TECHNOLOGY

03.27.13

Could Facebook Have Prevented the Georgia Baby Shooting?

Why parents, teachers, social workers, and pastors need to start paying more attention to what kids are saying on social media—before it leads to tragedy.

According to Sherry West, last Thursday at 9 a.m., while walking in Brunswick, Ga., with her 13-month-old son Antonio, she was suddenly approached by two young men demanding money. Sherry said she had none, and the men—boys, really—made what must have seemed like an absurd statement at the time: “If you don’t give me money, I’m going to shoot your baby.” Then, West says, the boys walked over to the stroller—and shot her baby.

Two people—17-year-old De’Marquise Elkins and a 15-year-old accomplice—are alleged to have committed the murder and have been charged. There is currently much we do not know about the case: De’Marquise’s aunt provided an alibi, but has since been charged with making false statements. On the other hand, West’s adult daughter has expressed doubts about her mother’s story; De’Marquise’s public defender has said, “My client is absolutely, 1,000 percent not guilty”; and the 15-year-old’s grandmother has maintained her grandson’s innocence.

Yet while there is so much information we do not have, one source of insight is readily available: De’Marquise’s Facebook page. And on that page, we find haunting evidence of a boy in need of an intervention, whether he killed young Antonio Santiago or not.

De’Marquise is not alone. Across America, our young people are raising their hands on social media and telling us where both their hopes and problems lie, in thousands of tweets, posts, and “likes.” A healthy majority of these posts are the angsty exaggerations of teenagers and breathy recitations of the latest pop trends. But a small, important minority of these social-media clues portend real pain, struggle, even malice and disaster. And if parents, policymakers, faith leaders, social-service agencies, and law enforcement are going to step up to the cultural plate and do something about violence in our society, we better get savvy about social media, and fast.

De’Marquise, if he did carry out this crime, would provide a telling example. Spending just 30 minutes on his Facebook page after seeing his name in police reports, I learned that De’Marquise, at the ripe old age of 14, had started to claim an affiliation with the notorious Bloods street gang. In photo after photo, dating back at least three years, De’Marquise is “throwing up” the common hand signs for the Bloods. He even screams in one caption, “BLOOD 4 LIFE.”

Today, the battlefields for our teenagers are Twitter DMs, Tumblrs, and Facebook walls.

Now here’s the thing: De’Marquise lives in Brunswick, Ga., population 15,000. One can’t be sure, but despite the shocking pictures, I doubt that small-town Brunswick is a bastion of hardcore gang activity. Whatever De’Marquise thought he was doing in those photos, it’s probable that he is like hundreds of other boys I’ve worked with over the years, from after-school programs in Ohio to halfway houses in Boston. These young men mix testosterone, boredom, loneliness, and the music they hear on their iPods, and paint the most aggressive picture of themselves that they can, often on Facebook and Twitter. For many, it’s just an act. But for a very small minority, in a fit of desire, anger, peer pressure, or something akin to insanity, the posturing becomes jarringly real.

Matthew Murray, who killed two missionaries and wounded two others in Colorado, issued warnings on the Web. The case of two young men who were just convicted of raping a teenager in Ohio was brought to light in part because of social-media postings. And one has to imagine that if Facebook was around when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on their rampage in Columbine, it would have been their wall posts instead of journals that police and parents searched for clues.

So what do we do with this new reality? Well, the guardians in our culture have to adapt. Parents, teachers, outreach workers, policymakers, law enforcement, and faith leaders have to understand Facebook and Twitter just as well as the young people they work with—not to stifle them (shutting down a page is often the worst thing a parent can do) but to know the cultural terrain. The goal is not a nanny state where every tweet is monitored, but rather a widespread acknowledgment that the playgrounds and lunchrooms of yesteryear are gone. Today, the battlefields for our teenagers are Twitter DMs, Tumblrs, and Facebook walls.

It’s not a matter of blaming parents, teachers, or society. The fault for the murder of Antonio Santiago lies squarely at the feet of whoever pulled the trigger, and whoever did it should suffer the most severe of consequences. This does not, however, minimize the cultural context. And when it comes to cultural context, Facebook and Twitter are king.

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This Friday, March 22, 2013, photo shows De'Marquise Elkins, 17, one of two teenagers arrested Friday and accused of fatally shooting a 13-month-old baby in the face and wounding his mother during their morning stroll in Brunswick, Ga. (Courtesy of the Glynn County Detention Center via AP)

As we’re on the lookout for indicators of tragedy online, we must be equally vigilant about finding glimmers of hope. Just a short distance from where Antonio was shot and De’Marquise was arrested is Georgia’s Brunswick High School. I have to imagine that in that school, there are hundreds of young boys who look like De’Marquise and grew up in the same places, doing their best to graduate and succeed. How can their families, friends, and communities provide encouragement in a way that is meaningful to them? Find their Facebook walls and Twitter pages, post something unexpected, “like” their comments, and be present—online. Likes and tweets are the new gold stars, but unlike gold stars, they can go viral for the world to see.

Social-media-driven approaches to parenting, outreach, and law enforcement are just one piece of the much more complex puzzle of crime and violence in our communities. But it’s a critical piece, and one that often goes unnoticed, until it’s too late. It is too late for Antonio Santiago, and perhaps for De’Marquise Elkins; time and a jury will tell. But it’s not too late for the millions of other kids whose character is being displayed, tested, and shaped every day, online.