Aldermen’s well-meaning social media plea impractical

Alderman Emma Mitts (37th Ward) called a meeting Oct. 5 to discuss the role social media sites play in violence rates in Chicago neighborhoods and beyond. By the end of the meeting, 45 of the 50 aldermen sponsored a resolution asking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all other social media platforms to ban every image that constitutes glamorizing gun violence. They justified this by arguing that these images are influencing Chicago youth to turn to violence and gangs.

While the resolution is more like a request or statement of intent than legislation, and no one is likely to take it seriously, it is troublesome when a government body asks a private entity to ban lawful speech. It is particularly problematic when the category in question, “images of guns and other weapons that glamorize violence,” as the resolution states, is so subjective and over-inclusive that it is meaningless. It’s similar to Justice Potter Stewart’s test for pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio. In concurrence with the Supreme Court decision, he declared, “I know it when I see it.”

Also troubling is the implicit racism of targeting a particular group. Targeting images of alleged gang violence can become a slippery slope. It leads to targeting images of minorities with no clearly defined standard of what it is that constitutes an image glamorizing gun violence.

In all fairness, the problem the aldermen attempted to address is a real one. Social media does influence the behavior of young people. If gangs are glamorized on these sites, then logically social media could influence young people to become involved in gang violence, but the situation is not that simple.

Someone’s community is also a great influence on them, especially when growing up. Social media is often an online reflection of the community using it, so stopping gang violence imagery is not going to stop the acts themselves. 

Instead, it is necessary for communities to shift attitudes toward stopping violence to stop people from posting about it positively on social media. If the aldermen really want to combat Chicago’s gang violence problem, that is how they should start.

Instead of attempting to ban these images, aldermen should use social media platforms to provide alternate content to Chicago youth that celebrates the culture of South and West sides instead of constantly criminalizing it. If aldermen use the sites to promote community pride and positivity, fewer people will be drawn to the violent messages that stem from negative attitudes. 

Most social media initiatives aimed at gun violence awareness, such as the 2013 Chicago-based “500campaign” that paired resident headshots with the message that they were “angry because over 500 youth were murdered in Chicago” overlaid on the photos, focused on the negative statistics instead of positive alternatives. That’s why it is important that the aldermen adopt a positive approach to be more effective than past initiatives.

While banning glamorous depictions of gang violence is not an acceptable or reasonable solution, if aldermen join together and encourage positive images rather than banning violent ones, it could make a difference in community morale and may just help solve the gang violence situation they’re all so worried about.