets, breaking the cycle is an every day goal. His nonprofit group works with youth who have experienced trauma. He thinks that there needs to be more filtering and censorship of violent imagery and themes on social media -- especially because there is no barrier to post.

McKay says this lack of a filter can lead an audience in negative directions. For young people, he's hoping that by helping to teach teens how to filter through the information available online, he can help point them towards better paths.

"Social media is their parent right now, it's their surrogate parent," he said. "For us, it was TV, it was radio, it was magazines. It wasn't social media, but it was still media.

"The thing about traditional media is you had to get some credentials or credibility to get to that platform. Now with social media, everybody gets to share information. By not having that filter, it kind of allows anybody to present themselves as an expert. People are looking at people that are not experts and are not seasoned.

"That's why teaching research skills which allows you to pick out a solid source is a part of our solution."

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