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Desmond Upton Patton, a pioneer in the interdisciplinary fusion of social work, communications, and data science, is the Brian and Randi Schwartz University Professor, with joint appointments in the School of Social Policy & Practice and the Annenberg School for Communication along with a secondary appointment in the department of psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Professor Patton’s groundbreaking research into the relationship between social media and gang violence – specifically how communities constructed online can influence often harmful behavior offline – has led to his becoming the most cited and recognized scholar in this increasingly important area of social science. His early work attempting to detect trauma and preempt violence on social media led to his current roles as an expert on language analysis and bias in AI and a member of Twitter’s Academic Research advisory board and Spotify’s Safety Advisory Council. As a social worker, Patton realized existing gold standard data science techniques could not accurately understand key cultural nuances in language amongst predominantly black and Hispanic youth. In response, he created the Contextual Analysis of Social Media (CASM) approach to center and privilege culture, context and inclusion in machine learning and computer vision analysis. CASM can be applied by businesses and other organizations to observe social media and workplace communication channels for potentially incendiary language, which taken out of context can lead to violence. With this methodology, organizations can better foster diverse and inclusive environments and minimize employee conflict. Further, Patton’s insights on creating non-biased and culturally nuanced algorithms give tech companies a holistic perspective on various business and social issues. The companies that adopt these proactive measures are then able to ensure they are not unintentionally propagating bias.

In 2018, Professor Patton published a groundbreaking finding in the prestigious Nature journal, Digital Medicine, which uncovered grief as a pathway to aggressive communication on Twitter. The report was cited in an amici curiae brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court in Elonis v. United States, which examined the interpretation of threats on social media. Widely referenced across disciplines, Patton’s research at the intersections of social media, AI, empathy and race has been mentioned in the New York Times, Nature, Washington Post, NPR, Vice News, ABC News, and other prestigious media outlets.

Professor Patton was a Member of the Board of Directors at the Columbia Center for Technology Management and was appointed Faculty Associate at Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He won the 2018 Deborah K. Padgett Early Career Achievement Award from the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR) for his work on social media, AI, and well-being. He was named a 2017-2018 fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and is a 2019 Presidential Leadership Scholar and Technology and a 2019 Human Rights Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard Kennedy School. Patton is currently a member of the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility at AAAS and a member of the Scientific Board for Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

Before joining Penn, Patton was Professor of Social Work and Sociology at Columbia University, Senior Associate Dean at Columbia School of Social Work and Associate Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Data Science Institute at Columbia.


Oct 19, 2017

How Facebook Tries to Regulate Postings Made by Two Billion People

Berkman Klein Center hosts a day of conversation about reducing harmful speech online and hears from the Facebook executive in charge of platform moderation policies

The Berkman Klein Center community explores broader research questions and topics related to the challenges of keeping tabs on the daily social media interactions of hundreds of…


Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research

ChatGPT for Social Work Science: Ethical Challenges and Opportunities

BKC Faculty Associates Desmond Patton and Siva Mathiyazhagan, and Aviv Landau describe the potential use of ChatGPT in social work science.

Aug 1, 2023
Tech Policy Press

Disclosures of NYPD Surveillance Technologies Raise More Questions Than Answers

Desmond Patton is cited in an overview of NYPD surveillance technologies

Feb 23, 2021

Police Monitoring Of Social Media Sparks Concerns In Black And Brown Communities

Desmond Patton interviewed by NPR about police monitoring social media

Aug 21, 2020

Has Twitter just had its saddest fortnight ever?

Sorrow alone doesn’t tell the whole story, Desmond Patton says.

Jun 15, 2020
MIT CMSW Podcast

Contextual Analysis of Social Media

A podcast with Desmond Patton on the promise and challenge of eliciting context in social media posts with natural language processing

Feb 21, 2020

5 Questions on Data and Context with Desmond Patton

The BKC faculty associate discusses the importance of meaningful interaction with the people behind data

Feb 21, 2020

Guns on social media: complex interpretations of gun images posted by Chicago youth

“How should we interpret gun images on social media?” Desmond Patton asks

Oct 15, 2019

The Modern Bystander Effect

Desmond Patton talks to PBS about violence Facebook Live

Oct 14, 2019
Tech Crunch

Why AI needs more social workers

BKC Faculty Associate Desmond Patton shares his perspective

Aug 9, 2019

Trump wants to “detect mass shooters before they strike.” It won’t work.

Predictive AI is too flawed — both technically and ethically — to prevent another El Paso or Dayton.

Aug 7, 2019
Columbia News

Using Twitter to Predict Gang Violence

Desmond Patton says law enforcement officials should analyze social media posts about grief and stress to prevent violent crime among young people.

May 30, 2019
The International Journal of Bullying Prevention

When Twitter Fingers Turn to Trigger Fingers: a Qualitative Study of Social Media-Related Gang Violence

Leveraging expertise to understand social media's role in gang activity

Apr 3, 2019
Justice Matters Podcast

Justice Matters Podcast: Desmond Patton

On the intersection of social media, ethics, and human rights

Mar 31, 2019

Why AI Needs Social Workers and “non-tech” Folks

Incorporating social work and values into community-based AI research

Mar 24, 2019
Voice of America

VR Project Highlights Social Media Policing

Police gather on social media in order to prevent and investigate criminal activity. But the clues found within aren't always conclusive

Nov 6, 2018