Post, Shoot What is the relationship between the version of you that lives online and the one that walks around the earth? We think of our online selves as shadow versions of us which we can control. But in this age when facts are malleable, something strange is happening: our online selves are sometimes eclipsing our real ones, even when we don't want them to.
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Post, Shoot

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Post, Shoot

Post, Shoot

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HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

It was the prettiest block we'd been to yet in Wilmington, Del. - brick houses, trim patches of lawn. As we approached the house, I remember noticing the afternoon summer sun lighting up the porch like a stage.

Hi. How you doing? This is a nice block.

And then two minutes after walking into the living room, we were introduced to all the dead people. An urn on the dining room table - that was a cousin who'd been shot. Another cousin on the side table - also shot. Two obituaries on the TV console.

FAHMEE: People be scared. Like, people be really scared. Like, I've never had to tell, like, so many of my friends, be safe, be safe.

ROSIN: This is Fahmee, a teenager I'd seen posting on Facebook. He'd become a local specialist in mourning memes, particularly about this one kid who died, a friend of his from the basketball team. Here's a video Fahmee made on a windy day at the kid's grave site.

FAHMEE: My bro, man - fucking homie. I miss my boy, man.

ROSIN: On the day he died, Fahmee remembers seeing him on this little bridge they cross to get to class, standing where he always stood.

FAHMEE: I think soon as I got home, something just told me, like, get on Facebook. Like, something just kept saying, get on Facebook. First thing I seen - like, I didn't see nothing else - first thing I seen is RIP Brandon. I'm like, Brandon? I'm like, what Brandon?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Brandon - Brandon Wingo. That's the boy we came here to learn about. The way the local papers summarized the story during the trial, Brandon Wingo posted one snide thing on Facebook, and a friend of the person he insulted shot him one day after school. At the trial later, the district attorney asked another young man involved in a similar shooting, is one social media post enough to get someone shot? And the young guy on the stand said yes with no elaboration, implying that if the DA weren't so old or if he knew anything about anything, that would be obvious.

I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, in the mean '80s. I remember kids at my school getting killed over nothing - nothing meaning sneakers or Members Only jackets. But this was an even flimsier version of nothing. In fact, that social media post which allegedly got Brandon shot - that post never turned up. Everyone said they knew about it, but there were no screenshots in the trial. No one we talked to could show us a copy or remember exactly the words. In fact, in the trial, it came up that even the guy who shot Brandon never actually saw it.

And yet the effect of those electronic ghost words and other words on social media had apparently made the real city of Wilmington the most dangerous place in America to be a teenager. In 2016, when Brandon made that post, Wilmington, Del., a tiny city of just over 71,000, had spiraled into the violence we saw memorialized in Fahmee's living room. The city was notching nearly twice as many teenage shootings per capita as Chicago.

KEYHON: I'm telling you I don't really, like...

FAHMEE: Like, I just don't go out.

ROSIN: What about girls?

FAHMEE: They usually come here. I might go to their house. Like, it depends how far they live. Like, if they ain't in walking distance, I don't know. I might can't make that trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And today, we are looking at the relationship between fake and real. We obviously have been grappling with that a lot in the political arena, fighting about fake news versus real facts. But in Wilmington, this argument is not at all theoretical. There, teens were shooting each other - but not over the kind of stuff that you usually think about, like, turf or drugs or money. Most of the conflict had grown from something much less tangible - online lives. In Wilmington, there seemed to be new rules about what counts as real, with life-or-death stakes. And we found ourselves wondering, is that what's coming for the rest of us? Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So Hanna is going to be telling the story today. She and producer Yowei Shaw spent a couple of months last summer in Wilmington just trying to figure out what was going on. Here's Hanna.

ROSIN: It's funny to think about it now, but I walked into Wilmington with an old-school kind of plan. In the local papers, I'd seen a photo from the trial of Brandon as the baby-faced kid in a maroon blazer, like a happy prep-school kid. And yet in those same papers, his murder was described as part of a gang war. This post he'd made had apparently gotten him in trouble with a rival gang. It was a confusing picture. So I got kind of fixated on figuring out who this kid really was. And to do that, I set aside all the social media stuff for a second and started gathering the facts on the ground, which is easy to do in Wilmington because it's tiny. It feels like everyone knows everyone else.

And at first, I was hearing what felt like basic stuff. Brandon was a freshman in high school at the time of his death and a rising star on the basketball team. Outside of school, he spent most of his waking hours with two of his cousins. But he had a lot of family, and they were pretty close. His grandma said he loved her mayonnaise sandwiches. And it seemed like he was pretty much a good kid. Like, I heard this story a lot where he was on a field trip, and he slipped another kid some of his shirts because the kid didn't have enough clean shirts of his own. Not that he was perfect. No one was telling us that. But when I talked to the people who knew him best. Like his dad, Brad Wingo, what I came up with wasn't any dark secret. It was more like Nickelodeon antics.

What do you think is the worst thing he did as a teenager?

BRAD WINGO: Fake run away.

ROSIN: What do you mean?

WINGO: I told him he was moving in with me, and he ran away. I came to pick him up. He didn't think I was coming. This was about grades. And I came to get him. I was like, yo, go get your shit, whatever. He went upstairs. He's up there for a minute. Me and his mom were talking. And then he came downstairs as we're talking. And he slid out the door.

ROSIN: Also, Brandon rode his dirt bike on the street where he wasn't supposed to. He smoked weed and occasionally dealt, as one friend told us. The worst I learned was that he and his friends were once charged with pushing a guy off a bike and trying to steal his wallet. No one ever proved that. And his dad says it was more of a wrong place at the wrong time situation.

WINGO: Basically.

ROSIN: But then one day, a new picture of Brandon emerged. And it was literally a picture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here we go. I found it.

ROSIN: We'd spent a couple of days at a summer camp interviewing Brandon's friends.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: His Twitter is @ReaperBoy302.

ROSIN: And then at the end of our second day, a counselor there who'd been a friend of his pulled up Brandon's Instagram and his two Twitter accounts that hadn't showed up at the trial.

Wait a minute. So that's not good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, not good.

ROSIN: Scrolling through Brandon's online life, we just saw lots of guns.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I can turn the brightness up for you.

ROSIN: A Twitter banner of a guy pointing a gun right at you, a clip of a Chicago rapper pulling out his machine gun, a water pistol emoji, photos of Brandon trying to contort his sweet baby face into a mean grimace and pointing his hand in the shape of a gun at the camera. And then there was this one - Brandon on the couch with four friends, all of them making hand symbols and the caption, a lot of shooters in my clique. Gang, let's go do a hit.

For a minute, I had that feeling like I've discovered a secret. Like, maybe to figure out Brandon, I did need to go through his social media. Maybe his online life would open the door to some dark side of Brandon that his family and some of his school pals knew nothing about - a Brandon who was so casual around machine guns and gangs that his fate made a certain kind of sad sense. So I decided to ask Fahmee from the living room and his cousin Keyhon, who was there that day, about it. Here's Keyhon. Here. Come look at this picture, right? This is from his Instagram, right? That's Brandon. Do you recognize this?

KEYHON: Yeah. But that ain't nothing but a song verse. That's just a song verse. Like, he didn't mean it. He just was just writing a song verse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOTERS")

RONDONUMBANINE: (Rapping) Call them shooting guards.

L'A CAPONE: (Rapping) It's some shooters in my clique. Rondo, let's go do a hit. I'm 'bout to empty half the clip. But you just lay low in the dip.

ROSIN: Right, dummy. Rap lyrics - of course. Fifteen-year-old boys post rap lyrics.

Is it real, or is it not? That's what I'm trying to figure out.

KEYHON: It's just really a caption.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOTERS")

L'A CAPONE: (Rapping) I gotta keep the main thing on the side of me. I tried to look at the time, almost blinded me.

ROSIN: OK. So maybe it was just nothing but there did seem to be this big gap between maroon blazer Brandon and online Brandon. So I felt like I had to talk to some kids to get some second and third and fourth opinions. How seriously should I take these posts?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All the young people...

ROSIN: I found about 15 teenagers who knew Brandon hanging out on the stoop at the Riverside projects dancing to music.

(CROSSTALK)

ROSIN: They were not so interested in talking to me. But then I asked them, what does it mean when a kid posts machine gun video on Twitter? And this kid who goes by Savage, who's a friend of Brandon's, started talking about how everyone they know does stuff like that - like, this friend of theirs who will not be named who posed with a wad of cash in his hand that was not actually his. It was his mom's.

SAVAGE: So basically like this. You go in the house. You see your mom probably counting money to go pay the electric. Mom, can I see it real fast? She going to let you see it. You go in the room, go on Instagram. And then after that, they think you got all the money in the world. You take that money and give it back to your mom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Just flexing with it on Instagram.

SAVAGE: And then you go on the street - somebody asks you for $2. I don't got it (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) I was always showing love. You drove (ph) like a bitch. Why you acting like a thug?

ROSIN: Ah, flexing, posing. We all do some version of this. Curate an aspirational online self. Most of us have one. And we outfit it with different props and costumes - like heirloom tomatoes, the dog we just rescued, a protest poster, a funny casual quip we spent 10 minutes crafting. This person has a relationship to us. But it is not us. At least that's been the traditional way of seeing it. And what the Wilmington kids told us is that in 2015, there were certain flex tropes that got you respect - posing with a wad of cash fanned out in your hand, smoking an impossibly huge and perfectly rolled blunt or taking it one step further - a gun. Now, maybe you're posing with a gun, so people won't mess with you, which a lot of young people told us is a very real thing in Wilmington. But that doesn't mean you have a gun. And it definitely doesn't mean you're about to shoot somebody with it, like this one girl Damares told us.

DAMARES: A lot of people just be, like, posting stuff for social media likes. Like, you posted a picture of a gun, got 200 likes in this picture. But you don't have no gun. And then when you see the person in person, like, they don't never have nothing. And you ask them, like, wasn’t you that just posted that picture? And they'd be like, oh, girl, that was my cousin’s sister’s boyfriend’s ex’s aunt’s gun. What? (Laughter).

ROSIN: You could take the stuff Brandon was posting online literally, that he was a hard shooter with a gun ready to kill. Or you could decide he was just flexing tough to get some clout. When I was talking to Damares and Keyhon and the rest of the kids, I had this idea in my head that there would be clear rules about telling the difference - who's just posing online and who's a real, real shooter? Who just likes the music, and how can you tell? But here's the main thing I learned. You can't always tell. Like, the kids themselves can't tell, which to me seems like the magic of flexing, the whole way it works. You just have to put out an image that people could believe.

But that's not the same as saying it's true, that it's actually you - which brings us to the one critical post Brandon made, the post that came up later in the murder trial, the one that created an avalanche not just for Brandon but for the entire city of Wilmington. Before I describe it, though, I need to lay out some things that I learned while reporting. Brandon lived on the east side of Wilmington. And some of his friends and cousins called themselves a crew, like a lot of other friend groups in Wilmington then. They even gave themselves a name, Only My Brothers.

How deep Brandon was in this crew, it's hard to know. He was popular. He had a lot of friends all over the city. Mostly at that point, the crew was just a group of friends who went to parties and hung out on 5th Street, with some of the kids occasionally getting into trouble with the law. But then, starting in 2015, Only My Brothers started to have conflict with another crew, again with the aspirational flex-ish name, the Shoot To Kill crew, which had not, in fact, shot and killed anyone yet, although there had been a few shots fired between them. Remember, Wilmington is not a big town, so boys in opposite crews often knew each other. They might have gone to elementary school or played basketball together. We heard of cases where two brothers were in opposite crews.

But then, in the spring of 2016, they ramped up insulting each other online, mostly on a public Facebook page that served as Wilmington's virtual bathroom wall of insults. Fuck the opps, which is the opposition, and, fuck whoever rocking with them 100 percent. Any opp I see getting torched. All this talking, go do a hit or something, 100 percent - back and forth on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, dozens of posts between Shoot To Kill and Only My Brothers.

And probably somewhere in there is when Brandon jumped in with what became Wilmington's most infamous two-word post, RIPiss Ry5, he wrote. Or in court, they said it was RIPiss Ryan. Different people tell you different things. Either way, it refers to a kid on the other side who died. RIPiss, a nasty version of RIP. Before RIPiss, there'd probably been 30 posts equally as insulting. And after RIPiss, probably 30 more.

Likely, Brandon didn't think anything of his post. No one really did because at that point, no one really thought much about the possibility that flexing like you were hard with the opps meant that someone out there could choose to believe that you were, in real life, hard with the opps. But then came May 19, 2016.

Can I ask you about the day of the murder?

WINGO: I know it wasn't raining. I'm pretty sure it was hot.

ROSIN: This is Brad Wingo again, Brandon's dad. He knows it happened just after 3 in the afternoon, when Brandon was walking home from school with four girls.

WINGO: He never rode the bus, never took the bus. He always got a ride to school 'cause he's too lazy to walk.

ROSIN: They were strolling, and Brandon was gossiping with his friend Ariana about another girl he thought was cute.

WINGO: And he was a pretty boy and all that stuff, so.

ROSIN: And this is how it was described at trial. Just a few blocks away, two boys from the Shoot To Kill crew were cruising around the east side in their car. They'd heard about Brandon's post and were feeling hot about it, and they drove towards his school.

WINGO: The boy said, I’ll drop you off, and he drops him off.

ROSIN: And then, Ariana would testify at trial, everything seemed to stop.

WINGO: Brandon told her the boy was walking up. And she said Brandon was like, there go the opps. And then the boy must have stopped, she said, because he yelled something and then pulled out the gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: The boy was now pointing a 9 mm handgun at Brandon, according to the trial testimony. And I'm guessing that in his head, he was pointing it at the boy he'd seen on Instagram, the boy with the mean mug pointing his finger like a gun and bragging about a lot of shooters in his clique.

But this was flesh-and-blood Brandon, a pretty boy who snuck out of the house some nights, who smoked weed and liked mayonnaise sandwiches and was starting to get into teenage-prankster kind of trouble, but not too much trouble. That Brandon was now running fast, trying to get away. But that Brandon was also invisible to the person holding the real gun. So that Brandon didn't have a chance.

WINGO: He end up shooting Brandon's leg or butt first when he was running.

ROSIN: According to the trial testimony, Brandon made it to the street between two parked cars. And then the boy shot him in the head. Someone later said it was like the shooter was acting out a scene in a movie. Brandon fell to the ground, and the shooter took off running.

WINGO: When they wouldn't let us in - nobody in, I knew. And I used to work at the hospital - well, construction - but I seen all this happen before. And I never went and looked at him or nothing. His mom did. I ain't - I wasn't doing that.

ROSIN: Why not?

WINGO: You want to see dead people? I don't know. I ain't into that. I don't even like viewings. I don't look. I just walk by.

ROSIN: At first I thought maybe Brad was just squeamish, not into blood and guts and not able to deal with the reality of death. But after talking to him over a few months, I realized that it's just the opposite. Brad is actually just a realist, allergic to hype and drama and phoniness. And when his son died, Brad skipped over the denial phase straight to, he's dead. Just give me the facts. What the hell happened? So he friended a bunch of Brandon's friends on social media. He learned about the gang signs and hashtags and the emojis. He was looking for some reason with roots.

WINGO: People kept asking me questions that I didn't have no answers to, probably asking the same thing you're asking. I wish I knew. But like I said, the evidence and what - from what they say in court is 'cause of a social media post. That's all they can come up with.

ROSIN: How do you feel about that?

WINGO: I feel that's got to be the dumbest shit I've ever heard. It just don't make sense to me. I'm totally lost.

ROSIN: I mean, real-life Brandon didn't insult people. He didn't even pick fights. To a hard realist like Brad, you just can't get shot over two words that disappear into the cloud.

So, like, what the hell? I don't - it makes - it's so difficult to understand a world...

WINGO: It's hard for me to understand. You're trying to understand. I'm trying to understand. I don't understand. Obviously he didn't think he was going to get shot. That's reality. So you can't say, what was he thinking? He wasn't thinking he was going to get shot. All these kids talk like that online. So it's like, did he have any thought that that's what it could come to, him posting that one thing? I'm going to say 100 percent no.

ROSIN: So what did he think he was doing?

WINGO: I don't know. I don't know. I didn't know he posted it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: And this confusion about what was going on and why, it didn't stop with Brandon. The confusion spread like a virus to Brandon's friends and his enemies and the police and the courts until an entirely new code governed every part of the city, a code built on a giant misunderstanding about image and reality and how quickly the boundary between them is shifting.

SPIEGEL: More on that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. Hanna continues with her story.

ROSIN: How can you make sense of someone shooting an image? I couldn't until I read a story that seems totally unrelated and really far away, but I promise it isn't. It involves a woman named Gloria Origgi, who relatively few people have heard of and who one day found herself standing next to a man named Tim Berners-Lee, who many people have heard of because he's known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. This happened at a big academic conference.

GLORIA ORIGGI: And I asked him to take a selfie. He was a true gentleman, and so he accepted in the end. And looking at it now, he seems super bored of the - I don't know - 300th person who asked him for a selfie in the same day.

ROSIN: (Laughter). Now, an Italian philosopher who lives in Paris does not seem like the natural person to help explain a murder in Wilmington. In fact, maybe it seems like a pretentious INVISIBILIA move, which probably it is. But we're talking to Gloria because she actually helped me understand Brandon's death. Gloria posted that selfie on her Facebook page. And because she and Berners-Lee looked like two colleagues - maybe even friends. She then got invited to a couple of big conferences on Internet studies and new technologies as an expert on the Internet, which she is not.

ORIGGI: Being able to take a selfie with Tim Berners Lee doesn't say anything about my genius of new technologies. I mean, but clearly it was read...

(LAUGHTER)

ORIGGI: ...By some people like this.

ROSIN: Gloria writes about her selfie experiment in her new book called "Reputation: What It Is And Why It Matters," which is the kind of I-dare-you-to-follow-my-logic book that jumps from evolutionary game theory to Balzac to Donald Trump's Twitter feed. And I talked to her about Brandon's online accounts, the Twitter and the Facebook posts and the picture on the couch with the caption.

So am I supposed to understand that that picture was fake or that that picture was real?

ORIGGI: You're again in the fake-true opposition. I think this is the binary way of thinking that is very difficult to get rid of.

ROSIN: Gloria helped me understand that this whole quest I was on to untangle real-life Brandon from online Brandon was a waste of time. I was clinging to this idea that there were some real facts on the ground about Brandon that should've kept him safe. He's a good kid. He loved his family. But the problem is we've moved into a phase where the image - the version of Brandon constructed from a Facebook post can very easily eclipse the real. And we are just stubbornly failing to reckon with the consequences of that. It doesn't matter who Brandon really was. The killers knew Brandon's family. They knew where he went to school, played basketball, how old he was. In a small city like that, no one could mistake Brandon for a real shooter. But what matters is that they seemed to edit out all that information. From their posts after the killing, they seemed to be speaking to virtual Brandon, a worthy target in a gang war. RIPISS Bwingo, they wrote; Brandon caught a headshot; #Trustory - because that's a thing we do these days - convince ourselves that this image with all of its props and costumes is the only real thing and forget everything outside it.

ORIGGI: What I mean - that what people say about things is more important than what things are. This is another thing that...

ROSIN: Oh, I really don't like this idea (laughter)...

ORIGGI: I know. I know. I'm sure...

ROSIN: ...Because this is Trump's idea, basically. We live in a post-fact society where there isn't such a thing as...

ORIGGI: No, but exactly. We are managing very badly the post-fact society. I mean, you're exactly on the hot topic where it hurts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: The way Gloria explains it, today, more than ever, we are flooded with information. So we rely on what other people say about things or people - their reputations to move through the world, like reading online reviews of what's the best restaurant rather than doing the research ourselves.

ORIGGI: Social information is vital. It's an incredible shortcut for gathering information.

ROSIN: But the shortcuts aren't actually all that reliable. They're built on what Gloria calls cheap signals, just stuff people throw up online 'cause there's no cost to it. Like putting up a gang sign in a photo - much easier than threatening someone to their face. So in sum, we depend on the shortcuts. But they're not that dependable, which can create a dangerous situation because, as we all know, there are always some people who are more clever or shameless about manipulating those signals and images than others.

ORIGGI: Yes, exactly. So welcome to the 21st century. The strongest in terms of communication will win. The most popular will be the new truth. So if we don't do anything with this, we are going to go on with what we are seeing now. This is only the beginning. This is only the beginning.

SPIEGEL: What a post-fact city actually looks like after the break.

This is INVISIBILIA. Hanna's story continues.

NAQUAN LEWIS: Oh, my goodness. My family calls me mushy. I got it - I got the name Batman from the detention center.

ROSIN: This is Naquan Lewis. I talked to him at the James Vaughn Correctional Facility about 45 minutes outside Wilmington. Naquan has Brandon's face tattooed on his left forearm. And he's 1 of 28 of Brandon's friends who were indicted after Brandon's murder for participating in what the courts and police and newspapers started to refer to as the criminal gang called Only My Brothers. Brandon's killers took his image for real - made him seem like more of a gang banger than he actually was. But then after Brandon's death, that happened on a much larger scale. Prosecutors used social media along with other evidence to paint a picture of Only My Brothers as a bona fide criminal gang.

Like, when you woke up that morning, what was - what'd you have for breakfast that day?

LEWIS: Weed (laughter). So I guess we was high and just playing around.

ROSIN: For Naquan, it started with a cellphone video he made at home just before Brandon's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAHLIL: One more.

ROSIN: Can you just describe what that scene is?

LEWIS: That's where I'm sitting on my bed.

ROSIN: In a bedroom he shared with his little brother Jahlil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAHLIL: Another position - I want you to take, like (unintelligible).

ROSIN: Naquan has a gun in one hand and a stack of cash in the other. And Jahlil is barking orders at him to do some cool poses with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAHLIL: No, no, no. Put the money in your lap. Put the money in your lap. Listen to the music. Get in your bag, bro.

LEWIS: Throw some cash in the air and, like, catch it on slo-mo on the iPhone.

ROSIN: Jahlil is the director, and he seems to have a certain feel in mind, which is, like, every rap video cliche ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAHLIL: One more for the b****es, one more for the b****es, one more for the b****es.

ROSIN: Naquan holds the gun to his own head, which is weird and not what Jahlil is after. So instead, he gets Naquan to spread the cash along his bicep.

LEWIS: It was a lot of money, so I wanted to see how far I could stretch it to (laughter).

ROSIN: Which is not that easy, especially if you were really high.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAHLIL: Hold on. Stop. Look at the camera. Look at the camera. Look at the camera - ah, my f***ing baby.

ROSIN: And Naquan kind of pulls it off. But also, he kind of looks like he's doing a magic trick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAHLIL: One more and then we done. One more and then we done.

ROSIN: Except for the gun, it feels like a dumb home video. But the police did not see it that way.

Do you find this threatening?

NATALIE WOLOSHIN: No, no, no, no, no, 'cause that's what we see all the time on, like - you know, in music videos.

ROSIN: This is Natalie Woloshin, Naquan's court-appointed attorney.

WOLOSHIN: Looking at these videos, I didn't think to myself, oh, when this is all over, they're going to go out and, like, gangbang. They're going to go out and start shooting. It just seemed to me to be something that they did to occupy time.

ROSIN: Naquan and his brother made a few of these videos, all of which ended up in the hands of the police as they were investigating Brandon's murder.

And when did those videos come up again? Like, where were you when you next saw them?

LEWIS: In jail (laughter) for charges now - the charge I'm in here for now.

ROSIN: The night Brandon died, police picked up Jahlil. They later asked if he was hunting down the guys who'd killed Brandon. Jahlil told them he was just taking a walk. Either way, he and his friends had guns with them - real handguns in their waist bands. Jahlil later pled guilty to illegal gun possession, conspiracy to commit assault and other charges for what he did that night. Naquan wasn't with them. No one disputes that.

The police got Jahlil's cell phone, and they downloaded all the text messages and pictures and videos. Several included Naquan in some version of a rap video pose, like the one of him with the stacks of cash and the gun. Based on those and other evidence, they charged Naquan with illegal gun possession and gang participation. And here is where the videos and the version of Naquan they conjure are so powerful that they eclipse other versions of him.

So let's look at the charges. First, did Naquan possess a gun? Prosecutors had decent evidence that he acquired a gun, namely a surveillance video of someone shopping for guns with him and then a picture of a gun on his bed with a serial number that they said matched the gun that was purchased in the store that day. But police never actually found a gun in his possession. They searched his house - no gun. And unlike his brother, they never caught him on the streets with a gun.

The most concrete evidence that Naquan illegally possessed a gun was the video. That's the crime. Naquan possessed a gun in a video - in fact, a few videos. And each carried a five-year sentence, which at first, Natalie thought, was a pretty weak argument.

WOLOSHIN: Underwhelming - I thought that that didn't rise to the level of a prosecution. I didn't think it would rise to the level of overcoming a reasonable doubt standard in front of a jury to throw up some photographs and some videos and to say, well, of course it has to be a gun because it looks like a gun.

ROSIN: So charge number two - was Naquan a member of a criminal gang? The main evidence here was a pile of messages and social media photos of kids hanging out, wearing Only My Brothers sweatshirts, making hand symbols, flashing guns. And some of those kids had committed crimes. But what was Naquan's role? He shows up in only one or two pictures, mostly with his brother in a car or standing awkwardly next to a couple of guys in the street just, like, standing there. In his own words, he's a little weird. And he just wasn't into hanging out.

LEWIS: Me, I'm lowkey. You know what I mean? I don't like everybody in my business. It's not my twist.

ROSIN: Natalie has been doing criminal work like this for 20 years. And to her, criminal gang means coordinated illegal activity. You make the drug order. I watch the corner for cops. But to her, this new way prosecutors were defining criminal gang - more loosely and grounded in social media evidence - Natalie thought it meant kids could get in trouble too easily just for doing what kids naturally do online.

WOLOSHIN: And I'm like, I don't get this. My client has nothing to do with the gang.

ROSIN: But here's the thing. Natalie still convinced Naquan to plead guilty because in her experience, if prosecutors throw up a bunch of pictures and videos of kids looking like gangsters, even if her client is just kind of in the general neighborhood of those kids, he'd be in trouble.

WOLOSHIN: It's scary to people, you know? Gang signs and tags and all of that's scary to people. So - especially jurors. That's scary.

ROSIN: She was worried that the jurors wouldn't be able to see past the image. That who these kids actually were individually and what Naquan's exact connection was to these guys and the fact that he actually didn't like hanging out, it just wouldn't matter.

WOLOSHIN: We live in a completely different world where what is in the video is what's real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: By the time the summer of 2016 was over, 28 young men were arrested in an indictment describing them as members of a gang called Only My Brothers. The youngest was 16. The oldest was 21. Most of them were charged as adults. And they all pled guilty to felony charges. Their social media did them in. In Naquan's case, the prosecutor was reasonable, even compassionate. Naquan got less time than he could have. And in general, the attorneys representing the 28 kids told us that the prosecutors were relatively restrained.

But the problem is deeper than these cases. And it's happening all over the country - images of young men, mostly black and brown, posing as who they might be or could be or maybe even aspire to be, being used in court to help prove who they already actually are.

DESMOND UPTON PATTON: I'm terrified. I'm terrified that - not just for young people. I'm terrified for all of us, that things that we say and do online could be so easily misconstrued.

ROSIN: This is Desmond Upton Patton, a professor at Columbia University. Desmond has a lab where he tracks beefs on social media - how they start, the emojis, the hashtags and how they spread. He knows how violence can start online and then get out of control. But still, he's wary of the typical response to the problem, which is police setting up units to monitor social media and then rounding up large groups of kids at a time for gang affiliation or conspiracy, like, often, dozens at a time.

UPTON PATTON: And what I'm really concerned about, to be very honest, is, is social media a new apparatus for mass incarceration that we're just not aware of?

ROSIN: Not aware of because it's not like stop and frisk or driving while black - it doesn't happen in public, out in the open. It happens at police headquarters on a computer. But the end result is sometimes large masses of usually young, black men getting rounded up and charged with knowingly furthering crimes their friends committed. And often, the apparatus makes use of cheap shortcuts - pictures on Instagram that just kind of look gangy (ph).

UPTON PATTON: We don't have the same concerns or worries when we see other kids who are hunting or shooting with guns. We don't drum up the same concerns with them. We immediately have questions and want to dig in and extract and explain when we see young black and brown kids holding guns. But in another context, it's, you know, American.

ROSIN: So true - when I was reporting the story, I was on Twitter. And I saw a post of this blonde girl, who had a picture of herself walking through a college campus and carrying an AR-10 with a sign that says, come and take it. A lawyer in New York had tagged the picture and written, I have a client in jail for just being in a picture with someone with a gun. For his client, just being in a picture with a gun was cause for jail.

But in a different case - all American. White teens can flex all they want on Instagram in a way black people just can't afford to do. The police aren't watching.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Now, some people, even kids, told me that with all those kids locked up, the streets of Wilmington seemed safer, like they could go outside again. And shootings are down this year. I ran that idea by Desmond. It seemed actually important to the kids.

I'm serious because some people were like, listen. It - the city - it calmed down, city was safer. Like, it stopped retaliation. You know, Brandon got killed. Everybody was going to go out. It was going to be like all hell broke loose, even worse than it was the year before.

UPTON PATTON: I think that that particular explanation is an explanation that we use for folks that we don't care about and that we think are throw-away. And so, sure, they're off the street. But, perhaps, if we use social media in a different way to understand their life, to understand why they were involved in the negative behaviors in the first place, if we treated it as an assessment tool to actually help them and identify strengths among them, then maybe we wouldn't have seen some of the behaviors that we saw in the first place.

ROSIN: So what if you took that video that got Naquan so much trouble and you looked at it in the most generous way? You'd see two brothers who are really close, who'd been sharing a bedroom since they were little kids. They're home alone because their mom's out of the house because she's a single mom, and she works two jobs. And if you zoom into their faces, you'd see that Jahlil, although he's younger, is the protective one while Naquan's a little dreamy. He lives in his head. Even now, when he paces and paces in prison...

LEWIS: I just be sitting in my room, brainstorming.

ROSIN: Brainstorming what he can say to us or to the mayor or to the rapper Meek Mill, who's all about prison reform, so he can let people know that these days, a kid like him can get five years for a video. And if, like Desmond suggests, you use social media to identify strengths, you might be able to see it.

What are you looking at here?

LEWIS: I'm about to show you the picture. These is pictures of everybody in the indictment. Like...

ROSIN: Naquan is smart. He has a brain that never rests. When we met him, he brought a thick stack of documents.

LEWIS: Under evidentiary rule 901b, authenticating the rules and evidence...

ROSIN: Legal research, court papers. He spends hours in the law library.

LEWIS: Under C-1616, game participation...

ROSIN: He can name every statute related to his case and even does research for other people in prison about their cases.

LEWIS: You know, I mean, that's a slander and defamation of character, trying to...

ROSIN: He's a real pain in prison but also resume skills. He's self-motivated, synthesizes complex documents, persists despite huge obstacles and is passionate about what he believes in. You just have to decide how you want to read the picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: It always seemed heartbreaking to me that the image could eclipse the real in a place like Wilmington. You'd expect that in a big, anonymous setting where no one knows anyone. But Wilmington's the opposite of that. Brandon's grandma knew his killer's mom. She'd been to her house a couple of times. It's alarming that even in such close quarters, people could edit out the context, make a 15-year-old Instagrammer a legitimate target in a gang war.

How far is Northside from west side and east side?

MITCH: Are you talking about driving? Driving, I'd get over there in five minutes.

ROSIN: So everything is five minutes away.

MITCH: I mean, to me 'cause I don't drive slow.

(LAUGHTER)

MITCH: You know what I'm saying? Like, right now, I'm just chilling and cruising 'cause y'all with me.

ROSIN: This is Mitch, who we met because he's dating Naquan's mom and because he acted as an unofficial guide for us. He knows everyone in town. And he said one reason why the violence is so bad here, besides poverty, guns, no jobs, is because if LA is like a stretch limo, Wilmington is a Hyundai. It's cramped. If you beef with someone on social media, you will likely run into them at the corner store in a day or two. And one of you might have a gun. But when we asked him would he ever leave Wilmington to get away from the violence, maybe head to the suburbs, he barely understood the question. It was like asking if he wanted to cut his arm off.

MITCH: Yeah. You move me out of here, but where's my friends at? Where's all my relationships at? You understand what I'm saying? They're in the city.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Mitch. Hey.

MITCH: Hey.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

ROSIN: If it could happen even in a place like Wilmington where relationships are so alive and real, then it means that we all have to be on alert, watchful when we're putting out an image other people could manipulate, even people who know us. Watch for when we are editing out some details in other people's image to believe what we want to believe. At a time when image and real can blur so easily, it takes a certain vigilance to see things clearly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HURT")

LBUCKZ: (Rapping) Like every single day, Brandon keep it on him. Trying to tell them chill, But he like, nah. He just waits for the past (unintelligible)...

ROSIN: By the time we got to Wilmington, Brandon had strayed far from who he was offscreen. He'd become that kid who gets killed and then becomes a legend. People all over the city wore Bwingo memorial T-shirts. I saw, like, 10 different varieties. Bwingo classic sneakers, tribute songs - there were several competing ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HURT")

LBUCKZ: (Rapping) Really miss you, bro. And you're my brother, so I miss, too. When I was in that cell when I received that letter, Brad told me that he wished you was with me, too. Man, I feel his pain, but he ain't a martyr. When they took your life, I started thinking smarter. You believe that shit, [expletive]? That's a lie. I was on the (unintelligible) boom.

ROSIN: So many kids had stories about how they'd seen him the day he died. And now when his friends posed with their fingers in a B formation, it's not for only My Brothers. It's for Brandon. He's the new symbol they rally around now. I thought Brandon's father Brad would love all this. But being the realest he is, he's still stubbornly believes in the facts on the ground. He's not ready to accommodate the idea that image can engulf the real. And a lot of the ways people talk and talk about some mythical Bwingo do not sit well with him at all.

WINGO: But it's like I'd never you a day in my life.

ROSIN: You mean 'cause you feel...

WINGO: I have no clue who you are, but you act like you knew him. It's just like, oh, I'm so - feel so bad, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah (ph). And like, I'm saying, like, you really don't have no clue. And we both know you have no clue, but you're so emotional about it. Like, when did you know him?

ROSIN: Which sounds harsh, but it makes sense. He wants his real kid back, not this legend of Bwingo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: But Brandon's friends - the next generation - in the two years since Brandon died, they've gotten a lot more savvy about how to navigate between the image and the facts on the ground. Since you've become a martyr, I've become a lot smarter is a lyric in one of the tribute songs. Lots of kids we interviewed said they no longer post pictures of themselves with guns or gang signs. They've learned the lesson. If you put out there a picture of who you want to be, someone could easily mistake it for who you are. And then you could end up shot or in jail. It is still scary out there - really scary. 2019 rolled in, and the first person shot was Brandon's cousin, his best friend. To stay safe and alive, people have stopped letting other people manipulate their images. Instead, they do it themselves.

KEYHON: He got clout. He got all the clout. That's the man with the clout. I don't got no clout.

ROSIN: That's Keyhon from the living room again. And the man with all the clout is his cousin Fahmee. When their two older cousins got shot, Fahmee became the first of the cousins to graduate from high school. And then maybe to overpower the death videos from that year and the mourning memes, Fahmee started to flood his Facebook with pictures of him in a graduation gown standing with his girlfriend or with his teacher or with his mom, Shemeika.

SHEMEIKA: Best time was that graduation day...

ROSIN: Oh, yeah?

SHEMEIKA: ...Seeing him walk across that stage and prom. Prom was nice, too. But graduation - to see my baby get a diploma, something that I didn't do - couldn't ask for nothing more.

ROSIN: Fahmee and his mom have that twin-soul thing you sometimes see with a parent and a kid. Shemeika stands in the middle of the living room staring at Fahmee with tears streaming down her face. And Fahmee, who's sitting on the couch, stares back at her with tears streaming down his face.

SHEMEIKA: I'm very proud of my baby. He makes me proud every day - can't ask for nothing better, can't ask for nothing better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: You put a picture of yourself on Facebook in a graduation gown, and, just like with gang pictures, people don't ask questions. They don't bother with the details or the context. They just assume you're going places, and they might hold you to it. Fahmee still cruises through Brandon's Instagram and Twitter. He even DMs him sometimes.

FAHMEE: Like, brah (ph), I love you. Like, I tell him, like, how I'm feeling lately, you know, how much I really, like, wish he was still here.

ROSIN: Do you really DM him sometimes?

FAHMEE: Yeah, like, I still, like - I be on his, like - I be on his page, like, just looking at all his old pictures and all that. I be like - when I make a post, like, I always tag him - tag his Instagram in it or something. And I just see if, like, he's going to respond or something. But...

ROSIN: He thinks Brandon will see the messages in heaven, that he might even respond in a dream someday.

You think there's Facebook in heaven, Instagram in heaven?

KEYHON: I don't know. They...

FAHMEE: Hopefully.

KEYHON: ...(Unintelligible) phone or something. They probably could see it but just can't say nothing back to us.

FAHMEE: Yeah.

ROSIN: Yeah. It's like the iPhone 10 - iPhone 1 million.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSIN: Fahmee and Keyhon know they live in a world where the boundaries between image and real are fluid, where online lives and facts on the ground can be interchangeable or real in different ways at the same time. They're fluent in the contradictions in a way that I'm only just catching onto. And in that world, a DM to heaven is only natural.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: That's Hanna Rosin. Stick around for a preview of next week's episode. On next week's episode of INVISIBILIA...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES SPANN: Mostly clear weather continues tonight. Well, forecasts all but...

SPIEGEL: ...The story of a beloved TV weatherman...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Everybody trusts James Spann, the weatherman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Lord Spann. Yeah.

SPIEGEL: ...As he encounters a day filled with terrifying unknowns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: And then all of a sudden...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Power goes off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Power went out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: The phone went dead. The lights went out. The TV went off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: You're brought down to your knees. Help.

SPIEGEL: We look at our relationship with uncertainty. And we wonder, what do you do in the moments when you have no idea what to do?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Maybe everything that we've thought was right is wrong. Maybe we're living life upside down. I don't know.

SPIEGEL: That's next week on INVISIBILIA.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Oh, say that (laughter). Say that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Told you, and it's national radio - not just...

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPA SAVAGE SONG, "ALLSTAR YNIC")

SPIEGEL: That's it for today's show. INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Our executive producer is Cara Tallo. INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom.

ROSIN: This episode was produced by Liza Yeager and Yowei Shaw.

SPIEGEL: We had help from Mark Memmott and Micah Ratner, fact-checking by Hillary McClellan (ph) and Brin Winterbottom. Our technical director is Andy Huether, and our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

ROSIN: This episode was mastered by J. Czys. Special thanks to Jeffrey Lane, Julie Carli, Emily Bogle, Jake Arlow, Taylor Haney and David Gutherz for all their help. Additional music for this episode provided by Blue Dot Sessions. To all our guides in Wilmington - Yassir Payne, Darrell Chambers, Derrick Chambers and Kohle Harris - to the Benson family and to Paul Webster for sharing their memories and to Tish, Latisha Jackson, thank you - and of course Mitch, the best guide of all. Thank you also to Ashley Brown and Robert Baldwin III and to the Burke kids in David Pinnish’s class. You guys spoke some serious teenage wisdom to us. Thanks also to ItsTheJam. That’s his song you hear in the background on the stoop. Thank you to LBuckz for letting us use the song “My Hurt” and to Supa Savage for the song you’re listening to right now, "AllStar" (ph). You can find them all hanging out in Wilmington, and you can find their music on SoundCloud.

SPIEGEL: For more information about this music and to see original artwork by Christina Chung for this episode, visit www.npr.org/invisibilia. And now for our moment of non-Zen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: All right, b******, be done. Done.

ROSIN: Join us next week for more...

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALLSTAR YNIC")

SUPA SAVAGE: (Rapping) We survive just like Ramadan. Grab that nas (ph), screaming squad - do it till I die, [expletive].

(CROSSTALK)

SPIEGEL: Thank you so much for listening. We wanted to give you a heads up. INVISIBILIA is always, always looking for great news stories. So if you have a story to share, pitch it to us at npr.org/invisibilia/story.

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