Communication Research in 2022

As we embark on a new calendar year, I asked some of our CRC fellows to share their thoughts on important communication research trends for 2022.

For COM Assistant Professor of Emerging Media Studies Chris Chao Su, it is the pandemic that will continue to play a prominent role in shaping communication scholars’ research agendas. He explained,

As a researcher mainly concerned with media audiences, I think two research trends will continue to develop and serve to help us understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond on media and communication. The first research trend examines the role of digital platforms and the changing behaviors of online media users with regard to consumption and production of COVID-19 related information, including vaccines, preventive measures, and virus variants. As part of an ongoing project, I have observed that social media users have redefined news credibility from an institution-centric viewpoint to a more individualized, network-centric perspective. I found that trust in the news becomes more of a personal experience than a socially-fabricated symbol. 

Secondly, the pandemic has resulted in a further deterioration of the digital divide between the privileged class and the marginalized. Globally, social protests advocating for minorities’ rights will continue to be the dominant discourse in 2022. Therefore, the expansion of polarization beyond political discourse to other social and cultural regimes might be of interest to communication scholars.

The effects of the pandemic were also a driving consideration for COM Associate Professor of Media Science Mina Tsay-Vogel. “Given our increasing reliance on digital media, virtual spaces, and computer-mediated interactions to sustain the social fabric of our everyday lives as a result of the pandemic, these trends certainly point to important implications for our evolving relationship with technology.” She continued, 

The escalating costs of the pandemic have undeniably made the fragility of human life and fleeting passage of time much more salient than ever before, in turn causing people to reassess their life’s purpose and potential. Such revelations have encouraged individuals to seek more meaningful personal, social, and professional pursuits, hence outcomes such as The Great Resignation. In doing so, technology has unquestionably been a source, platform, medium, and intervention of empowerment by facilitating personal change and growth, work-life balance, social support networks, and movements that inspire social change – all of which point to the need to expand digital well-being and positive technology research in the field of communication. 

For COM Assistant Professor of Public Relations Arunima Krishna, it is the confluence of the pandemic as well as the unrelenting mis- and disinformation efforts that are driving her research interests. She said, “As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage on, a key challenge that communicators and researchers face is how to rebuild trust in the scientific community, especially among those who still question the science behind masking, vaccines, and indeed, the virus itself.” For instance:

The many reported communication missteps from the CDC have further contributed to lowered credibility not only of the CDC but also of the scientific community in general, and have eroded faith in recommendations proffered by the CDC and other public health agencies. The need for the (so-called) hard sciences to work with not just communicators but also communication researchers to identify theoretically grounded ways to address vaccine hesitancy, mis- and disinformation, and increase compliance with Covid-19 preventive measures is dire. For example, in one of my research articles on disinformation, I advanced a typology of disinformation susceptibility to identify those for whom disinformation messages may be most effective vs. least effective. 

Disinformation is also of concern to COM Professor of Communication Denis Wu, specifically, “the tenacity of disinformation and misinformation, fervent disregard of truth, and their threat to democracy and collective well-being.” To address these issues, Wu explained,

I have worked with colleagues to examine the processing of varied political (or politicized) messages, communications of environmental crises across geographical regions and political spectrum, and emotions and perceptions toward political leaders and of foreign nations. The impact of these studied issues can be found on candidate evaluations and electoral decisions, environmental policy and regulation, and international relations that may result in war and peace

I agree with my colleagues that digital media technologies will continue to be important areas of study, especially as Dr. Tsay-Vogel indicates, for positive well-being. I also agree about the importance of identifying disinformation efforts, particularly around scientific issues such as vaccines, but also climate change and vaping. Both vaccine and climate change disinformation are prevalent with long histories. As my coauthors and I noted in The COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook, anti-vaccination misinformation stretches back 200 years and is characterized by reasoning flaws and fallacies. While climate change disinformation is more recent, there is evidence of it since at least the 1970s. Of course, we must not forget that it was the U.S. tobacco industry in the 1950s that wrote the playbook on manufacturing uncertainty about scientific evidence. This manufactured “uncertainty” narrative thrives today as we’ve seen with the COVID-19 vaccines and climate change. There is no science-based uncertainty about the safety of U.S. COVID-19 vaccines and that climate change is happening and caused by human activities. 

There are also sources of science disinformation that are easily overlooked. I am studying how corporations and interest groups are using covert persuasion techniques to influence public opinion on scientific topics. Sponsored content – advertisements disguised as news articles – are being used widely in mainstream news media, increasingly by companies wishing to contradict the actual news reporting of a news outlet or to suppress critical reporting of that corporation in the future. For instance, sponsored content created by The New York Times’ T Brand Studio on behalf of ExxonMobil is being used as evidence in a climate liability lawsuit against the fossil fuel company by the Massachusetts Attorney General for being “false and misleading” and in violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act. Moreover, social media “influencers” are being paid to promote the (unverified) efficacy of health-related products without disclosing that they have been paid to do so. These hidden persuasion techniques have been shown to deceive the majority of people who encounter it, particularly as the paid disclosures disappear when the content is shared on social media. 

On behalf of my colleagues, we look forward to offering more of our expertise on these and other important areas of communication research as we progress through 2022. As students and faculty return to campus for the spring semester, more interesting research discussions and revelations are sure to emerge.