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University of Wisconsin–Madison


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.

SPEC/CIRCLE Research on Echo Chambers Presented at ICA

SPEC members Dhavan Shah, Jiyoun Suk, and Doug McLeod presented their work on how echo chambers on both the right and the left erode civic bonds at the 2018 International Communication Association meeting in Prague, May 24-28. They link this erosion of trust in institutions and groups to the rise of political polarization in American society, the proliferation of partisan media, and the emergence of digital media platforms that facilitate selectively curated news flows. The study employed a national panel study of millennials collected by CIRCLE at Tuft University in partnership with SPEC to explore the extent to which citizens who cultivate homogeneous information flows from news, social media, and interpersonal channels express lower levels of institutional legitimacy and social trust. Our analyses reveal that Democrats with ideologically homogeneous communication flows exhibited reduced institutional trust, but greater trust in dissimilar social groups, while Republicans with homogeneous communication flows indicated greater trust in police, but lower trust in news media and dissimilar social groups.