Innovating Gang Violence Prevention Through Social Media – #MacroSW Chat 11-16-17

Chat archive available here

Our guest expert this week is Desmond Upton Patton, Ph.D., who will discuss how analyzing Twitter data (through digital qualitative research) can help us understand how social media communications –around grief, trauma, or love– can lead to off-line gun violence.

Street with yellow tape "police line do not cross" tied across it. Red brick buidlings in backgrounc with police car with blue lights on top of it.
Photo: Joshua Lott, Getty Images


Using data sets from Chicago, his research has the potential to prevent murders and provide insight into healthy ways to intervene and cope with trauma. Area youth work as translators of the tweets – telling the story within the story – and this helps social workers identify moments that are prime for intervention. Computer scientists use machine learning to develop algorithms that can flag volatile tweets.

As an introduction to this week’s topic, please watch this 12-minute video, a 2017 Ted X Broadway Talk by Dr. Patton:

They Are Children: How Posts on Social Media Lead to Gang Violence

“While social media often portrays a curated version of people’s lives, it can also help tell a more complete story of misunderstood communities. Desmond Patton’s work as a social worker and researcher led him to create Safe Lab, which brings together youth voices with social workers and computer scientists to solve problems of gang violence. Patton encourages his audience to discover and tell more complete stories about black and latino youth, in order to see them for who they really are.”


     Desmond Patton, Ph.D., @SAFELab is an Assistant Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center @BKCHarvard, and a Faculty Affiliate of the Social Intervention Group (SIG) and the Data Science Institute. His research utilizes qualitative and computational data collection methods to examine how and why gang violence, trauma, grief, and identity are expressed on social media and the real world impact they have on well-being for low-income youth of color.

Discussion questions

1. What are the implications of this type of research for gun violence prevention?

2. What are some ethical issues in this type of research?

3. What’s the role of community in our work? Give some examples of communities engaged in Patton’s research.

4. In what ways is social media research important for social work practice?


Bell, T. (2017, November 10). Could software stop school shootings? Fast Company. Retrieved from

Columbia School of Social Work News. (2017, November 2). Is social media surveillance the virtual stop-and-frisk? New study by Desmond Patton. Retrieved from

Cornish, A. (Producer). (2016, September 9). In effort to curb violence in Chicago, a professor mines social media. All Things Considered [Radio Newscast]. New York: NPR.

Patton, D. (2017, May 15). They are children: How posts on social media lead to gang violence [Video file].  Retrieved from

Patton. D. (2016, October 12). Roots of Trauma: What social media tell us about trauma and loss among youth in urban settings  [Video file]. Retrieved from

Patton, D. (2016, July 12). Internet Banging Explained [Video file]. Retrieved from







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