PhD Projects @CCL

The PhD projects conducted at the Computational Communication Science Lab cover a broad range of methods and topics related to political communication. We here introduce the projects ongoing at the moment in the order of their starting dates and provide links for the related publications. Concluded PhD projects are listed here.

Ahrabhi Kathirgamalingam: Pushing the limits? Long-term dynamics of racist discursive patterns in mediated discourses

Shifts in public and mediated discourses towards the normalization of racist views are seen as common explanations for the growing success of right-wing populism and widespread racist attitudes and behaviors. While 2015, the year of increased migration movements, is often regarded as a turning point, literature from the 1990s identifies similar racist discourse patterns in media as more recent studies. A broader look at the last 30 years might provide valuable insights into the dynamics of racist discourse patterns and specific events that have shaped possible shifts. Therefore, this dissertation project seeks to provide an unprecedented long-term analysis of racist discourse patterns in different media contexts. By bridging the fields of communication science, political science, contemporary history, and corpus linguistics, this project does justice to the complexity of the subject of racism and ensures continuity of valuable theories and application of innovative methods. Firstly, an instrument to measure racist discourse patterns will be developed and validated. In subsequent studies, the measuring instrument will be employed and other methods of analysis to examine shifts in traditional press media, alternative media and political communication in social media. Findings will contribute to theoretical and methodological advancements of research on the discursive construction of racism. Furthermore, it is dedicated to shed light on the societal phenomenon of racist imaginaries and, thereby, is relevant for society and practice.

Start: Oktober 2021
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden
Funding/Project: stipend

Jana Bernhard: Multiple Voices In Democratic Discourse: Keeping Up With Professional Political Communication

This dissertation contributes to computational communication science by modeling public Austrian political communication over text types, time, and issues. The goal of my dissertation will be two-fold. The methodological goal of this dissertation is to contribute to automated text analysis and methods on natural language processing by using distributed vector representation of topics and adding to knowledge on cross-domain application. The theoretical goal is to advance our understanding of political communication, especially regarding issue ownership, agenda-setting, framing, and the possible influence of political communication inserts on news media (Paper 3). “In politics the lowering of cost of publishing and retrieving information has led to a massive increase of political information” (Jungherr et al., 2020, p. 22). The use of computational methods can help us keep up with this quantitative increase of content to analyze, thus connecting the two goals of this dissertation. Mapping political communication is a crucial first step towards understanding how it works, influences, and changes over time.

Start: April 2021
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden
Funding/Project: digitize!

Dominika Betakova: I Do Not (Want to) Know! Political News Use in Fragmented Media Environments

A phenomenon labelled “news avoidance” has recently started to draw academic attention due to a growing concern that public interest in news is on the decline. News avoidance is not only problematic from a normative point of view that highlights the importance of an informed citizenry for the functioning of democracy, but currently, not following the news could also have detrimental effects on public health. Despite the high relevance of the phenomenon, three main research gaps can be found in current literature: 1) conceptual ambiguity caused by inconsistent conceptualizations, 2) no conclusive form of measuring news avoidance and 3) unknown aspects triggering or explaining news avoidance and the universality of the phenomenon. To tackle these research gaps, the dissertation proposal plans to employ a multi-method design consisting of a cross-sectional online survey, a comparative factorial experiment, an automated content analysis and a laboratory experiment. In sum, the dissertation aims at contrasting news avoidance with established news use behaviors, exploring how different news avoidance measurements relate to each other and investigating the political, media and country-specific characteristics affecting news avoidance.

Start: January 2021
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden, Sophie Lecheler
Funding/Project: CCL, PolCom

Aytalina Kulichkina: The Dynamics of Political Protests in the Era of Social Media

Social media have been studied as an essential communication tool in numerous political protests worldwide. On the one hand, they have enabled previously unheard voices to form powerful dynamics capable of influencing decisions and bringing change at a societal level. On the other hand, they have empowered repressive regimes to disseminate propaganda and strengthen surveillance to suppress dissenting voices. Nevertheless, it is still unclear how exactly and to what extent social media activity at the micro level can influence the macro level dynamics of political protests, especially in authoritarian societies. The cumulative dissertation project aims to contribute to filling this gap by adopting four distinct approaches. First, a computer-assisted systematic literature review will be conducted to categorize and summarize the findings of existing quantitative peer-reviewed studies on the role of social media in political protests. Second, an observational study will examine content, patterns, and volume of social media communication in online behavior of pro-Navalny activists and pro-regime supporters in relation to participation in the current protest movement in Russia. Third, an agent-based modeling approach will be implemented to construct a model of street protests influenced by social media use applicable to authoritarian regimes. Finally, an empirical validation study will explore the relevance of the model to the street protest dynamics in Belarus and Russia and compare two modeled cases.

Start: September 2020
Supervisor(s): Annie Waldherr, Nicola Righetti
Funding/Project: CCL

Noelle Lebernegg: The Role of Media in the Misinformation Society

Following the 2016 US elections at the latest, scholars declared the “rise of the misinformation society,” referring to the increased dissemination of false and misleading information, which may come with tremendous dangers for democratic societies. With informed citizens being the fundamental cornerstone of representative democracies, efforts to come to blows with the spread of and belief in disinformation are crucial. While there is only limited research on the sources of disinformation, it is assumed that changing media environments, particularly the rise of the internet and by that yet unprecedented speed and reach of information dissemination, but also the coverage in mainstream media, play a key role in processes leading to misinformation. Subsequently, understanding the misinformation society requires an understanding of the role of media in this context. The cumulative dissertation project contributes to this line of research by addressing several gaps. First, using survey data from the Austrian Corona Panel Project, light shall be shed on the relationship between media use, media trust, and the belief in falsehoods. Secondly, the supply of false information in different digital, social, and traditional media will be studied employing automated content analytical methods. Lastly, the impact of characteristic disinformation content features on audience perception will be examined in a experimental design.

Start: March 2020
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden
Project/Funding: CCL, Knowledge Resistance: Knowledge, Consequences, and Cures

Alina Nikolaou: The Persuasive Effect of Immersive Virtual Environments on Attitudes

Over the past decades, the once scarcely available, pricey and massive Virtual Reality (VR) hardware became mainstream, suddenly affordable to a wide range of industries. With the high resolution and relatively inexpensive Head Mounted Displays eventually finding their way into regular households, a meteoric rise of global investment in VR unlocked a variety of groundbreaking research about how we feel, think and behave in virtual worlds. Amongst the central themes of scholarly interest lies the experience of presence, described as the feeling of “being there” in the immersive virtual environment. In order to enhance our understanding of the persuasive potential of presence and its subtypes on attitudes, this research project yields a cumulative dissertation. It comprises four papers in total, namely a meta-analysis of empirical studies published from 2000 to 2020 about attitudinal change in virtual immersive environments, as well as three experimental studies about the effect of a. self-presence, b. physical presence and c. social presence on the way we think about social matters.

Start: October 2019
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden, Sophie Lecheler
Project/Funding: uni:docs Fellowship for Doctoral Students of the University of Vienna

Maria Gruber: Exploring the role of perception in media-supported migration decision-making

Following the repeatedly expressed need for an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of media-supported migration, the cumulative dissertation aims at strengthening the connection between migration and communication theories. New media and ICTs (information and communication technologies) have profoundly reshaped migration processes, shaped the public discourse on migration, and soon found their way into the scholarly debate on contemporary migration. However, recent research focuses mainly on the specific role of media use during migration and the extent to which new media enable or even encourage migration in the first place. From a communication science perspective, the connections between media use and resulting perceptions which ultimately must be regarded as decisive for decisions and actions are largely overlooked in the study of current migration. Hence, the aim of the research is to examine the role of different means of communication during migration, irregular migrants’ use thereof, and to shed light on the role of perceptions that arise in this process. As migration must not be perceived as a one-time decision and action but as a process, the applied research design, which consists of qualitative interviews with irregular migrants at six different locations along migration routes (being conducted as part of the H2020 MIRROR project), is designed to meet this processual character.

Start: September 2019
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden
Funding/Project: MIRROR


Annika Schwabe: The influence of digital reading devices on fictional literature reading

Digital reading is spreading more and more and gains in importance in various settings. However, while the body of literature suggests that digital reading of informative texts is inferior to reading the text in a printed version, it is not clear what effect digitization of the reading medium has on reading fiction. Therefore, the aim of this dissertation is to investigate whether a digital reading device effects, due to different affordances and fewer possibilities for spatial orientation in the text, different dimensions of reading literature differently than a printed book, and whether there are interindividual differences in possible effects. To examine this topic, I will synthesize the existing body of literature in a systematic review and conduct meta-analyses. Further, I will run two different experiments with a between-subjects design where participants will read a fictional text either in a printed book or a digital reading device.

Start: June 2019
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden
Funding/Project: Books on Screen


Catherine Sotirakou: Artificial Intelligence & Journalism

Discovering which elements of a news story influence readers’ perceptions has been a cross-disciplinary research goal for the past years, because it can play a crucial role in news dissemination and consumption in the digital age. The objective of the thesis is to build a theoretical model that measures  the quality of online articles along with high-accuracy machine learning models able to predict the quality of a given article.

Catherine was a visiting PhD student at the Computational Communication Science Lab from August 2019 - July 2020.

Start: September 2016
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden, Costas Mourlas
Funding/Project: -