Friday, January 12, 2018

Social media and gang violence: Interview with Desmond Patton, Ph.D.

[Episode 116] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is about social media and gang violence. It is about 8 million tweets, cyberbanging, and using social media to get a 360-degree view of someone’s life. It is about the amazing research of Dr. Desmond Patton.

Dr. Patton's research uses 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.

Desmond and I spoke in January of 2017. He unpacked the complex relationship between gang banging and cyberbanging – a term he and his colleagues coined back in 2013. We also talked about how social workers can think about the relationship between social media and youth. Desmond encourages us to think of the online world as a new social environment that social workers need to understand. He questions existing agency policies that prohibit social workers from interacting with clients on social media and asks if those are empirically-sound policies. And one of the things that I love the most about Desmond’s work is that he combines the rich understanding that comes from qualitative research and the cutting edge insights that can come from analyzing big data.

  Download MP3 [29:29]

Bio

Dr. Desmond Upton Patton is an Assistant Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, a Fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center, 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.

His current research projects examine:
  1. How gang-involved youth conceptualize threats on social media
  2. The extent to which social media shapes and facilitates youth and gang violence
  3. Developing a natural language processing tool for detecting aggression and grief in social media posts in partnership with the Data Science Institute at Columbia University.
Dr. Patton’s research on Internet Banging has been discussed nationally on media outlets to include the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, NPR, Boston Magazine, ABC News, and many more. Dr. Patton also provides expert witness testimony using social media during court trials. He was recently cited in an Amici Curae Brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court in the Elonis vs United States case which examined the issues of interpreting threats on social media.

Interview

Introduction
Jonathan Singer: Hey there podcast listeners, Jonathan here. Today’s episode is about social media and gang violence. It is about 8 million tweets, cyberbanging, and using social media to get a 360 degree view of your client. It is about the amazing research of Dr. Desmond Patton. 

Desmond is an Assistant Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, a Fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center, Director of SafeLab, and a Faculty Affiliate of the Social Intervention Group (SIG) and the Data Science Institute.  His research uses 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. Dr. Patton’s research on Internet Banging has been discussed nationally on media outlets to include the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, NPR, Boston Magazine, ABC News, and many more. Dr. Patton also provides expert witness testimony using social media during court trials. He was recently cited in an Amici Curae Brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court in the Elonis vs United States case which examined the issues of interpreting threats on social media. And if that weren’t enough, he was the recipient of the 2018 Early Career Achievement Award from the Society for Social Work and Research. And like most recipients of that award, Desmond has done more in his early career than most of us could possibly hope to do in our entire career. Can’t wait to see what comes next. 

Desmond and I spoke in January of 2017 about his research. He unpacked the complex relationship between gang banging and cyberbanging – a term he and his colleagues coined back in 2013. We also talked about how social workers can think about the relationship between social media and youth. Desmond encourages us to think of the online world as a new social environment that social workers need to understand. He questions existing agency policies that prohibit social workers from interacting with clients on social media and asks if those are empirically-sound policies. One of the things that I love the most about Desmond’s work is that he combines the rich understanding that comes from qualitative research and the cutting edge insights that can come from analyzing big data. 

If you want to hear Desmond and I talk more about technology and social work practice, check out the video we made when I was at Columbia University giving the 2017 Austin lecture

And now, without further ado, on to episode 116 of the Social Work Podcast, Social media and gang violence: Interview with Desmond Patton, Ph.D.

Interview
[3:02]
Jonathan Singer:   Alright. Desmond – thanks so much for being here on the podcast and talking with us today. How did you get involved in this work?

Desmond Patton [5:10]: So, about 4-years-ago I was doing youth violence research in Chicago. I had stayed in contact with the young men that are a part of my dissertation study and many of them made me aware of some interactions that were happening on Twitter. In particular, there were two very well-known rappers from Chicago that were in a beef [Ed note: see https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/rap-rivalry-and-twitter-outrage-lead-pitchfork-to-pull-video/]. They were arguing back and forth on twitter.  And one individual in particular identified himself on Twitter, made himself very clear to the community. And was kind of fed up with the beef that was happening and basically said, “Well if you want to do something about this lets meet at this particular location.”.  On twitter he identified a location and he wanted the other rapper to meet him there. Lo and behold within three hours that rapper was killed in that exact location.

And so that began my interest in the use of social media as a way to understand gang violence and root causes of violence. And from that it became really clear to me that social media is a tool and that it’s not about why gang members use social media but, everyone is using social media to express themselves to build community to talk with friends, but what’s different is the context in which that communication is embedded in. And when young people are embedded in a culture or a community where violence is pervasive and a part of day-to-day life and that becomes the context in which they narrate in these online spaces

Jonathan Singer [7:12]:   So one of the terms I’ve heard is cyber banging or internet banging. Can you tell us what that is or talk a little about that?

Desmond Patton [7:20]:  Yes.  So my colleagues, Rob Eschmann and Dirk Butler, we wrote a paper in 2013 called Internet Banging which is a conceptual paper in which we try to describe a computer mediated communication in which young people, who have some type of gang affiliation, whether it be hard core gang members or on the periphery, are using social media to taunt and make threats through the use of emojis, hashtags and video images.  And that conversation, those interactions on social media have the proficiency to lead toward real world violence.


So often times what happens is there is a post made someone perhaps disrespecting an individual that was killed by a rival gang. Then the different gangs or factions commenting on that post and they are going back and forth. But because of the context in which these people are embedded in, they cannot just leave it there now because that post is visible. Thousands of people are now looking at that post. Everyone is getting emotional and they now have to prove themselves. So if they made a comment online they have to back it up. If you don’t back it up that could make you more susceptible to violence or injury. So now they need to take it offline to maintain that code of the street.

There has been one example that has really stuck out in my mind. For the past few years I have been studying one female deceased gang member Gakirah Barnes. What is most interesting about Gakirah is that she was a female gang member that was known as a shooter. It’s not uncommon for young women to be a part of gangs but it is uncommon for young women to be active shooters in gangs. And so not only did she have this positionality as a shooter but she also had a very prominent… um… space on twitter. She was very well known on twitter, she had over 27,000 tweets 5,000 followers, which put her in the 98th percentile of all twitter users. And I learned a lot about her, I became aware of her through popular media.  In 2014 many popular media outlets wrote about Gakirah calling her the “Teen Queen of Gangland Chicago” and many variations of that. And they talked about her brutal nature, her willingness to shoot at the drop of a hat and her communicating these ideas and threats on twitter. And so I intentionally became interested in her because I wanted to see to what extent can I find key words and phrases that could help me understand what lead her to make these types of comments on twitter. And when I dug deeper with my research team we actually found something much more interesting, which is actually quiet sad, we actually, we were asking the wrong question.  We forgot that this was a young woman, a girl, a human who has fears and pain and trauma and stress; just like everyone else.

When we dug deeper into her twitter data we saw someone who was expressing an immense amount of pain. So she would say things like “the pain is unbearable” following one of her good friends [who was], allegedly, shot by the Chicago police department. She would say phrases like this often and then next day she would say something a bit more aggressive. So you could see her grief becoming anger. Then there would be people who were from the opposing gang who were looking at her vulnerability, her willingness to express herself on social media, and then they would make comments to her. And then being the person that she is, she would make comments back so this kind of back-and-forth would evolve. But what is most important is that the initial comment was around pain and grief; the initial comment was not around aggression or threats. And that is what has been missing in our discussion surrounding this link between social media and gang violence.  In that we are forgetting the human element in that there is a person, there is a set of events, there is an experience that triggers aggression and threats; it doesn’t start there.


Jonathan Singer [12:10] So that was such a… kind-of a moving and compelling story.  You uncovered that this person had pain and that there was a multidimensionality to her experience. Does your research on social media and these gangs really delve into the sadness, the depression, the trauma… the kind of things I think that a lot of social workers deal with on a regular basis?

Desmond Patton [12:30]: Yeah, so that’s a great question. So one of the great things about being a qualitative researcher is that we go where the participant takes us and on social media that can go many different places. That can be really wild and that can be really exciting. What I’ve done is try to track the story that is emerging from day-to-day and week-to-week. And with young people, just like with other folks, but particularly with young people they go through a host of emotions throughout the week that depending on what happened at school, what’s happened in the community. So for example on one day the content might be heavy and very sad and very traumatic, and often times that is driven, well not often times, that is driven by the offline context. What people often times don’t understand, or not think through, is that social media is rooted in offline context. The experiences the events that young people go through are essentially just expressed on these social media platforms. And so some days that’s about trauma and about grief and about pain and other days it’s about love and happiness and excitement and all the beautiful things that are happening in one’s life.

I published a paper in Violence and Victims, where we looked at 8 million posts from gang involved folks in Detroit.  What we realized is that only 4% of the communication from those folks, those 8 million tweets, were about crime and violence. And so that kind of flys-in-the-face of the narrative that we get about young people and young people from marginalized spaces, in that their communication, their activities, their engagements around violence and crime they were actually talking about a host of other things. They were actually using these platforms as a promotive space just like everyone else. But what is important is that [while] only 4% of the communication was about violence and crime, that 4% was quiet threatening and aggression. And because of the context that these young people are embedded in, they would move on those comments as well.

Jonathan Singer [15:02] Did you look and see what percentage of the tweets had to do with say love or infatuation or romance?

Desmond Patton [15:10] Well it’s interesting, is that… we were trying to learn more about violence and crime, and we thought… our hypothesis was  that we would find more conversations around violence and crime, and that was not the case. So we were not looking for happiness and love and excitement and that is what was there. That is the primary content in the twitter feed that we scraped.

Jonathan Singer [15:40] I can understand why you would be looking at violence, because you know the outcome of romantic interactions on a twitter feed is kind of personal.  It’s intimate, it’s…  it doesn’t hurt anybody and so in essence like the things that we think of as good and positive and prosocial the outcomes are almost invisible. Its these very small percentage of the communications that become public and become the things that we then focus on.

Desmond Patton  [16:11] Absolutely

Jonathan Singer [16:18] You know I’m sure that there are folks out there saying that’s really interesting but I am not going to be analyzing 8 million tweets, right? So what are the take home points here for practitioners?

Desmond Patton [16:30] First I think that practitioners should understand that social media is a new environmental context for understanding: behavior and adaptation and trauma and stress and love and happiness. It is ripe for the kind of work that social workers do day-in and day-out but first we need to realize that it is an important context and we need to move beyond our kind of fear around the use of technology in practice.

I teach social workers at the University of Columbia and on the first day of class I ask them, “How many of you all have a twitter account?” and most of my students are 22/23 and maybe out of a class of 25 maybe two or three hands will raise. I ask how many people have a Facebook account and maybe there are more hands but they’re using social media for personal interactions or they’re using social media to follow celebrities.

When I think one thing we need to wrap our mind around as social works is that many of the communities that we are working in, have some life on social media whether its young people, older people, young adults they are expressing and narrating their life online. And often times in very vulnerable ways and they are presenting multiple selves. So you’ll get  a school self, a personal self, a professional self, a silly self and so it gives you kind of a 360 perspective of  one’s identity and how they are expressing that identity online. And so it gives you a nice kind of entre into one’s world which might be challenging to get in a one-to-one interview. In the work that I do you know I am interviewing people all the time, and it’s really hard to get this level of vulnerability. I think, you know, interviewing a young person around pain and trauma, young people who live in Chicago, in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, have never been as expressive as I have seen them be on twitter. And I think that was the moment when I realized that this medium is more powerful than we realized. 

And so I think that we also need to think about well what is the role of technology and social media at the organizational level? Often times organizations may have a policy around interaction or engagement with their clients on social media and I think we need to think about whether or not that is an empirically sound policy. Are we missing whole swabs of information, data, context that can help us do our job better?  And so I think for social work practioners and students I think the first step is to become aware that this is an important context and b [second step] start to think, start to engage these platforms from a different perspective. So instead of following a celebratory, think about what you are reading, what are you taking into when you are on social media. Sit for a day and just do some observations, take some field notes sit with one individual and kind of note what they are talking about, the pictures that they’re uploading and see if you can tell a story about that individual and what might gleam from that experience.

Jonathan Singer [20:20] So it sounds like you are almost suggesting that we need to rethink the way that we think about our clients and the data that we get from clients.  Would it be reasonable to say that you would advocate for maybe getting permission from clients to maybe read their public twitter feed for example if they have them? Like if you are working with an adolescent and during your intake assessment or your first couple of sessions say:

“Hey are you on twitter?” “Yeah.”  “You know if that an important place for you?” “Yeah.” “Would you be okay if I would be checking out your twitter feed?”.

 Is that something you think could be useful? I realize there are a lot of red flags that go up especially if they think “Oh my social worker is reading my twitter feed therefore I can communicate via twitter with my social worker.” But... um… it almost sounds like you are saying this is a really important piece of information and it provides a 360 view of our clients which we can’t get otherwise. What are your thoughts about that?

Desmond Patton [21:22] That’s a really important question and a really complicated question. I think that it is important for social workers to maintain trust and reporior building with their clients.  And I think that at any point of getting additional information that the social worker should enter into a conversation with the client about what information is helpful and valid and what are issues around privacy and trust that should be bridged. But then I think conversely we also know that there may be conditions that are not necessarily tied to an individual. So for example there may be times when there are external events, offline situation that are happening in the community or surrounding an individual, but not necessarily tied to the individual. So that may be you know, in one’s neighborhood there have been a series of robberies and they have learned that by sitting on twitter and looking at various hashtags that are indicated, in which a neighborhood is indicated, and that information may help you contextualize that neighborhood.  But it is not giving you that individual’s information. So we have to think about the different micro and marco levels of information that you can learn from social media. I would think a we need to first have conversations but b[second] we need to also think about broader conversations and broader implications that we can gleam from social media that may not need to be around the individual client but more so around the ecological system.

Jonathan Singer [23:22] So this has been really interesting.  Starting out talking about gang violence and use of twitter, you know, as a way of identifying where a crime may happen and then talking about twitter as a tool and social media as a tool that teenagers are using to communicate all sorts of things in their lives.  And then also to think about twitter, social media as a way to understand the broader context for things that are happening online and offline in a teenagers life. So it sounds like you understand social media really as this way of understanding and providing information about not just a specific event or a specific tweet, but really the context for a kid’s life.

Desmond Patton [24:12] Absolutely, but I think it’s important to think about ethics and the ethics involved in this work. One thing that I have learned in this research is that, it is easy to misinterpret what young people are saying. There is a complex and nuance form of language that is embedded in youth culture, one’s neighborhood, one’s block, one’s gang affiliation and if you’re not from that particular neighborhood or community you may misinterpret was is actually being said. And what happens when that misinterpretation happens is young people, young people of color, are further marginalized and policed because of their communication.  And so I think that it is really important to think about how do we make sure that we have an accurate understanding of the language the context and the culture that is being expressed on social media and how do we privilege the voice of young people in this space?

So in my own research I hire young people in Chicago to be research assistance in my lab and they translate and interpret the data to help me understand the full context, or as close as we can get to the full understanding. That way if we are seeing that a particular set of tweets or posts are aggressive that young people from the community have validated that particular label and that it’s not a label that comes out of thin air because some of the challenges around this space are often times that sometimes police may use this type of data and it’s used to surveille communities of color. What we want to do and the work that I’m a part of is leverage expertise of community members and youth to best support the needs that they articulate online and I think that that is a great space for social workers is to continue to build relationships with communities members and youth and using social media as a meeting place to understand each other, to understand needs that are expressed and to think about various points of entry way. Maybe perhaps new interventions or prevention strategies that come out of conversations around social media that get us closer to needs for youths and communities.

Jonathan Singer [26:54] Do you have an example about a tweet or a series of tweets that were misinterpreted?

Desmond Patton [27:02] Yeah so one of the issues that we have is interpreting rap lyrics. And I remember when I first started doing this research and there were a number of posts that were on the face to me and my team looked very aggressive and threatening. And then I commenced doing a research study with gang involved youth in Chicago and I presented these tweets. And I said “You know I think these tweets are really aggressive. Do you know what’s happening with these tweets.” And they laughed at me and they were very clear to say that “can’t you tell this is a rap lyric and the guy was probably on the “L” [Chicago’s subway] headed home and he was listening to Kendrick Lamar (or whomever else) and they posted that lyric on twitter and it means nothing.” And so my quick assumption that was embedded in my own kind of biases around language and music could have be quiet problematic but when I talked to young people they gave me a different understanding and a different approach to this content that really changed the direction of how we do this work. So now we are very clear on assessing the severity of context right and so we do a lot of checks on our interpretations of the data to make sure, ya know do we really think that this particular comment is threatening? Let’s analyze it to see to what extent we think this is a high level threat, a medium level threat, a low level threat and let’s provide some justifications around this based on our understanding and youth understanding of what we think is actually aggressive on social media.

Jonathan Singer [28:44] Desmond thank you so much for being here on the social work podcast and talking with us about your work with social media and young kids. I really appreciate you taking the time.


--End—

[29:29]

Transcription generously donated by: Cassie Griffith, MSW, Case Manager JUF Uptown Cafe, EZRA Mutli-Service Center. 

References and Resources



APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2018, January 12). #116 - Social media and gang violence: Interview with Desmond Patton, Ph.D. [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2018/01/patton.html

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