Letters from the Director

Letter from the Director: November 2021

This letter is part of a monthly series from the Director of the CRC, Dr. Michelle Amazeen.

Facebook’s WALL-E Moment?

When Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta last month, the Disney-Pixar movie WALL-E (2008) was the first thing that came to my mind. The sci-fi movie was about a robot left on an uninhabitable Earth to clean up the garbage left behind by humans. Rampant consumerism and corporate greed had left Earth a wasteland, and humans were evacuated to outer space. In this same way, I envision Facebook abandoning the real world for the virtual “metaverse.” They leave behind unimaginable quantities of disinformation amplified by their algorithms along with harassment, hate speech, and angry partisans.

To move beyond my initial reaction and gain more insight into the implications of Facebook’s name change (and strategic plans) from a communication research perspective, however, I turned to two research fellows within COM’s Communication Research Center (CRC) who study emerging media.

Media psychologist and COM Assistant Professor of Emerging Media Studies James Cummings indicated that a Metaverse – if successful – would produce new issues in information processing and would place a new emphasis on theories of interpersonal communication rather than just mass communication. As I feared, he also said it has the potential to augment existing media effects of concern related to social networking such as misinformation, persuasion, "addiction," distraction, etc.

First, Cummings explained there would be major implications for how billions of people select, process, and are influenced by media content. To be successful, the Metaverse platforms will need to transform current modes of information processing and computer-mediated communication interactions into much more immersive, cognitively absorbing experiences. “For instance,” he said,

“The mainstreaming of consumer-facing immersive ‘virtual reality’ (VR) – which typically place high demands on users' processing – will be coming in an age of media multitasking. Interfaces will need to figure out how to immerse users while still permitting them to access different information streams. Similarly, mainstreaming ‘augmented reality’ (AR) experiences will also mean requiring users to skillfully juggle attentional demands, multitasking between virtual and real-world stimuli. These are common practices for hobbyists, but may present more of a learning curve for a broader population of users.”

Thus, Cummings suggests, if the Metaverse is the ecosystem of devices and experiences CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions, users will be switching back and forth between different types of immersive experiences and stimuli (reality, AR, VR, etc.). “This scenario, if brought to fruition, will be ripe for excitation transfer, priming, and other media effects based on sequential experiences” he said.

Second, Cummings expects that a successful Metaverse would mean exchanges with mediated stimuli that are much more like face-to-face or interpersonal interactions. “This will require designers to master key elements of media richness theory and factors influencing users’ sense of spatial and social presence,” he explained. In other words, social networking and other Metaverse activities may not only entail extractive information processing (in the form of reading text, examining pictures, watching video, etc.) but increasingly also immersive perceptual experiences (a sense of transportation and/or colocation, the processing of nonverbals, etc.).

Finally, Cummings indicates that immersive media are rife for a whole new breed of covert persuasion – such as “native advertising,” or ads that mimic their surroundings – to the extent that users confuse the perceptually plausible with the real. He’s particularly interested in seeing the impact of immersion on users’ perceptions of message authorship and authorial intent.

Indeed, back on Earth, native advertising has been widely adopted to covertly promote not only commercial products, but also political candidates. Candidates are increasingly relying upon “influencers” to post supportive messages on Facebook and other social media without consistently disclosing they are being paid to do so. As I have previously addressed here, if the regulatory agencies that oversee advertising – both commercial and political – have not been able to keep up with the digital transformation of our media ecosystem, how will they be able to regulate the Metaverse?

For COM Associate Professor of Emerging Media Studies Chris Wells, the promise and pitfalls of the Metaverse depend entirely on how Facebook rolls it out. For example, the radical network effects we see from social media rely to some degree on the extremely shortened forms of communication—short texts and short videos—that allow information scanning and selection on a very rapid scale. He indicates the pseudo-social presence of virtual reality would seem to reduce the number of people you can actually interact with. “How will the Metaverse be organized and who will you be able to interact with?” Wells asks. Are people going to have coffee virtually? Virtual meetings? He suggests that a site such as Second Life may offer rudimentary evidence of the kinds of interactions that emerge when people engage with strangers in a massive virtual world.

Presumably, Wells suggests, Facebook will still have to provide a great deal of content moderation in the Metaverse if people are to have any interactions outside tightly defined networks. “Given Facebook’s track record with their current platform,” Wells says, “this could well be an unmitigated disaster; but expecting this may lead them to tightly control who interacts with whom and in what ways.”

Second Life notwithstanding, Wells also questions who will actually want to engage in such a virtual space. “My read of the pandemic is that people don’t particularly want to keep sitting in their bedrooms and interacting through Zoom,” he said.

“Will wearing an Oculus headset make that a lot better? I’m not sure. But I also suspect that there are at least a lot of people for whom going to a virtual concert or playing virtual chess with a friend in the park are paltry substitutes for the real thing.”

He concedes that there are a lot of Millennials and Gen Zs who spend a lot of time in their bedrooms on video games, with digital avatars, and so forth. One possibility, says Wells, is that the Metaverse becomes a niche space for these sorts of folks.

As these Metaverse developments take shape, CRC fellows are well positioned to monitor these emerging media uses and perceptual effects. The CRC has multiple Oculus virtual reality headsets that can be paired with our psychophysiological measurement tools. For as technology takes us to new realms, we have a responsibility back on Earth to analyze and understand how humans are affected.

If you are interested in learning more about the CRC’s technologies or research, please contact Lab and Research Manager Lindsy Goldberg at crccom@bu.edu.

 

 

 

 

Letter from the Director: October 2021

This letter is part of a monthly series from the Director of the CRC, Dr. Michelle Amazeen

A Message from the CRC Director, Dr. Michelle Amazeen

In June of 1945, the deliverymen of eight major New York City newspapers went on strike for over two weeks, effectively depriving residents of reading the newspaper. Chronicled in Bernard Berelson’s 1949 study, “What Missing the Newspaper Means,” it is an exemplar of the Uses and Gratifications approach to the study of media. On Monday, October 4, 2021, the world had a chance to see what missing Facebook (and its subsidiary platforms) means. While initial thoughts of Facebook platforms might bring to mind posts such as cat videos or birthday messages, the platform is used for serious purposes as well. For instance, Dr. Dana Janbek notes in her research that refugees rely heavily on communication technologies – such as WhatsApp – to navigate displacement. Their phones act as a lifeline during their migration as they seek out escape routes and safe haven. In these cases, missing social media can imperil lives.

Indeed, the promise and perils of social media are considered by many of our CRC research fellows. For instance, as it relates to public relations, Dr. Yi Grace Ji offers guidance to non-profits on what makes their social media posts most effective in driving behavioral intent. Dr. Arunima Krishna has studied how the use of Twitter affects public intentions for corporate buycotts or boycotts. With respect to cable news, Dr. Deborah Jaramillo has examined how the use of Twitter allows politicians to control their message and reach wider audiences. Drs. Denis Wu and Michael Elasmar have also studied Twitter to determine which countries are mentioned the most and why. Regarding the Chinese equivalent to Twitter – Weibo – Dr. Chris Chao Su has examined the extent to which nationalist discourse is transferred between authorities and the public. Dr. Mina Tsay-Vogel has examined how Facebook’s use affects privacy perceptions and self-disclosure behaviors.

The Facebook outage came on the heels of revelations, from whistle blower Frances Haugen, that the social media giant has been placing profits over public safety. As she shared with The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, Facebook knows its Instagram platform negatively affects many teen girls by worsening their body-image issues. According to Haugen, Facebook executives also know their own platform contributed to the misinformation epidemic, with their tools being used to sow doubt about the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic and the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines. Facebook also disbanded its civic misinformation team which Haugen argues led to the January 6th riot. (Full disclosure: During November 2020, Facebook had recruited me to join their “civic integrity team.”)

Interestingly, earlier in 2020, Facebook was paying for sponsored content – ads that look like news articles – to tout its election integrity efforts with titles such as, “How Facebook is helping to ensure the integrity of the 2020 Election.”

 

However, the content was not initially labeled as being paid for, as required by the Federal Trade Commission, and it also was promoted on Facebook by Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, as genuine journalism, which is also a violation of FTC stipulations. This lack of labeling is an example of the misuse of sponsored content I spoke about here, and it serves to reinforce Haugen’s account of dubious tactics employed by Facebook.

Beyond these damning disclosures by the whistle blower, we also know that the emergence of social media has had significant impacts on the contemporary journalism industry. Most devastating has been the way digital companies—particularly Facebook, Google, and Amazon—have siphoned off advertising dollars that once helped fund news organizations. But the growth of social media has also affected the relationship between journalism and truth as Drs. James E. Katz and Kate K. Mays confront in their edited book. Also troubling is the revelation in Dr. Chris Wells’ recent publication that mainstream and hyperpartisan media actually helped the Internet Research Agency (IRA) – an online influence group benefitting Russian interests – in building its Twitter followers by embedding IRA tweets in their news coverage.

As journalism has become increasingly dependent on, and intertwined with, social media, local journalism, in particular, has suffered. But as we learned from Chartbeat the last time Facebook went down (albeit for a much shorter period of time), when the digital giant is inaccessible people are more likely to access news sites directly. With the aim of restoring our trust in news, Dr. Lei Guo is working on examining the life cycle of local journalism with an award from the National Science Foundation. The study will incorporate an analysis of how local news stories evolve through different media platforms, including social media.

Of course, things have changed in media over the past 75 years. Today, especially given the even greater reliance on digital platforms during the pandemic, the uses and effects of media remain far reaching and complex—and more important than ever. Understanding how we use media, and how media shape both our individual lives and our national and international conversations is both the scholarly mission as well as the personal passion of our CRC fellows. Tune in for more research updates in future posts.

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Letter from the Director: August 2021

Dr. Michelle Amazeen, CRC Director

This letter is part of a monthly series from the Director of the CRC, Dr. Michelle Amazeen

August 2021

As the new CRC Director, I am humbled and honored to be stepping into the role formerly held by co-Directors Dr. Mina Tsay-Vogel and Dr. James Cummings and prior to them, Dr. Michael Elasmar. Today, with people more dependent upon media than ever before, the importance of studying mediated communication has intensified. The world is fighting a viral pandemic, political extremism and polarization are on the rise, and new technologies and platforms are emerging at an unprecedented rate. This is all happening against what the World Health Organization has declared an infodemic – “deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals.” The United States’ Surgeon General has issued a similar advisory, warning against misinformation.

After 18 months of a pandemic-driven hiatus, the CRC is rebooting and ready to provide our fellows with access to the latest biometric technology, social media listening tools, statistical software, and state-of-the art facilities. Lindsy Goldberg  joins us as our new Lab and Research Manager, helping to coordinate our lecture events, administer workshops, and provide other activities for our fellows – some of which may also be of interest to journalists, policy makers, and other visitors – as well as assist with facility and equipment rental inquiries.

First established in 1959 with Dr. Edward J. Robinson at the helm, early CRC research focused on the effects of television and comics. These were common areas of study in the growing field of mass communication research as there was great concern in the U.S. with what these new media (of the day) were doing to our youth and how these media were gratifying the needs of audiences. CRC fellows still produce research on television – in the effects tradition as well as from political economic perspectives and alternate paradigms – and on comics (the stand-up kind). But we also address emerging media technologies while identifying opportunities to improve civic engagement, media literacy, and prosocial uses of and representations in media. And given the current state of affairs, many of our fellows are also researching varying aspects of truth and misinformation.

As a new academic year begins, I welcome back our fellows as they continue to embark upon advancing theory and methods in addressing society’s communication challenges. For visitors, I invite you to look to the work of our CRC fellows for informative insights on battling misinformation and other efforts to conduct communication research for social good.

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