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University of Wisconsin–Madison


Room 5013 Vilas Hall rededicated as Jack McLeod Seminar Room

Jack McLeod, Maier-Bascom Professor Emeritus and longtime director of the Mass Communication Research Center, was honored with the rededication of Room 5013 of Vilas Hall as the Jack M. McLeod Roundtable Seminar Room. Professor McLeod has been a mentor to many luminaries and leaders in communication research and education, while at the same time making fundamental contributions to political communication, public opinion, media psychology, and mass communication research, and, of course, research methods. McLeod has a 38-year career in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, after joining the UW faculty in 1962. He shaped the School of Journalism and Mass Communication into a research and doctoral training powerhouse. During his time in the SJMC, he served as director of the Mass Communications Research Center (MCRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 34 years and advised more than 70 Ph.D. students. He received, among many honors, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Deutschmann Award for a distinguished research career and selection as an ICA Fellow.

Rojas Publishes in Nature Human Behaviour on “Taming the Digital Information Tide”

Sebastián Valenzuela, Associate Professor in the School of Communications, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and Hernando Rojas, Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published their commentary piece, “Taming the Digital Information Tide to Promote Equality,” in the August 2019 issue of Nature Human Behaviour.  They argue that Interactive technologies are changing the ways we learn facts, develop attitudes and participate in politics, with the ensuing risk of increasing pre-existing inequalities. Addressing this challenge is the duty of researchers, technology companies, governments, and news organizations. They write, “political stratification is a structural problem with many causes. Solving it necessarily demands a structural approach. This is certainly more challenging to achieve than individual-level prescriptions. Nevertheless, social media challenges require social solutions. Researchers, technology companies, governments, and news organizations need to find ways to harness the power of citizens as distributors and producers of information in their responses. Adopting a structural approach to tackle the democratic threats of social media should bring us closer to having more egalitarian democracies.”  The piece can be found via this link

SMAD Team Published on #MeToo Movement in Social Science Computer Review

Researchers in the Social Media and Democracy (SMAD) group published their paper, “#MeToo, Networked Acknowledgment, and Connective Action: How Empowerment Through Empathy Launched a Social Movement,” in Social Science Computer Review. The study, led by doctoral candidate Jiyoun Suk, focuses on how sharing #MeToo experiences on Twitter created “a network of acknowledgment” that drove “calls for action” across a range of spaces.

Employing natural language processing and network analysis, the SMAD team analyzed 5-months of Twitter posts following the Weinstein accusations. The research finds that the story sharing and affirmation of “networked acknowledgment” tweets waned over time but “activism” tweets remained relatively robust and even grew over the first few months.

Ordinary users were among the most widely retweeted “networked acknowledgment” accounts. Their prominence demonstrates the grassroots nature of a movement centered on sharing personal narratives and expressing solidarity. For the “activism” discourse, celebrities and media accounts made up a majority of the most retweeted accounts, suggesting elite-driven mobilizing efforts, some directed against politicians facing sexual assault allegations.

Results reveal how major accusations and media events drove these discourses. Time series analysis found (1) these factors didn’t shape “networked acknowledgment” but (2) accusations against politicians did drive “activism.” More important, “networked acknowledgment” discourse drove “activism” discourse, testifying to the potential of personal story sharing to support organizing efforts. The personal became political, with calls to action spurred by the network of support. The team is expanding the project to look at the global spread of #MeToo and the prior hashtag activism that laid the groundwork for it.

Knight Gives $1.0 Million for Center for Communication and Civic Renewal

Researchers in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been awarded a $1 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal. Professors Lew Friedland, Dhavan Shah and Mike Wagner, along with collaborators in the Department of Political Science (Katherine Cramer), Department of Statistics (Karl Rohe), the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (William Sethares), and Boston University (Chris Wells) are co-principal investigators on the project.

The research team seeks to understand the state of politics and communication in Wisconsin over the last decade using ongoing public opinion research, computational content analysis of media, and qualitative fieldwork and interviews of citizens and elites. The center will conduct comparative public opinion research in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina to further an understanding of ways Wisconsin is similar and different from other battleground states.

“Understanding how we move beyond polarized politics and toward civic renewal is a large-scale effort that required detailed and extended study of the communication ecology and its social consequences using a range of approaches,” said Shah, who will lead the computational efforts. “Without support from the Knight Foundation, this kind of multi-year, multi-method project would be impossible. But it is only through this kind of holistic research that we can start to understand how to heal our fractured political culture.”

Wagner, who has written prolifically about workings of American democratic institutions and processes, said by studying how the news and conversations on social media influence attitudes and political behavior and knowledge, the center seeks an understanding of how Wisconsin politics became so contentious.

“We want to understand what we can do to help ease that polarization and encourage more productive political processes in the legislature and between citizens across lines of political difference. The fracturing in Wisconsin is a problem because democracy requires cooperation and compromise across lines of political difference,” Wagner said.

In addition to survey research, the grant will fund five graduate student project assistants, help hold conferences that will bring in scholars and practitioners every other year, establish a partnership with local media to work on styles of news coverage and practices that are most likely to improve citizens’ feelings of respect across the political aisle. The grant will help to fund the center through the 2024 election, which will include two presidential election cycles and one Wisconsin governor’s race.

A group of 12 former and current graduate students has worked on the project over the past several years which until recently was unfunded. One of those students is Josephine Lukito, whose dissertation focuses on news coverage of U.S.-China economic relations.

“The training and collaborative opportunities for students in our department are second to none. This grant gives us a chance to push our integration of computational content analysis and time-series analysis forward in innovative ways that can shed important light on contentious politics,” Lukito said.

Friedland pointed to the scope of the qualitative components of the project, saying, “We continue to build on our co-investigator Kathy Cramer’s pathbreaking work. With our outstanding graduate students, we have conducted hundreds of interviews with Wisconsinites from every corner of the state, integrating the substance of these conversations with data we have gathered on counties’ economic, health and education outcomes and our own public opinion surveys. These interviews provide much needed depth and context to what we are finding with our other analytic strategies.”

The UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication is a top choice for prospective graduate students interested in conducting political communication and civic engagement research and interdisciplinary mass communication research. The funding will further serve as a recruiting tool to attract top students interested in those disciplines.

Knight Foundation invests in the arts and journalism with a goal in fostering informed and engaged communications that are essential for a healthy democracy.

Shah and Curtin Win $3.4 Million NIH Grant to Support Opioid Recovery

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin—Madison have received a $3.42 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a mobile phone-based app to prevent opioid relapse among those trying to recover.

The project builds on the prior work that Dhavan Shah, Louis A. & Mary E. Maier-Bascom Professor in UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and John Curtin, director of clinical training in Department of Psychology, have done detecting and predicting relapse.

The broad goals of this project are to develop and deliver models to forecast the day-by-day probability of opioid and other drug use among people trying to abstain from drugs while in recovery. This lapse risk prediction model will generated using the Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (A-CHESS) mobile app, a tool developed by researchers in the UW’s Center for Health Enhancement System Studies.

The study will focus on about 500 participants who are abstaining from drug use while in recovery. The study will follow 12 months of their recovery, with observations occurring as early as one-week post-abstinence and as late as 18 months post-abstinence across participants in the sample.

“Relapse can happen early in recovery for alcohol and substance use disorders, but it can also happen months, and even years, after someone quits,” Curtin says. “One of the biggest challenges that people with alcohol and substance use disorders have is to continually monitor their recovery and look out for risks for relapse, essentially for the rest of their lives.”

While relapse often seems to come out of the blue from the perspective of the participant, Shah says, hindsight often yields indicators that the individual was a risk. The clues can come from what they post, who they talk with, and the places they frequent.

“Over the past five years, we have been working to use emerging mobile sensing capabilities from smartphones and wearable sensors to build models that can predict, in real-time, the likelihood that someone will lapse back to drug use,” Shah says. Working with his students, he recently published two articles predicting the risk of relapse based solely on the language that participants used while engaging with the A-CHESS system.

Curtin’s lab is about to complete a first project that has followed people with alcohol use disorder for the first 3 months of their sobriety and can predict with better than 80 percent accuracy whether they will use alcohol on any given day. Using cell phone communications, including voice calls and texts, and GPS data to establish locations where individuals have used alcohol in the past, the researchers can monitor signals about the integrity of an individual’s recovery and abstinence.

“More importantly, we can do this with almost complete passiveness, with no burden placed on the individual,” Curtin says.

Populism Conference Website Launched with Presentation Videos

The website featuring the collection of presentations and reflections on communication and populism from our “Communication, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy” conference is now available (link to website).  In Spring 2018, the Civic Culture and Contention Politics Group, with support from the UW’s Center for European Studies, hosted an international symposium and workshop exploring how democracies across Europe and the Americas are responding to the rise of populism and its roots in communication. Speakers considered how growing polarization and fragmentation in the media ecology, as reflected in partisan media, broadcast content, political advertising and social media, has contributed to ideological and partisan political divides. This included keynote presentations from Lance Bennett and Pippa Norris, and talks from Julia Azari, Sheri Berman, Sven Engesser, Frank Esser, Karolina Koc Michalska, Daniel Kreiss, Jorg Matthes, Deb Roy, Talia Jomini Stroud, Silvio Waisbord, and UW faculty Kathy Cramer, Lew Friedland, Dhavan Shah, Mike Wagner, and Chris Wells. The conference website highlights how insights from the events were folded into our larger project on Wisconsin’s communication ecology and the politics of contention.  This project has since secured over $800,000 to study political communication in Wisconsin during the 2018, 2020, and 2022 election cycles.

SMAD Team Publishes “Whose Lives Matter?” in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication

Researchers in the Social Media and Democracy (SMAD) group had their paper, “Whose Lives Matter? Mass Shootings and Social Media Discourses of Sympathy and Policy, 2012-2014,” published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, the highest ranked journal in the field of communications. The study, led by doctoral candidate Yini Zhang, focuses on the outpouring of sympathy in response to mass shootings and the subsequent contestation over gun policy on Twitter from 2012 to 2014 and relates these discourses to features of mass shooting events. The authors use two approaches to Twitter text analysis— hashtag grouping and machine learning—to triangulate an understanding of intensity and duration of “thoughts and prayers,” gun control, and gun rights discourses. Using these data, the authors conducted parallel time series analyses to predict their temporal patterns in response to specific features of mass shootings. Their analyses revealed that while the total number of victims and child deaths consistently predicted public grieving and calls for gun control, public shootings consistently predicted the defense of gun rights. Further, the race of victims and perpetrators affected the levels of public mourning and policy debates, with the loss of black lives and the violence inflicted by white shooters generating less sympathy or policy discourses.

These findings have implications for debates over gun policy. Following the spate of deadly mass shootings in the US in early August, Zhang appeared on Wisconsin Public Television’s Here and Now. She offered insights from this study regarding public response on Twitter after mass shootings, which she explained might contribute to the gun policy impasse. As gun rights discourse on social media persisted more than gun control discourse, and sympathy discourse had an ephemeral life, the signal sent to both journalists and politicians may be that the passion of gun rights supporters merits more attention and action than short-lived appeals for gun control.  The team is conducting follow up studies to examine these and other questions.

The research team made up of faculty and graduate students from four UW departments. In addition to Yini Zhang, the other authors on the project include Dhavan Shah, Jordan Foley, Aman Abhishek, Josephine Lukito, Jiyoun Suk, Sang Jung Kim, Zhongkai Sun, Jon Pevehouse, and Christine Garlough. The articles can be downloaded here.

The articles can be downloaded here

CCCP Answers “What Makes Wisconsin Swing?”

What makes Wisconsin a Swing State, and what causes it to swing to the right or the left? Mike Wagner, Jiyoun Suk, and others working as part of the Civic Culture and Contentious Politics (CCCP) team distill research from 2012 to 2018 to understand how heterogeneous communication flows can open people to candidates from other parties, softening attitudes toward candidates from opposing parties and drive split ticket voting. First using data from several 2012 Marquette Law School Polls, these researchers found that the Wisconsinites who talked more with family and friends — which tend to be more politically homogeneous groups — also expressed more polarized attitudes about Barack Obama, Scott Walker, the Tea Party, and public labor unions. In contrast, those who talked about politics with coworkers, showed less polarization in their evaluations.  Next using data from the 2018 midterm election, they find that those with the most diverse media diets are as likely to split their ticket as not, even when controlling for their partisanship. Those whose media use looks more like an ideological echo chamber almost never split their tickets.  The full story can be found at on

CCCP Publishes Op-Ed on Public Support for Nonpartisan Redistricting

Members of the Civic Culture and Contentious Politics research team published an op-ed about how Wisconsinites of both parties want nonpartisan redistricting. As the piece notes, “Legislative redistricting is one of the most important — and most contentious — issues in Wisconsin. Voters and democratic theorists alike are uncomfortable with the idea that lawmakers can choose their own voters in increasingly precise ways.”

Our research team asked 1,015 Wisconsinites who they thought should control redistricting in our state: the state Legislature or an independent, nonpartisan commission. Fifty-three percent of adults said they preferred the nonpartisan commission while only 13 percent favored the idea of state lawmakers controlling the process themselves. The remaining third said they did not know what was best.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the current district maps benefit the Republican Party, 63 percent of Wisconsin Democrats want a nonpartisan commission to take over the drawing of representational lines. Fifty-six percent of independents side with Democrats while 39 percent of Republicans want to see a change to nonpartisan redistricting.

However, only 22 percent of Republicans want to keep things as they are, as compared to just 6 percent of independents and 9 percent of Democrats.

The full piece was published in the Capital Times and can be found at this link.

SMAD Studies Trump’s Populist Debate Style and How it Shaped Twitter Response

A new study by Social Media and Democracy group researchers (link to submission) examines how Trump’s populist communication style, as manifest in his rhetorical and non-verbal approach to Presidential debates, drove reactions on social media. Using detailed verbal, tonal, and visual coding of the first U.S. presidential debate of 2016 between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to show how Trump’s transgressive style — i.e., violating normative boundaries, particularly those related to protocol and politeness, and openly displaying anger — can be operationalized from a communication standpoint and related to the “real-time” Twitter responses during the debate.  Our findings support the view that Trump’s norm-violating transgressive style, a type of populist political performance, resonated with viewers of the debate who reaction via “second screening.”