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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Center for Communication and Civic Renewal

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.

CCCR publishes new article, “Do Improving Conditions Harden Partisan Preferences? Lived Experiences, Imagined Communities, and Polarized Evaluations”

The Center for Communication and Civic Renewal (CCCR) has a new article published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research titled “Do Improving Conditions Harden Partisan Preferences? Lived Experiences, Imagined Communities, and Polarized Evaluations”. The article was published in January 2020. Continue reading

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

UW “Contentious Politics” Group Lands $411K Grant to Study Communication and Democratic Crises in Wisconsin

University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication scholars were rewarded in April for their cutting-edge research examining how the growing 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, Mike Wagner, and Chris Wells are collaborating with Kathy Cramer in political science, Karl Rohe in statistics and Bill Sethares in electrical and computer engineering on the $411,000 project. The team was funded by the UW2020: WARF Discovery Initiative competition for their research project “Communication Ecologies, Political Contention and Democratic Crisis.”

The Civic Culture and Contentious Politics group has been working on issues relating to contentious politics and communication in democratic life for a number of years. In 2017, the group published their most recent major article from the project in their discipline’s top journal.

Integrating survey data with focus group data of citizen conversation, “When We Stop Talking Politics: The Maintenance and Closing of Conversation in Contentious Times” was featured in the Journal of Communication and news coverage across the state.

The article followed up on the theoretical grounding published in the 2014 The Good Society article, “Cultural Worldviews and Contentious Politics: Evaluative Asymmetry in High-Information Environments.”

In 2018, the group hosted a major conference, “Communication, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy,” featuring presentations from the UW group and scholars from across the U.S. and Europe. They will present the next iterations of the project at the Global Media Studies Network ICA preconference on Global Populism at Central European University, Budapest and the 2018 International Communication Association conference in Prague in May.

The UW2020 grant and assorted funding from the PIs also employs a small army of UW SJMC graduate student project assistants and collaborators, including Aman Abishek, Jordan Foley, Ceri Hughes, Josephine Lukito, Meredith Metzler, Jiyoun Suk, Zhongkai Sun and Jeff Tischauser. The UW2020 initiative stimulates high-impact, groundbreaking research – the UW Civic Culture and Contentious Politics group project was chosen to receive funding from over 100 campus-wide proposals.