Desmond Upton Patton

Desmond Upton Patton, a professor, researcher, and public interest technologist, studies the link between youth, gang violence, and social media. Courtesy photo

Desmond Upton Patton, a professor, researcher, and public interest technologist who studies the link between youth, gang violence, and social media, will deliver the keynote address at the diploma ceremony for the Boston College School of Social Work on May 23 on the Lower Campus Lawn.

“I’m thrilled to give this keynote address at a time when social work practice and research are paramount for a thriving society,” said Patton, a professor of social work, sociology, and data science at Columbia University.

Patton has dedicated his career to harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and social media to help prevent online conflicts from spilling over into real life. He carries out this mission as the founding director of the SAFElab, a research initiative at Columbia focused on examining the ways in which youth of color navigate violence on and offline.

In 2013, Patton and his colleagues coined the term “Internet banging” to refer to the phenomenon in which gang affiliates use social media sites such as Twitter to trade insults or make violent threats that lead to homicide. 

Over the past several years, he has teamed up with youth, data scientists, and social workers to create algorithms that can analyze tweets and extract meaning from text and digital images. The researchers, he said, use computer vision and natural-language processing techniques to identify posts that communicate loss, aggression, and substance use, all of which could portend violence.

“The translational impact of Professor Desmond Patton’s research is vital at this time in our country and for the profession of social work,” said Gautam N. Yadama, dean of the School of Social Work. “His approach to mining social media to derive insights about youth and what matters to them is participant observation at its best. And the use of such novel approaches and insights to design social work practice with youth is on the cutting edge of social work practice.”

Patton is currently writing a book about a particular case of gang violence, how it has influenced his research, and why an algorithm could have prevented it. The case focuses on Gakirah Barnes, a teenaged member of a gang in Chicago who tweeted “the pain is unbearable” after her friend was killed in April 2014. About a week later, Barnes was shot and killed. 

“We’re trying to understand loss and trauma within a social media context and develop interventions that provide young people with support as they’re leveraging these tools to get help,” said Patton, who served as a visiting scholar at the School of Social Work from January to June 2020. “The problem is things are just sitting on platforms, but I’m also seeing them, particularly for young Black and brown folks, as places to get help.”

Patton believes that social workers need to find more ways to incorporate technology into their work with clients and communities, saying that courses in technology should become a standard component of social work curriculums. One of his primary concerns is figuring out how practitioners could use artificial intelligence, chatbots, and virtual reality to improve the health and wellness of people around the world. 

He envisions a day in which social workers are collaborating with engineers and computer scientists to create the technology of the future—including the algorithms that dictate our lives. 

“In the medical model, there’s a doctor, a social worker, and a nurse,” he said. “In the engineering model, there should be an engineer, a product manager, and a social worker. That would be the ideal.”

We’re trying to understand loss and trauma within a social media context and develop interventions that provide young people with support as they’re leveraging these tools to get help.
Desmond Upton Patton, professor, researcher, and public interest technologist

Patton’s research on Internet banging has appeared in numerous media outlets, including VICE, Nature, and The New York Times. It was cited in an amici curiae brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court in Elonis v. United States, which examined how threats are interpreted on social media.

Patton has published dozens of articles in peer-reviewed publications, among them the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, New Media and Society, and The Journal of Men’s Studies. One recent paper, published in Children and Youth Services Review, found that adolescents are acutely aware that social media features, such as comments and live video, have the power to turn online conflict into offline fights.

“Our findings underscore that adolescents engaged in social media threats often do not go online with the intention to fight,” Patton and his coauthors wrote. “Rather, adolescents expressed keen awareness that social media intensifies interpersonal slights, and specifically identified video streaming and comments as social media features that intensify social media threats, increasing the likelihood of offline violence.”

Patton has received more than a dozen prestigious honors and fellowships during his career, including the 2018 Deborah K. Padgett Early Career Achievement Award from the Society for Social Work and Research. He won the award, according to SSWR, “in recognition of his notable influence on understanding the links between traditional forms of gang violence and threatening social media communication and his noteworthy contributions to advance the social work profession.”

In addition to his professorship at Columbia, Patton serves as senior associate dean for academic affairs and curriculum innovation at the university’s School of Social Work. He is the associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the university’s Data Science Institute and a faculty affiliate of its Social Intervention Group. Before joining the faculty at Columbia in 2015, he served as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and School of Information.

Patton holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and political science from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a master’s in social work from the University of Michigan, and a doctorate in social service administration from the University of Chicago.

The diploma ceremony for the School of Social Work will start at approximately noon. Several soon-to-be-graduates will be involved in the festivities. Mai Kim Pham, MSW’22, will deliver the invocation and Samira Al-Ghuiyy Bell, MSW’22, will give the student address. Jason Lawrence Madden, MSW’22, and Kimberly Hokanson, PhD’22, will serve as the degree representatives. Seating for guests on the Lower Campus Lawn is first come, first served. People who are unable to attend the event can livestream the ceremony on the University’s Commencement page.