Letters from the Director

Letter from the Director: December 2022

By: Michelle Amazeen

As the Fall 2022 semester wraps up, there is an impressive number of new faces and activities at the CRC to reflect on. We welcomed four new faculty research fellows: Dr. Nivea Cannali Bona, Lecturer, Media Science; Dr. Katy Coduto, Assistant Professor, Media Science; Dr. Pablo Miño, Assistant Professor, Public Relations, and Dr. Emily Saidel, Lecturer, Television Studies. We also welcomed 3 new PhD student fellows: Nicole Hash, Dongpeng Huang, and Yihan "Danny" Jia.

Given the University’s commitment to involving students in research, the CRC once again had a busy semester in facilitating fellows’ efforts to recruit students as research participants via our SONA research participant management system. The SONA pool gives students an opportunity to become involved with various research activities across COM while earning course credit for doing so. This semester, 17 studies were conducted, recruiting students from 26 different COM courses to participate in 24 research opportunities.

Our fellows have also been using the CRC’s biometric technology which includes devices for measuring heart rate, sweat levels in the skin, and eye movements. Our Lab and Research Manager, Lindsy Goldberg, has been certified by iMotions on use of this technology and has hosted numerous classes and individual students for demonstrations of our iMotions equipment. She has offered workshops on biometrics in media effects research with specific modules on galvanic skin response, facial expression analysis, and eye tracking. A quick primer on demystifying biometrics is available here.

With the assistance of Master Lecturer Anne Danehy, the CRC continued its Media and Technology Survey highlighting the expertise of several of our fellows. The questions were administered by Ipsos, the market research company, using their eNation Omnibus, a nationally representative online survey that measures attitudes and opinions of 1,000 adults across the United States. We fielded one survey about artificial intelligence in the workplace, led by Dr. James E. Katz along with two PhD students, Ekaterina “Katya” Novozhilova and Dongpeng Huang. The other survey involved public perceptions of climate change, led by Dr. Arunima Krishna and Dr. Chris Wells.

The CRC hosted numerous events this fall. Our Colloquium Series, which originated in 2009, consists of monthly research presentations that highlight current and original research of faculty in COM. Our Fall Colloquium Speakers were Dr. Patrice Oppliger (September) and Dr. Charlotte Howell (October). Every semester, the CRC also invites a distinguished scholar from outside the university to share their outstanding scholarship, expertise, and experience with the BU community. Our Fall 2022 DeFleur Distinguished Lecturer was Dr. Sarah Banet-Weiser (University of Pennsylvania).  The CRC also co-sponsored a panel with COM’s Career Services on Careers in Communication Research. The panel included COM alumni discussing their current research jobs and offered tips to students about how to enter the burgeoning field of communication research.

I am incredibly grateful for the commitment and hard work of our staff this fall. Lindsy has been nothing short of outstanding in managing the CRC. She has been involved in every aspect of upkeeping the center, offering workshops on our technologies, overseeing technology and facility reservations, promoting the news and accomplishments of the CRC research fellows and our lecture series, overseeing the creation of this fall’s newsletter, and much more. Sadly, we are saying goodbye to our longtime graduate assistant, Jenna Vigre as she completes her MS in Advertising this semester. She has been a tremendous asset to the CRC with her creative design skills and assistance in promoting and administering our events. We wish you the best, Jenna, as you embark upon your professional career!

Finally, I will be on a much-anticipated research sabbatical in the Spring 2023 semester. The CRC will be in the very capable hands of Interim Director, Dr. Michael Elasmar, with Lindsy continuing as Lab and Research Manager. I will return as CRC Director in the fall of 2023.

I wish you all a joyous and restful holiday season.

Letter from the Director: October 2022

AI: Cause to Rejoice or Frankenstein-like Foreboding?

Artificial intelligence (or AI) has moved from science fiction to mainstream computer science. No longer is it simply the lore of Frankenstein-like creations but rather something that people use in their everyday lives. For instance, web searches using Google rely upon AI. So do the recommendation systems in Netflix and Spotify. If we command Siri or Alexa to do something for us, it is AI that allows them to understand our speech.

As AI advances, the possibilities of its partnering with humans on everyday tasks or even outright replacing humans are becoming increasingly realistic (e.g. self-driving cars). A recent COM Media & Technology Survey examined how the American public feels about AI replacing humans in certain professions. To gain a better understanding of what AI is and what the survey results reveal, I’ve turned to CRC fellows from our Division of Emerging Media Studies. Dr. James Katz is the Feld Professor of Emerging Media and Director of the Division. Ekaterina “Katya” Novozhilova and Dongpeng Huang are PhD students with research interests in AI.

When I asked what AI is, and why it is of interest to communication researchers, Katz explained:

AI is designed to do things that people can do, only much faster and also has its own kind of creativity and learning activities. As such it has the potential to transform society, and therefore is of interest to those of us who study society and its communication processes.

For Novozhilova, AI systems have become frequent human interlocutors. “From children talking with Siri/Alexa to the use of chatbots in therapy by teenagers and adults to the interaction with social robots in senior citizens' homes -- AI might become our lifetime conversational partner,” she said.

One of the things that intrigues Huang about artificial intelligence is that “it is not a living organism, yet it exhibits life-like qualities. AI is able to transmit information and even create information, which makes it a communicator and a social actor.”

When asked what aspects of AI their research examines, Katz indicated, “I am interested in understanding how the public perceives the benefits and risks of AI, and how they might wish to see policy towards AI changed or improved.” Both Novozhilova and Huang are interested in how the public perceives AI in various workplace settings. “Our current study hopes to understand how Americans feel about replacing humans with AI for a variety of jobs,” Huang said.

“Consistent with previous research,” Novozhilova explained, the survey results indicated that “women, people with less income, and older citizens are less welcoming of AI in various occupational roles.” Conversely, Huang added that “Men, minorities, and higher income groups are generally more open to AI replacing human jobs.”

Among the several professions examined in the survey, “the public was most inclined to see journalists replaced by AI compared to other professions,” said Katz. “To me, this suggests that people have reservations about the quality of human-based journalism in the current environment.”

The survey also asked about AI replacing certain religious occupations such as spiritual advisors and leaders of religious congregations. “AI is currently being adopted in various forms by religious congregations” noted Novozhilova. For instance, she said, “robot priests have been recently introduced in Germany, Japan, and Poland. As such, one avenue from which the decisions regarding the controversial employment of algorithms is coming from is religious ethics.” Added Huang, “The spiritual dimension is something we often think of as exclusively human. We wanted to see what the public would think when such a boundary is broken.”

The results revealed that, “Although people have some interest in having AI play a role in their religious lives, there was not a high degree of enthusiasm” explained Katz. Furthermore, observed Huang, “We were surprised to find that whether people were religious or not seemed to have nothing to do with their views on AI replacing religion-related jobs.”

Yet, the fact they found any interest at all suggests an under-explored dimension of technology in society. “It will be valuable to see if over time new generations begin to heavily seek spiritual guidance from AI entities” said Katz. “If so, this will be an historically unprecedented change in religious life.”

Letter from the Director: September 2022

Back-to-School!

Welcome to the Fall 2022 semester at COM’s Communication Research Center! As our fellows embark on another academic year, generating new knowledge through research and theory building, the CRC continues to facilitate these efforts to address society’s communication-related challenges.

Given Boston University’s commitment to involving students in research, the CRC will once again administer its SONA research participant pool facilitating fellows’ efforts to recruit students. The SONA pool gives students an opportunity to become involved with various research activities across COM while earning course credit for doing so. Instructors who are interested in including their courses in the Fall 2022 SONA pool should reach out to our Lab and Research Manager, Lindsy Goldberg at lindsyg@bu.edu.

Our fellows also have access to the CRC’s biometric technology which include devices for measuring heart rate, sweat levels in the skin, and eye movements. We have software for the experimental design, execution, and analysis of these psychophysiological measurements. Lindsy has been certified by iMotions on use of this technology and will be offering training workshops for interested students and faculty. For a quick primer on demystifying biometrics, you can read more here.

As a means to help fellows provide thought leadership, the CRC will be continuing its Media and Technology Survey. Monthly survey questions are administered by Ipsos, the market research company, using their eNation Omnibus, a nationally representative online survey that measures attitudes and opinions of 1,000 adults across the United States. We piloted the program in February 2022 on the topic of media trust. You can read the results here. If you have an idea for a topic for a future survey, please email me (mamazeen@bu.edu).

To engage our community, the CRC will be hosting numerous events this fall. Our Colloquium Series, which originated in 2009, consists of monthly research presentations that highlight current and original research of faculty in COM. We are pleased to announce our Fall Colloquium Speakers:

September – Dr. Patrice Oppliger (Thursday, September 22nd at 3:30 pm)
October – Dr. Charlotte Howell (Thursday, October 27th at 3:30pm)
November – Dr. Chris Chao Su (Friday, November 4th at 3:30pm)

Every semester, the CRC also invites a distinguished scholar from outside the university to share their outstanding scholarship, expertise, and experience with the BU community. In recognition of the pioneering and inspirational contributions of Dr. Melvin L. DeFleur to the field of mass communication research and his service as a venerable and inexhaustible member of COM, the faculty members of the CRC have named the DeFleur Distinguished Lecture Series in his honor. We are pleased to announce that our Fall 2022 DeFleur Distinguished Lecturer will be Dr. Sarah Banet-Weiser who will be joining us on Wednesday, October 19th at 4:00 pm. More details about all our speakers and their topics are forthcoming.

We are also pleased to announce that the CRC will be co-sponsoring a panel with COM’s Career Services on Careers in Communication Research (Thursday, October 13th at 5:00 pm). The panel will include COM alumni discussing their current research jobs and offering tips to students about how to enter the burgeoning field of communication research.

Finally, the CRC has some new faces we would like to welcome. We have four new faculty research fellows:

Dr. Nivea Cannali Bona, Lecturer, Media Science
Dr. Katy Coduto, Assistant Professor, Media Science
Dr. Pablo Miño, Assistant Professor, Public Relations
Dr. Emily Saidel, Lecturer, Television Studies

We also have 3 new PhD student fellows:

Nicole Hash
Dongpeng Huang
Yihan "Danny" Jia

Returning on our staff this year with Lindsy is Jenna Vigre (MS in Advertising) as well as a new staff member Rachel Schlesinger (MS in Media Science).

Whether you are new to the CRC or a returning member we wish you a productive and satisfying semester filled with opportunities for growth and new learning.

Letter from the Director: July 2022

Letter from the Director: July 2022

Demystifying Biometrics

As part of our mission, the Communication Research Center offers state-of-the art technology to facilitate our fellows’ ability to advance theory and methods in addressing society’s challenges. Some of this technology involves psychophysiological measurement and analysis tools. To help explain and demystify this technology, I’ve turned to the CRC’s Lab and Research Manager, Lindsy Goldberg.

Amazeen: "Biometric technology" sounds very avant-garde as does "psychophysiological measurements." How would you explain this technology in layperson's terminology?

Goldberg: I’ve found that the best way to explain these is to start by deconstructing and contextualizing the word “biometric”. When researchers choose to use these technologies, they’re looking to measure something biological in human subjects. In these particular cases, the bodily attributes we’re measuring are physiological in nature, which refers to a function of living organisms. Psychophysiology refers to the study of how physiological measurements that are collected via biometric devices (like heart rate, sweat levels in the skin, or eye movements) can explain psychological phenomena (Potter & Bolls, 2012).

This technology uses sensors to detect physical changes and movements in the human body. These sensors are able to detect a variety of different physical changes and these technologies are used widely across many academic disciplines. Here at the CRC we have sensors that measure skin conductance (SCL or electrodermal activity), eye movements both on and off screens, and brain waves (electroencephalography).

Biometric research has been occurring in the communication field since the latter half of the 20th century, mostly in media effects research or as part of a specific subfield known as media psychology, but this is changing. For decades, these biometric sensors were more invasive to participants and conducting experiments using this equipment required extensive training, monitoring, and in-person resources. It is very exciting to have these newer versions that are so much less invasive and user-friendly.

We are excited to be able to offer the devices, software for experimental design, execution, and analysis to researchers who are interested in using the technology.

Amazeen: Can you give examples of how these types of tools might be used (for what purposes) for media research?

Goldberg: In a media research context, these devices are most effectively used alongside self-report measures to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how a stimulus elicits a response in a participant.

These tools are most useful in situations where participants might be more likely to adjust their behavior based on what is expected of them or lie on a self-report instrument. Some potential examples of such situations might include but are certainly not limited to:

Assessment of opinions on political candidates based on their ads, sexual attraction to potential partners on dating apps, or stress responses to horror film scenes.

These tools, especially eye-tracking, are also gaining ground in fields such as UX/UI research and design. User eye movements and click behaviors on web pages and app layouts are becoming increasingly valuable.

Amazeen: Are there any cool studies you've seen published that have leveraged this technology?

Goldberg: While CRC fellows have not yet published any studies that leverage these technologies, here are some of my favorites from other institutions:

Ansani, A., Marini, M., D’Errico, F., & Poggi, I. (2020). How soundtracks shape what we see: Analyzing the influence of music on visual scenes through self-assessment, eye tracking, and pupillometry. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 2242.

Millet, B., Chattah, J., & Ahn, S. (2021). Soundtrack design: The impact of music on visual attention and affective responses. Applied ergonomics, 93, 103301.

Ohme, J., Maslowska, E., & Mothes, C. (2021). Mobile News Learning—Investigating Political Knowledge Gains in a Social Media Newsfeed with Mobile Eye Tracking. Political Communication, 1-19.

Amazeen: Can you tell us about the certification you have and what that allows you to do?

Goldberg: With my iMotions certification, I am able to assist researchers who are interested in using biometric devices. This involves support and training in the iMotions software, which is digital experimentation software that allows you to run an entire experiment from one computer, including self-report measures.

I have the capability and knowledge base to not just assist in the use of devices, but also to train researchers on how to use the software and hardware, including helping to identify which psychophysiological measures may be most useful. I can also support data handling, visualization, and export.

Finally, we are very fortunate to have a relationship with iMotions and their brilliant customer support team, who are all researchers themselves. If there is a question I cannot answer or a request beyond what I can support, we have external resources that can also help.

Amazeen: Relatedly, does the CRC have any plans for offering training workshops for those interested in using this equipment?

Goldberg: Yes! I am currently working with iMotions to determine a training program design that fits our students and faculty. This equipment and software does take time to learn and requires a fair amount of diligent effort to execute a high quality experiment, but we do have plans to offer training sessions. Stay tuned!

 

Source: Potter, R. F., & Bolls, P. (2012). Psychophysiological measurement and meaning: Cognitive and emotional processing of media. Routledge.

 

Letter from the Director: June 2022

With the summer season upon us, I am reminded that college professors are often the envy of our non-academic friends who think we “get the summer off.” In reality, many of our CRC fellows work just as hard – if not harder – during the summer. To be sure, the summer months may have fewer demands, allowing us more time for reflection, data analysis, and writing. At the same time, some fellows do teach during the summer months, and many of us travel so we can share our research and see what others are working on. For instance, several fellows recently attended the International Communication Association annual conference which was held in Paris, France from the 25-30th of May. You can see a list of fellows’ research presentations in the CRC’s Spring newsletter.

As a major research institution, we are committed to involving undergraduate and graduate students in scholarly research so that they may understand the importance of generating new knowledge at Boston University. We are fortunate at COM to have our communication research participation pool that is managed by an online system called SONA. This software allows researchers to post available research opportunities for students who can learn about the various studies and decide whether they want to sign up. To encourage participation in research, faculty can either require their students to earn a certain amount of research credits as part of their grade or offer extra credit to their students for participating.

In order to conduct research involving human subjects at COM, proposed studies must be approved by either BU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) or one of COM’s two internal review boards: the COM Research Review Board or the COM SONA Research Review Board. A description of when to use each of the review boards is available on the CRC’s website here. I would like to thank the faculty, staff, and grad students who volunteered their time over the last academic year by serving on these internal review boards: James Cummings, Michael Elasmar, Lindsy Goldberg, Lee Hair, Alexis Shore, Briana Trifiro, Chris Wells, and Denis Wu. These reviewers enable CRC fellows to collect research more quickly than the cumbersome and lengthy ¬ yet necessary – IRB process, while still abiding by the necessary standards. To maintain this research opportunity at the CRC, we will be looking for more volunteers this fall.

As we plan for the future of the CRC, two activities are in progress. First, all faculty and grad student fellows were invited to participate in our annual Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Survey. Data analysis is underway so that we can assess what is going well with the CRC and where we need to improve. Secondly, the CRC is planning to resume its monthly omnibus surveys with Ipsos in order to give fellows opportunities to survey US residents on timely topics of significance related to their research. This will foster opportunities for fellows to engage in newsworthy topics, enabling them to offer thought leadership while elevating public understanding on important issues. Results from our pilot survey are available here. Going forward, survey data will be made available on the CRC website (using your Kerberos password) for all CRC fellows.

To all affiliated with the CRC, I hope that the summer months offer you many sunny days with time to revitalize and refocus.

Letter from the Director: April 2022

The Dark Side of Comedy

When the Boston University Communication Research Center was first organized in the late 1950s, some of its earliest research involved the study of comics.

Fears were so great in the U.S. about the potential harms of comic books on youth that Congress created a subcommittee to study their effects on juvenile delinquency.

Unlike the comics in books, newspapers, and magazines, a separate type of comics – the stand up kind – emerged as a phenomenon of study. Encompassed by the field of “humor studies,” researchers examined the psychological and physiological effects of humor – positive or negative – on individuals or groups of people.

At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, audiences witnessed the dark side of comedy when Best Actor nominee Will Smith assaulted comedian and awards host Chris Rock on stage after he ad-libbed a joke about the hairstyle of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Given that CRC Fellow Dr. Patrice Oppliger is an Executive Board Member and Past President of the International Society for Humor Studies – and has even co-edited a book called The Dark Side of Stand-Up Comedy – it seemed fitting to get her perspective on how communication research can help us understand this media spectacle. Oppliger told me, “In putting together our book, we framed the contributions from academics and professional comedians focusing on the communication model components: sender (comedian’s background), message (type of jokes), channel (venues), and receiver (audience reception).” She explained,

These factors can also be used to analyze the “Oscar slap” heard ‘round the world on March 27, 2022. Issues of race and gender complicate matters as do the backgrounds of the players involved. Will Smith’s PTSD from not being able to protect his mother from his abusive father and Jada Pinkett Smith’s battle with an autoimmune condition and the loss of her hair culminated in Smith slapping Rock after he joked about her resemblance to the title character of the 1997 film G.I. Jane.

Talk radio and social media have been rife with mansplaining/whitesplaining about how the joke was harmless. There is perhaps more to the joke given the history of the actors involved. Years earlier, Rock made a disparaging remark about Jada’s #OscarsSoWhite boycott of the 2016 Oscars, joking that she had not been invited in the first place. Rock noted the 2022 joke was “a nice one.”

Aside from Netflix comedy specials, stand-up is generally performed in an intimate setting – in front of a live audience who have access to the performer. In The Dark Side of Stand-Up Comedy, we include stories of audience members attacking comics. Thus, assaults on stand-up comedians are not unprecedented. The juxtaposition of the Oscar slap highlights the difference between film comedy, where scripted lines go through several layers of editing, and the free-style stand-up stage (reports are that Rock improvised the line). There is also a tradition of roasting audience members at award shows. For example, earlier that night, Regina Hall made a humorous reference to Will and Jada’s open marriage. While her comment did not draw an assault from Smith, it may have primed his reaction.

Beyond the live audience (most of whom gave Smith a standing ovation after his Best Actor win), social media lit up with “Team Will,” “Team Chris,” and “Team Jada” tweets. The one-minute exchange presents fodder for academics and armchair analysts alike that will be debated for years to come.

Indeed, as evidenced from students in my CM180 “Understanding Media” class, their reception of the situation was decidedly mixed. We discussed the controversy on the day that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Smith would be barred from attending the awards ceremony for 10 years because of his “harmful behavior.” When eliciting feedback from students, they shared the following observations:

Student A: “10 years is too much. That’s a little extreme. 1 year would have been better.”

Student B: “On the one hand, 10 years is a long time. On the other hand, if we do not give the situation a proper punishment, those who observed the violence conducted by Will Smith will think that it’s okay to use violence to solve problems.”

Student C: “Will other actors be treated the exact same…like, is this the standard going forward?”

Student D: “I think there’s other people the Academy should also ban. There’s people in the Academy who have committed domestic violence –who have been prosecuted – and are still there.”

As clearly demonstrated by Smith’s reception of Rock’s joke – and the mixed reception of audiences wide and far to Smith’s response – humor studies and communication research can offer nuanced insights into the effects of humor on individuals and groups of people.

Letter from the Director: March 2022

Disinformation Warfare in Perpetuating World Tensions

The unfolding, grisly war in Ukraine has made clear that in 2022 – nearly a century after communication theorist Harold Lasswell’s dissertation on propaganda – battles take place not only with physical confrontations, but also continue via information warfare designed to win the hearts and minds of observers. Communication researchers play a special role in helping to understand this process.

In the first days of the Ukraine invasion near the end of February 2022, I heard a live interview on the BBC Newshour where host James Menendez interviewed a member of the Russian Federal Assembly, Vitaly Milonov. For four minutes – with minor pushback from Menendez – Milonov parroted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talking points, including that “the UK, European Union, and United States have provoked the invasion, that Ukraine's president lacks public support, and that Russia has valid rights to keep Ukraine under its influence.” This interview was followed by another with former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul who proceeded to tear into Menendez for airing “nonsense” from a Russian MP. McFaul asked,

…if it was September 1st, 1939, would you put on the air a member of the Nazi Party to try to explain this ridiculous, absolute falsification of history and information that we just heard from Mr. Milonov? Because this is complete, utter nonsense what he just said, and I’m wondering if we’re doing a service to the world by giving him a voice on the BBC?

Herein is another exemplary case where the gatekeeping and framing responsibilities of journalists is crucial amidst a tidal wave of propaganda. Adding to the complex decisions traditional journalists must make when reporting on wars is the ascendance and accessibility of social media platforms. Citizens are now able to help narrate the first draft of history, highlighting the heroism of everyday Ukrainians as they resist and fight back against the Russian military. Of course, the danger is that this digital front is also vulnerable to propaganda and outright disinformation campaigns to demoralize or deceive Ukrainians and the wider world.

To help make sense of this complex environment, I turned to two of the CRC’s Research Fellows with expertise in international communication.

According to H. Denis Wu, Professor of Communication, “International news about wars has been immensely critical to people’s surveillance of the state of the world because of the nature of the subject matter as well as the information about it.” He explained,

The news about wars is more impactful for people and inevitably riskier, harder, and more expensive for the media to deliver. The coverage of Ukraine so far reflects what communication researchers have long indicated: it shows what has happened as well as the emotions behind the stories. The news has covered not just the military activities and economic sanctions – which is extremely important – but also the bravery, resistance, and resilience of the Ukrainians who face an almost insurmountable enemy. The former category of news belongs to the first-level agenda while the latter is affect-based, thus second-level agenda. It is crucial in shaping the sentiment of audiences and their actions, as illustrated in Image and emotion in voter decisions: The affect agenda.

Of course, shaping perceptions of wars has a long history. Michael G. Elasmar, Associate Professor of communication provides some of this background:

Shortly after the end of World War II, the United States, under the auspices of UNESCO, launched a major research initiative for determining the conditions that affect international understanding, intergroup perceptions, and support for military conflict among nations. It was called the World Tensions Project. The overarching goal was to determine what can be done to preempt a repetition of the devastation witnessed during World War II. The initial World Tensions Project resulted in numerous studies that examined the role that communication and media play in contributing to how other countries and people living in those countries exist in our minds. It is worth noting here that, at that time, the field of communication science did not yet exist, and the study of media impact was scattered across sociology, psychology, education, and other classical disciplines. Interest in conducting this type of research waned and mostly disappeared after the 1960s when there was a growing belief that another world war was no longer a probable event.

I asked Elasmar what the knowledge gained from the original World Tensions Project tells us about the likely changes in the reaction of Americans over time to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He explained,

Studies conducted in the two decades following the launch of the World Tensions Project taught us that news and entertainment media play an important role in creating, reinforcing, and/or modifying the images of countries in our heads and these images can influence attitudes toward other countries and support for military action. And that pre-existing information about a country will determine which portions of the new information about this specific country the human brain will focus on and retain in its memory. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, surveys of Americans conducted in 2020 by the Pew Center for the People and the Press (PCPP) and by Gallup in early February of 2022 have consistently found an unfavorable opinion of Russia among a vast majority (70% and 85% respectively) of survey respondents. Between 2007 and 2020, PCPP found that favorable opinion of Russia among Americans had fallen by 25%. Gallup found that favorable opinion of Russia dropped from 51% in early February of 2012 to 15% in early February of 2022. These patterns show that the preexisting information about Russia’s government was already overwhelmingly negative prior to its invasion of Ukraine.

Applying what we learned from the World Tensions Project, we can predict that the images of atrocities and destruction stemming from the Ukraine invasion will strongly reinforce the pre-existing negative information about the Russian government held by Americans. One direct implication of this effect is that American consumers might shy away from traveling for leisure to Russia and/or consuming Russian-made goods and services for a long period after the Ukraine war no longer dominates international news. Another indirect implication is that the images of destruction and atrocities emerging out of Ukraine might interact with other negative factors prevailing in the minds of Americans in ways that no one could have predicted just a few weeks ago. The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, and the more its effects are felt in their daily lives (through price increases of everyday necessities, threats of cyberattacks, news about the potential of nuclear bombs by the Russian military, predictions of a recession etc.) the more likely will Americans demand for and support a direct military intervention to end what they perceive as a Russian threat to their safety and the safety of their families. Americans will want to hold the Russian government accountable for destroying a modern European country and committing atrocities against civilians, and to punish the Russian government for a war that is causing an impending economic recession and stifling American optimism about the end of the pandemic.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, our CRC Fellows continue to monitor the important role of mediated communication in forming, changing, and reinforcing perceptions of war, countries, governments, and people around the world.

Letter from the Director: February 2022

Following the Playbook of Our Earliest Broadcasters

The continuing concerns about the spread of misinformation are at the forefront of news again in early 2022, engulfing celebrities Joe Rogan and Whoopi Goldberg and their employers.

In Rogan’s case, accusations of Covid-19 vaccine misinformation have dogged his “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast that is on the Spotify streaming service platform. Recent reporting indicates Spotify has paid Rogan at least $200 million to exclusively license his podcast. After inviting Dr. Robert Malone on his show – an aggrieved infectious-disease researcher who claims to be the inventor of mRNA vaccine technology yet has spread baseless conspiracy theories about the vaccines – a coalition of over 250 public health officials, scientists, and academics wrote an open letter to Spotify calling for it to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform. This was followed by several artists, led by Neil Young, requesting the removal of their music catalogs from Spotify if Rogan’s podcast was allowed to continue. In response, Spotify agreed to add “content advisory” warnings to virus-related content and Rogan stated he will try to offer a better balance of expert perspectives going forward.

In the case of Whoopi Goldberg, a co-host of ABC-TV’s talk show The View, it was a discussion about a school district banning the Pulitzer-prize winning Maus – a graphic novel about the Holocaust – that landed Goldberg in trouble. She repeatedly claimed that the Holocaust was not based upon racial hatred because it involved “two white groups of people.” Although she later apologized and conceded she was misinformed about the Holocaust, she was suspended for two weeks by ABC.

Like many professors, I have been examining these controversies with students in my “Understanding Media” course. Not only are these cases instructive as examples of misinformation circulating beyond social media platforms, but they also serve as an entree to discuss limits of free expression and the gatekeeping obligations of private companies such as Spotify in contrast to broadcast networks, such as ABC (which is owned by The Walt Disney Company), and the stations that air ABC content.

To enrich our understanding of this last point, I turn to CRC Fellow Deborah L. Jaramillo who is an associate professor of film and television at COM. Based upon her expertise of the U.S. television industry’s historical attempts to censor its programs and regulate its business practices, she offered this perspective:

In 1950 a man wrote to television entertainer Arthur Godfrey, incensed at the risqué content in the previous week’s program. Godfrey’s “coarseness and vulgarity” had no place within earshot of the letter writer’s wife and daughter; indeed, the man demanded an apology from Godfrey, himself. This man was one of many who flooded networks, advertisers, stations, and government officials with complaints about this emerging medium called television. Struggles over content have only escalated since the first complaint letter reached the desks of government regulators, but U.S. media companies have clung rather successfully to a strategy employed since early radio and encouraged by the government, which cannot censor: self-regulation.

Many different stakeholders grappled with the perceived excesses of early television programming. Eager to keep the commercial system intact and alternative systems (like non-commercial and subscription TV) at bay, the National Association of Broadcasters, the networks, and advertisers drafted codes, standards, and editorial policies to manage programming. The 1952 Television Code, for example, propped up conservative values, policing content pertaining to religion, marriage, gender norms, and law enforcement. But it also prohibited content that demeaned people of different racial backgrounds, religions, and abilities. Stakeholders like the NAB wanted to ease TV into homes so that it complemented middle-class sensibilities and caused the least disruption to viewers’ spending habits. Although they seemed draconian and an affront to creative freedom, these self-regulatory maneuvers largely lacked teeth. For legal reasons, stations subscribed to the radio and TV codes voluntarily; violation of the codes could not trigger a license revocation. That was the FCC’s department. Nevertheless, self-regulatory efforts like industry codes and network censorship departments persisted. Simply put, they looked good. If a set of standards could convince the FCC and television reformers that broadcasting could be clean and serve the public interest—that broadcasters cared about viewers—then advertiser-supported television could become a normal part of household routines across the U.S.

As entertainment media have multiplied and platforms have proliferated, standards have relaxed, but they have not disappeared. From TV to streaming audio, media companies remain averse to government interference, and they still use these policies to convince the public and lawmakers that they are, at heart, ethical businesses that care about their audiences’ wellbeing—even if the material they harbor is out of step with social norms. That Spotify opted to release its content standards to the public in the wake of the Joe Rogan controversy demonstrates that public-facing codes are still believed to have currency, even if their efficacy is up for debate.

Content standards are not neutral; they uphold particular values and imagine particular audiences. Additionally, they are not and cannot be static; programs are cultural artifacts as much as they are industrial outputs, so they will always challenge efforts to contain them. Standards adapt to shifting norms and industrial circumstances, but they also bend according to the perceived value of talent, audiences, and media brands. High-profile creatives like Norman Lear and Steven Bochco were famous for negotiating with network censors to get boundary-pushing content on air. The cases of Joe Rogan at Spotify and Whoopi Goldberg at The View on ABC offer a set of circumstances decidedly different from Lear’s and Bochco’s, but they are emblematic of the tension between policing content and spurning high-performing talent. The swift, temporary suspension of Goldberg is unsurprising, given the reputation of network news, the historical relationship between news and the public interest, and broadcast stations’ proximity to government regulation. Spotify, by contrast, has no such history or proximity. It can more easily (but not without bad press) contort its standards to protect its earners, but it still follows the playbook of our earliest broadcasters. At the end of the day, neither the nearly 80-year old network nor the 16-year-old streaming platform opted to blow up their talent. We were instead treated to two versions of self-regulation that, when placed in historical context, demonstrate that legacy media and new media have more in common than we might think.

As self regulation continues to dominate in controlling U.S. media content, two cautionary tales are worth noting. Despite often lacking teeth, as Jaramillo writes, self regulation led to the deplatforming of Father Coughlin in 1940 from his long-running syndicated radio show. With his anti-Semitic proselytizing, Coughlin was considered “an enemy of democracy, a disciple of fascism, an advocate of violence, and a purveyor of racial hatred.” Out of fear of losing their broadcast licenses due to “purposeful untruths that debase radio as an instrument of racial or religious persecution,” the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) strengthened its Code of Ethics in 1939 prohibiting the sale of airtime for divisive political or religious commentary. Under threat from the Federal Communications Commission and concern about losing authority among member stations, the NAB proceeded with the messy task of pressuring stations – some of which were resistant – to voluntarily terminate their business relationships with Coughlin.

More recently was the deplatforming of the then-president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, from Twitter for violating its “Civic Integrity” policies by inciting violence related to the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. Other social media platforms followed Twitter’s lead.

In both cases, it was ultimately the apparent threats to democracy where media companies took the extreme measures of blowing up their talent. Will contemporary media companies such as Spotify continue to follow the broadcaster playbook? Our fellows will be watching and listening.

Letter from the Director: January 2022

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.

 

Letter from the Director: December 2021

As 2021 draws to a close, I asked some of our CRC Fellows to reflect on the last 12 months and share what was most noteworthy to them in the realm of communication research.

Two of our Fellows observed an increased emphasis on communication efforts for social change. For Assistant Professor of Public Relations Rosalynn Vasquez, who examines corporate sustainability and advocacy communications, she found the growth of social impact communications and the growth of JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) practice groups among PR agencies and in-house practitioners most interesting and something to keep an eye on. “There is a growing need for communication leaders to take the lead in defining and discussing diversity, equity, & inclusion in organizations,” she said. “Words matter and ensuring consistency and clarity will be crucial when communicating with internal and external stakeholders.” A similar observation was made by Assistant Professor Yi Grace Ji, who is a strategic communication researcher. While previously it was primarily health communication scholars that focused on communication for social good, over the last year Ji has noticed more advertising and public relations practitioners looking to see how they can align their programs with social change efforts. “Students are gravitating toward this, as well,” said Ji.

For Assistant Professor of Emerging Media Studies James Cummings, who studies media psychology and human-computer interaction, what was noteworthy was the increasingly mainstream discussion of virtual spaces and remote interactions. Most notable was the announcement of Meta, as a not just a corporate rebranding by Facebook, but a declaration by one of the world’s leading media firms that their vision of the near-term future is immersive virtual experiences. The envisioned scenarios in which our conventional “2D” media interactions  are integrated with VR and AR experiences poses all sorts of interesting considerations, both theoretical (in terms of classic approaches to studying message processing and effects, like excitation transfer, priming, and source attribution), as well as ethical (Meta is funding researchers to help them design a safe, inclusive, privacy-preserving “metaverse”).

For me, it was noteworthy that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners were journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitri Andreyevich Muratov for their efforts to defend freedom of speech and protect democracies from – as Ressa put it – the “toxic sludge” of misinformation. Ressa is co-founder of the Phillipine’s Rappler, a digital news organization that is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network. Indeed, my research has found that fact-checking may be understood as a democracy-building tool that emerges where democratic institutions are perceived to be weak or are under threat. That the Nobel Committee would bestow this prize upon those fighting misinformation shows that the importance of addressing the global infodemic continued in 2021 and will likely be a force for communication researchers to reckon with in the new year.