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 can be accessed via this link.

Blerta Blakaj: Media Effects on Emigration Aspirations in Transitional Societies: An Analysis with Special Reference to Television and Social Media in Kosova

This dissertation explores the influence of media content, specifically television news programs and social media images, on individuals' migration aspirations. The role of media in emigration has been understudied, and this research aims to address that gap by examining the relationship between media content, media exposure, and attitudes toward emigration. The study focuses on Kosova as a case study due to its unique characteristics, including its visa policy, migration history, internet usage, and media landscape. Using the CoMiD model (Gruber et al., 2020), a linkage approach, and ESM data, the research investigates how negative news about the country of origin and positive images of life abroad interact to shape emigration aspirations. Furthermore, the study explores how attitudes toward emigration may change after visa liberalization, potentially reducing the media effect. By filling the research gap on the impact of media on emigration, this research contributes to understanding the role of media in migration decisions. It also has implications for developing strategies for migration, promoting democratic development, and empowering societies through targeted media literacy and good governance interventions.

Start: March 2023
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden

Marvin Stecker: The Mobilisation of Culture - Automated Methods to Investigate Collective Identities in Political Communication

The dissertation investigates the sources and evolution of collective identities in political communication in democracies. It follows two primary research objectives: the investigation and validation of automated text analysis methods to measure group appeals in political communication, and, subsequently, their application to investigate the longitudinal salience, effects, and predictors of collective identity construction in political discourse. I look at collective identities as a binding glue between the demand and supply side of political change: they are rooted in citizens' perceptions and interpretation of structural and economic forces in their daily life, but their political potential is only realised through the activation and mobilisation by political elites. The dissertation will first compare different methods in their application, accuracy, and validity for the automated detection of group appeals in political texts. After this, the dissertation looks at the political elites themselves and their role in constructing collective identities and associations with political parties. The last study will consider the role of intermediaries, namely journalists, in the allocation of social groups to political parties.

Start: Oktober 2022
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden, Fabienne Lind 
Funding/Project: OPTED, AuthLIB

Apeksha Shetty: Digital Dissemination of Misinformation — How Social Identity Interventions Can Help

Misinformation is a major societal challenge that can undermine trust in democratic institutions and even contribute to real-world violence. While existing interventions for misinformation tend to focus on correcting inaccurate content, research shows that social identity can strongly influence information processing and beliefs. However, few studies have explored how social identity can be leveraged to counteract misinformation. This doctoral project aims to address this gap in the literature by integrating psychological and communication science research to understand how social identity-based interventions can reduce belief in and sharing of misinformation. Specifically, the project will include (1) an experimental study that reduces social identity threat prior to providing corrective information, (2) an experimental study that draws attention to the inconsistency of misinformed beliefs with social identity, and (3) the simulation of an agent-based model to test how to best enhance the potential success of these interventions by targeting specific users in an algorithmically biased information environment. The goal of the project is to generate potential solutions for combating misinformation rooted in social beliefs as well as generate hypotheses regarding the impact of the social environment in enhancing or inhibiting the effectiveness of such interventions.

Start: Oktober 2022
Supervisor(s): David Garcia (external), Annie Waldherr 
Funding/Project: EMOMIS 

Jula Lühring: Emotional Misinformation Diffusion: Mapping Socio-Affective Dynamics in the Digital Information Ecosystem

Misinformation spreads by maximally exploiting engagement mechanisms of digital platforms, but the explanations of the circumstances under which accuracy comes secondary are limited. Such explanations typically focus on cognition, but people consider false information truthful, especially on social media, because emotional and social dynamics strongly influence their judgment. The attention-based design of platforms reinforces engagement with untrustworthy content in times of an unprecedented spread of misinformation on social media. In my cumulative PhD project, I will therefore investigate the interplay of emotional dynamics and algorithmic recommendation in the diffusion of misinformation on Twitter. Here, misinformation is measured in terms of tweets containing URLs from sources following untrustworthy practices. Understanding misinformation spreading as a symptom of a polarized information ecosystem, I plan to tackle its complexity with a multifaceted approach that (1) describes socio-affective dynamics in the diffusion of information from sources with varying levels of trustworthiness on social media, (2) characterizes users with an untrustworthy information system and the emotional dynamics leading up to real-world actions, in this case, the participation in protests against COVID-19 measures, and (3) explains patterns of socio-affective misinformation spreading on social media in an agent-based simulation model. Using an interdisciplinary and exploratory approach, I hope to contribute to understanding the emotional dynamics in the diffusion of misinformation on social media and generating new ideas for user-oriented platforms.

Start: Oktober 2022
Supervisor(s): Annie Waldherr, David Garcia (external)
Funding/Project: EMOMIS 

Paul Balluff: Multilingual Named Entity Recognition with Neural Networks

This dissertation project aims to push the methodological boundaries of multi-lingual automated content analysis for communication science. Its objective is to first, curate cutting-edge technologies to explore new ways for named entity recognition, co-reference resolution, and disambiguation for monolingual and multilingual applications. Second, increase the accessibility of these tools, and third, to provide best practices and recommendations for computational text analysis. This is needed for the repertoire of automated techniques, because named entities lay the foundation for other steps of computer assisted and automated text analysis, such as document and issue linking, quotation extraction or sentiment. State-of-the-art NER methods outperform previous ones, but are challenging to implement by researchers who are not from the area of computer science. Therefore, this dissertation also aims to curate such tools to close the widening gap. Finally, this dissertation will employ case studies to demonstrate the possibilities of high-performing NER tools. The case studies will cover a large time-span and include documents from different genres and languages.
Start: Oktober 2021
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden, Annie Waldherr
Funding/Project: OPTED

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

Sebastian Galyga: Conspiracy Narratives Online

Conspiracy narratives are becoming an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. More and more people reject official information and distrust institutions because they are convinced that in fact those are only a facade with powerful hidden figures "pulling the strings” in the background. In today's fragmented and digital high-choice media environment, one possible explanation for the spread of conspiracy narratives is the growing importance of interpersonal chat communication where "news" is being shared and evaluated within (chat) communities. While the concept of the networked public sphere is well established, little is known about the communal act of sense making within such counter publics. The goal is to augment our understanding of the actual construction of conspiracy narratives. To address this, I am studying the direct communication in conspiracist communities on Telegram. In particular, I am focusing on the connections between these communities, the flow of outside information into them and the reaction of the group members (i.e. rejection, or acceptance).

Start: April 2021
Supervisor(s): Hajo Boomgaarden, Sophie Lecheler
Funding/Project: CCL, Knowledge Resistance

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

Azade Esther Kakavand: The Networked Counterpublics of the Far-Right – Exploring Connections on and Across Social Media

While numerous aspects of far-right communication are already researched, the connections of far-right communities on and across social network sites (SNS) are not investigated yet. With the emergence of social media, among many other communities, the far-right has found new platforms to communicate among their counterpublic. In my cumulative PhD project, I am going to fill a gap in previous research by (1) conducting a systematic review of existing literature on far-right social media presence, (2) comparing the topics that are prevalent in far-right communities on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Telegram, (3) analyzing differences in far-right networks on these platforms, and (4) exploring the connections that can be found across these platforms. I focus on the influence of affordances of social media platforms on the topics and networks of the far-right as well as the question of how far-right counterpublics use a combination of platforms to profit from their different affordances.

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

Aytalina Kulichkina

Aytalina Kulichkina: Dynamics of Political Protest and Repression 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 and to what extent social media activity at the micro level relates to the macro-level dynamics of political protests, especially in authoritarian societies. The cumulative dissertation aims to address 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 empirical peer-reviewed studies on the role of social media in political protests. Second, an observational study will examine social media communication patterns in the online behavior of pro-Navalny activists and regime supporters during the 2021 Russian protests. Third, another case study will examine online protest communication among coordinated clusters of users during the 2022 COVID-19 protests in China. Finally, an agent-based modeling approach will be implemented to construct a model of online protests and repression applicable to authoritarian regimes. 

Start: September 2020
Supervisor(s): Annie WaldherrNicola 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

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: -