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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Computational Approaches and Message Effects Research Group

MCRC Faculty Leaders Win 2020 Fall Research Competition Grant

MCRC Faculty Leaders Chris Cascio, Communication, Brain and Behavior (CBB) Lab Faculty Leader, and Sijia Yang, Computational Approaches adn Message Effects Research (CAMER) Group Faculty Leader, are co-PIs on a new project, “Developing and Testing the Impacts of Cannabis Prevention Messages for At-Risk Young Adults”. They have received funding for their proposal submitted to the 2020 Fall Research Competition.

Abstract: The proliferation of legalizing recreational use of cannabis products, combined with shifted public perceptions and youth-appealing marketing has put young adults at high risk for cannabis use initiation and progression into disorder. Despite that early onset of regular cannabis use is associated with higher health risks and poorer educational and vocational attainment, young adults’ harm perceptions have been nevertheless declining. To improve knowledge and prevent early and habitual use, cannabis prevention messages (CPMs) are required to facilitate educational communication campaigns and enhance health warning labels on product packages and advertisements. However, little research exists to provide an empirical basis for designing effective CPMs for this age group. We propose a multi-method approach that combines the strengths of online conjoint experiment and neuroimaging to identify effective CPMs promising in improving knowledge and preventing cannabis use among young people.

New Fact-Checking Projects Focus on Combating COVID-19 Misinformation

UW student Megan Skoyen dispenses viral transport media for COVID-19 test kits that are being created at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab (WVDL) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on July 2, 2020. The WVDL is partnering with the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene, University Health Services, the School of Medicine and Public Health and others on campus to set up widespread COVID-19 testing for all students, faculty and staff in preparation to reopen the campus this fall. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

With information about COVID-19 rapidly circulating online, it can be difficult to determine what’s true and what’s not. Social media has made it even easier for misinformation and disinformation to spread unchecked. Knowing whether a claim or a source is reputable can be daunting, even for the savviest media consumers.

As the UW-Madison community of students, faculty and staff begin to plan their return to campus, having a verified and reliable source for information will be crucial to maintaining everyone’s health and safety. One such source is the COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect app.

Developed by a collaboration of campus groups, COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect is a free desktop and mobile app that provides accurate information, social support and helpful resources to Wisconsinites. One key feature of the app is the COVID-19 Fact Checker, a digest of information that separates COVID facts from fiction.

The information in the COVID-19 Fact Checker is provided by the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal (CCCR) within the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Communication experts from CCCR find questions and misinformation related to COVID-19 on social media in Wisconsin, and conduct fact-checks using vetted content from experts at leading health and government sources to correct the misinformation.

“We see it as an essential part of the Wisconsin Idea for students and faculty to work together to bring the best information about the pandemic to the people of our state,” said Michael Wagner, SJMC Professor and Director of the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal.

Fact-checks can be an effective way to both identify and correct misinformation about COVID-19. One group dedicated to this work, the International Fact-Checking Network’s (IFCN) CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, has been working diligently to catalog over 7,600 fact-checks about COVID-19 into the CoronaVirusFacts Database.

Recently, IFCN chose six new researchers to join the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance and receive access to the CoronaVirusFacts Database for their research projects. Two of the researchers selected are from UW SJMC: Assistant Professor Sijia Yang, faculty leader of the Mass Communication Research Center’s (MCRC) Computational Approaches and Message Effects Research (CAMER) Group, and graduate student Yiping Xia.

Yang’s project, “Identifying and Implementing Effective Visual Enhancements to Correct High-Priority COVID-19 Misinformation”, also received funding from IFCN. His project will examine how visual fact-checks, such as infographics or illustrations, can influence public understanding of COVID-19. Using the fact-checks from the database, the team will design a series of surveys and experiments to find which visual fact-checks are most effective at fighting COVID-19 misinformation. Additionally, he plans to use the findings from his research to add information to the Fact Checker within the COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect app.

SJMC graduate students Janice Li, Ran Tao and Communication Arts graduate student Liwei Shen are collaborating with Yang as student project leaders, with the input from SJMC professor Dhavan Shah and alum Porismita Borah, now an Associate Professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

“Many researchers around the world have already made impressive progress in tracking the rise and diffusion of various types of COVID-19 misinformation,” Yang said. “But not all misinformation is relevant for behaviors such as wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. Given limited resources and the severity of the pandemic, we need to focus on correcting misinformation that is most consequential for public health; we need to identify effective correction strategies to achieve that goal. Our project focuses on visual enhancements to corrections because visuals are often necessary to attract scant audience attention in today’s media environment and are potentially appealing to vulnerable populations with education deprivation or cognitive impairment. I hope the results from our project can inform our fact-checking efforts in CWC and provide evidence-based recommendations to the broader fact-checker community through our funder Poynter/IFCN.”

Xia’s project will look at how fact-checkers from around the world present fact-checks about the same information. By doing so, he hopes to understand diverse audience responses to similar misinformation in order to improve how fact-checkers communicate.

“I will work with SJMC Professor Lucas Graves to compare COVID-19 fact checks by organizations of different national backgrounds. We hope to understand how fact-checkers from different countries use different sources, or frame these sources differently, when writing about common themes of COVID-19 misinformation,” Xia said. “This research sheds light on the roles that cultural, political and institutional contexts may play in shaping effective responses to COVID-19 misinformation.”

The Wisconsin Idea in Action: MCRC Group Collaborates on COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect App

An embroidered W crest is pictured on a medical student’s white coat during floor rounds on the Neurocritical Intensive Care Unit at UW Hospital and Clinics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Aug. 18, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

The University of Wisconsin has a long tradition of quality education, strong community and dedicated service. These principles are all key to the Wisconsin Idea: that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

At the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, our faculty and students consistently and creatively exemplify the Wisconsin Idea in their classes, research, projects and more. Through collaboration within the department and with others throughout the University, SJMC is committed to having a positive impact in our community.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of more than 30 faculty, staff and students from a range of departments and organizations, including SJMC, came together to put the Wisconsin Idea into action. They created COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect, a free desktop and mobile app that provides accurate information, social support and helpful resources to Wisconsinites.

Funded by The Wisconsin Partnership Program through the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW-Madison, the app was built by adapting existing technology developed by the Center for Health Enhancement System Studies (CHESS).

“This takes the Wisconsin Idea to a whole new level,” said Dave Gustafson, Jr., CHESS project manager and IT director. “University, government and community organizations came together in a short period of time to make this happen.”

Returning briefly to a closed campus, undergraduate student Saikrishna Varadharajan (right) and his father Varadharajan Cancheepuram, both from Illinois, carry a large box as Saikrishna moves personal belongs out of his room in Dejope Residence Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during spring on May 2, 2020. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

The app features moderated discussion rooms, information on COVID-19 prevention and protection, coping techniques, and a resource center. Many app features are the result of collaborative partnerships, including audio meditations created by Healthy Minds Innovations, “All About COVID-19” health information from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the COVID-19 Fact Checker developed by the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal (CCCR) and the Computational Approaches and Message Effects Research Group (CAMER) within the Mass Communication Research Center (MCRC) in SJMC.

“Our team of faculty and students scour public Wisconsin social media conversations to determine which bits of potential misinformation are most prevalent in our state,” said Mike Wagner, SJMC Professor. “Then, we find reputable fact-checks that have been published on those topics and tailor them to our app and website so that Wisconsinites know what is true about COVID-19.”

To promote adoption of the app, SJMC faculty and students formed a virtual communications agency to coordinate a statewide marketing launch, which includes targeted outreach to groups at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults, and Black and Latino communities.

“This has been a real wild ride,” said Doug McLeod, SJMC Evjue Centennial Professor. “The students stepped up to the plate and made a huge impact on this project in just a few short weeks – all while attending their classes. It has been a real trial-by-fire experience.”

Getting the app into the hands of users is an ongoing effort. SJMC students and faculty on the communications team are designing public relations campaigns, social media messaging and influencer materials to boost awareness and engagement with the app, to put the Wisconsin Idea into action and directly benefit the communities that need it most.

“I have loved working virtually alongside my professors and peers,” said Allyson Konz, a junior studying journalism and graphic design. “It’s given me a sense of purpose and community in such an unpredictable time. Knowing that this will really help Wisconsinites makes all the hard work worth it.”

As the state of Wisconsin begins to reopen and the University of Wisconsin announces its plans for the fall semester, accurate information about COVID-19 is increasingly important. The COVID-19 Wisconsin Connect app is available for free on the web, the App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android.