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University of Wisconsin–Madison


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 JCMC

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 research team made up of faculty and graduate students from four UW department, 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.  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

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.”

CCCP Wins Additional $272K in Grants from Hewlett, Thompson, and Journal

The Civic Culture and Contentious Politics (CCCP) was awarded a total of $272,000 in additional grants for their research on “Communication Ecologies, Political Contention, and the Crisis of Democracy” from the Hewlett Foundation, Journal Foundation, and the Thompson Center.  This is in addition to the $411,300 the team received from the UW2020 competition.  The additional grants will allow the research group to extend its work into the 2020 presidential election cycle.  Specifically, they will continue examining how polarization and fragmentation in the Wisconsin media ecology, as reflected in talk radio, local news, political advertising, and social media, contributed to the ideological and partisan polarization of Wisconsin citizens. UW SJMC professors Lew Friedland, Dhavan Shah, and Mike Wagner, are collaborating with UW colleagues Kathy Cramer in political science, Karl Rohe in statistics and Bill Sethares in electrical and computer engineering, as well as Chris Wells of Boston University, on this multi-investigator project. The grants are detailed below:

  • Hewlett Foundation in support of “Communication Ecologies, Political Contention, and the Crisis of Democracy,” Katherine Cramer (PI), Lewis Friedland, Karl Rohe, William Sethares, Dhavan Shah, Michael Wagner and Chris Wells, $100,000 w/ $50,000 match – 9/1/2018 – 8/30/2020.
  • Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership in support of “Leadership, Communication Ecologies, Political Contention and Democratic Renewal Across Four Issues in Wisconsin” Michael Wagner (PI), Katherine Cramer, Lewis Friedland, Karl Rohe, William Sethares, Dhavan Shah, and Chris Wells —$72,000 — 11/1/2018 – 10/31/2019.
  • The Damm Fund of the Journal Foundation in support of “Communication Ecologies, Political Contention, and the Crisis of Democracy,” Dhavan Shah (PI), Katherine Cramer, Lewis Friedland, Karl Rohe, William Sethares, Michael Wagner and Chris Wells, $50,000 – 12/1/2018 – 11/30/2021.

HITS Team Publishes on Health Disparities

Two journal articles from the HITS (Health Information Technology Studies) team, one published in Health Communication and the other in Health Education Research, tackle the role of information technologies in health disparities.

The Health Communication paper led by Juwon Hwang, “Health Information Sources, Perceived Vaccination Benefits, and Maintenance of Childhood Vaccination Schedules,” investigates the associations between evaluations of health information sources, parental perceptions of childhood vaccination benefits, and the maintenance of vaccination schedules for their children. Analyzing a sample of 4,174 parents who have at least one child under the age of 18, including 138 with a childhood autism diagnosis. The study finds social media are negatively associated with their perceptions of vaccination benefits compared with TV, magazines, and interpersonal talk.  The full citation is below:

  • Hwang, J., & Shah, D. V. (2018). Health Information Sources, Perceived Vaccination Benefits, and Maintenance of Childhood Vaccination Schedules. Health Communication, 1-10.

The paper led by Dami Ko, “Physical Activity in Persons with Diabetes: Its Relationship with Media Use for Health Information, Socioeconomic Status and Age,” analyzes national survey data of 770 persons with diabetes distinguished into either a low or high SES group. Results reveal television use was associated with increased physical activity levels, whereas Internet use was associated with decreased physical activity, especially in older, low SES persons with diabetes. The findings suggest media targeting strategies to provide PA-related information to low SES persons with diabetes. The full citation is below:

  • Ko, D., Myung, E., Moon, T. J., & Shah, D. V. (2019). Physical activity in persons with diabetes: its relationship with media use for health information, socioeconomic status and age. Health Education Research.

Cramer and Toff Win Major Awards

Katherine Cramer, MCRC Senior Fellow, and Benjamin Toff, former SMAD member, received the Heinz Eulau Award for the best article published in Perspectives on Politics in 2017 for “The Fact of Experience: Rethinking Political Knowledge and Civic Competence” (Perspectives on Politics 15(3): 754-770). The piece asserts that the emphasis on facts is misplaced in the study of political knowledge. Drawing upon three different projects involving observation of political talk and elite interviews, they observe that citizens and elites process political information through the lens of their personal experience. They propose an Expanded Model of Civic Competence that presents an alternative interpretation for what it means to be an informed citizen in a democracy. In this model, the competence of listening to and understanding the different lived experiences of others cannot be considered separately from levels of factual knowledge.

Benjamin Toff, who is now an Assistant Professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (since 2017) also received the 2018 E. E. Schattschneider Award for best dissertation in the field of American government and the 2017 Thomas E. Patterson Award for best dissertation, Political Communication section, both from the American Political Science Association .  His project, “The Blind Scorekeepers: Journalism, Polling, and the Battle to Define Public Opinion in American Politics,’ was advised by Katherine Cramer (chair), Barry Burden, Young Mie Kim, Dhavan Shah, Michael W. Wagner, and Charles Franklin.

HITS Team Publishes Computational Solutions to Addiction Crisis

Two new studies published by HITS (Health Information Technologies Studies) researchers, both led by Rachel Kornfield, offer computational health communication solutions to substance abuse.

The most recent study (available through Journal of Medical Internet Research) was based on an analysis of a mobile phone-based health intervention for individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorder. Human coders labeled discussion forum messages according to whether or not authors mentioned problems in their recovery process. Linguistic features of these messages were extracted via several computational techniques: (1) a Bag-of-Words approach, (2) the dictionary-based Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, and (3) a hybrid approach combining the most important features from both Bag-of-Words and Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. A boosted decision tree classifier, utilizing features from both Bag-of-Words and Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count performed best in identifying problems disclosed within the discussion forum, achieving 88% sensitivity and 82% specificity in a separate cohort of patients in recovery. This study demonstrates that differences in language use can distinguish messages disclosing recovery problems from other message types. Incorporating machine learning models based on language use allows real-time flagging of concerning content such that trained staff may engage more efficiently and focus their attention on time-sensitive issues.

This work builds on a previous study by Kornfield and colleagues (available through Health Communicationthat investigated whether language use within a peer-to-peer discussion forum could predict future relapse among individuals treated for AUD. A logistic regression model was built to predict the likelihood that individuals would engage in risky drinking within a year based on their language use, while controlling for baseline characteristics and rates of utilizing the mobile system. Results show that all baseline characteristics and system use factors explained just 13% of the variance in relapse, whereas a small number of linguistic cues, including swearing and cognitive mechanism words, accounted for an additional 32% of the total 45% of the variance in relapse explained by the model.

Both studies show that messages exchanged on AUD forums could provide an unobtrusive and cost-effective window into the future health outcomes of AUD sufferers, and their psychological underpinnings. As online communication expands, models that leverage user-submitted text toward predicting relapse will be increasingly scalable and actionable.

SMAD Russian Propaganda Research Wins Awards

The manuscript, “Zero Day Twitter: How Russians Propaganda Infiltrated the U.S. Hybrid Media System” received two awards at the 2018 Association in Education and Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference this August. The paper won the top paper award for the Political Communication Interest Group and was the third-place recipient of the entire conference’s inaugural Professional Relevance award.

The authors of the paper consist predominantly of graduate students in affiliation with the Social Media and Democracy and Computational Methods research groups. They are: Josephine Lukito, Jiyoun Suk, Yini Zhang, Larisa Doroshenko, Sang Jung Kim, Min-Hsin Su, YIping Xia, Deen Freelon, and Chris Wells.

In the study, the authors describe how journalists embedded tweets written by Russian trolls in news stories. Of the 55 news outlets they searched in, 50 included at least one story that embedded an IRA-tweet. Many of these tweets were embedded to reflect “public opinion” about salient political and social issues, such as race relations, LGBTQ issues and healthcare.

In addition to identifying an amplification cycle between social and news media, the authors also make several recommendations for professional journalists. One award judge noted, “This paper’s detailing of message amplification methods shows skillful understanding of the complexities of how news is collected and disseminated and the complications of the current media ecosystem. I especially appreciated the realistic recommendations for news outlets — providing real-world solutions to combat efforts to manipulate and infiltrate the media landscape.”

This work is a continuation of a narrower analysis, which was covered by Columbia Journalism Review this March.