My research is organized by the following interconnected subareas as follows. Click on “SEE MORE” for details of select publications and ongoing projects. A full list of my publications can be accessed via the CV page.
How do we define being “misinformed?” What do people mean when they say “fake news?”
How can we develop corrective messages that help beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors?
Social Media Skepticism
Does social media skepticism help or harm civic competence? What underlies “healthy” skepticism towards social media?
Information Inequality, Beliefs & Attitudes
How do inequalities across information, economic, and social domains shape factual beliefs and attitudes?
Racial Inequality & Racial justice
How do people understand movements and policies aiming at advancing racial justice? How does racial inequality influence citizens’ ability to make informed decisions?
FEATURED Publication: Li, Jianing, and Michael W Wagner. 2020. “The Value of Not Knowing: Partisan Cue-Taking and Belief Updating of the Uninformed, the Ambiguous, and the Misinformed.” Journal of Communication 70 (5): 646–69. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqaa022.
Also in Brookings TechStream: When are readers likely to believe a fact-check?
Abstract: The problem of a misinformed citizenry is often used to motivate research on misinformation and its corrections. However, researchers know little about how differences in informedness affect how well corrective information helps individuals develop knowledge about current events. We introduce a Differential Informedness Model that distinguishes between three types of individuals, that is, the uninformed, the ambiguous, and the misinformed, and establish their differences with two experiments incorporating multiple partisan cues and issues. Contrary to the common impression, the U.S. public is largely uninformed rather than misinformed of a wide range of factual claims verified by journalists. Importantly, we find that the success of belief updating after exposure to corrective information (via a fact-checking article) is dependent on the presence, the certainty, and the accuracy of one’s prior belief. Uninformed individuals are more likely to update their beliefs than misinformed individuals after exposure to corrective information. Interestingly, the ambiguous individuals, regardless of whether their uncertain guesses were correct, do not differ from uninformed individuals with respect to belief updating.
We present a Differential Informedness Model that describes the conceptual distinctions we apply to answers to survey questions assessing knowledge:
FEATURED PUBLICATION: Li, Jianing, and Min-Hsin Su. 2020. “Real Talk About Fake News: Identity Language and Disconnected Networks of the US Public’s ‘Fake News’ Discourse on Twitter.” Social Media + Society 6 (2): 2056305120916841. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120916841.
Abstract: This article studies “fake news” beyond the consumption and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation. We uncover how the term “fake news” serves as a discursive device for ordinary citizens to consolidate group identity in everyday political utterances on Twitter. Using computational linguistic and network analyses, we demonstrate that over the period of 2016–2018, there is an uptrend in the use of identity language in US Twitter users’ discussions about “fake news,” manifested by the increased frequency of group pronouns in combination with issues and sentiments that boost one’s ingroup and derogate the outgroup. Furthermore, as opposed to the conventional wisdom that “fake news” is a right-wing term, we uncover two disconnected retweet networks surrounding liberal and conservative opinion leaders. Like-minded individuals selectively amplify ingroup messages to claim the power to define falsehood and make group-serving blame attributions. We discuss the theoretical implications of our findings and offer new directions for future research on “fake news,” misinformation, and disinformation.
The liberal cluster and the conservative cluster show stark divides in interpreting what “fake news” is and who should take the blame:
ONGOING: Building on Li & Wagner (2020), how can messages debunking vaccine myths be best tailored to those who are uninformed, misinformed, and ambiguously informed? (with Jiyoung Lee, Michael W Wagner)
FEATURED PUBLICATION: Li, Jianing. 2020. “Toward a Research Agenda on Political Misinformation and Corrective Information.” Political Communication 37 (1): 125–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2020.1716499.
Abstract: Truth and falsehood are central subjects in philosophical, political science and mass communication scholarship as an informed citizenry is regarded as a necessity for a well-functioning democracy. Concomitantly, the reporting of the verifiable truth is the fundamental mission for professional journalism. Scholars and journalists alike have long been worried about citizens’ ability to learn about truth (Lippmann, 1925). However, in the past decade, the concern about the spread of false information has become more publicly acute than the concern about the lack of information, and the concern about misperception is no less pressing than the concern about ignorance. The increasing prevalence of misinformation, accompanied by digitalized, networked, and polarized media environment, is fundamentally reshaping the political information landscape.
Conceptually, “misinformation” refers to the type of information that is “factually false,” i.e. not consistent with the best available evidence (Kuklinski, Quirk, Jerit, Schwieder, & Rich, 2000). This emphasis on facticity differentiates “misinformation” from “disinformation,” which focuses on deceptive intent of the source and does not require the information to be either “factual” or “false.” Additionally, most researchers favor “misinformation” over “fake news” in describing false information, a term that has been loosely used in reference to misinformation, disinformation, satire, parody, native advertising, as well as unfavorable coverage of the ingroup (Tandoc, Lim, & Ling, 2018). “Misinformation” also has a narrower conceptual boundary than “junk news,” a concept proposed by Bradshaw, Howard, Kollanyi, and Neudert (2019) that aims at classifying sources “that deliberately publish misleading, deceptive, or incorrect information packaged as real news” not only based on counterfeit, but also professionalism, style, credibility, and bias.
In this essay, I review the state of the field of misinformation research from three orienting questions: what is the scope of political misinformation? What are the cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral consequences of misinformation? When and how does corrective information work? I offer directions in developing a research agenda that advances the theorization of misinformation and its correction in complex political, social, and communication ecologies.
FEATURED PUBLICATION: Li, Jianing, Jordan M. Foley, Omar Dumdum, and Michael W. Wagner. 2021. “The Power of a Genre: Political News Presented as Fact-Checking Increases Accurate Belief Updating and Hostile Media Perceptions.” Mass Communication and Society 25 (2): 282-307. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2021.1924382.
Abstract: Concerns over misinformation have inspired research on how people are influenced by, and form perceptions of, media messages that aim to correct false claims. We juxtapose two seemingly incongruent expectations from the theories of motivated reasoning and hostile media perceptions, uncovering the unique effects of presenting a political news story with corrective information as a “fact-check.” We test our theoretical expectations through two online survey experiments. We find that compared to a conventional style of news reporting, a news story presented in a fact-checking genre significantly increases how accurately people are able to evaluate factual information, but it also comes with an important counterproductive effect: people will be more likely to perceive the journalist and the story as biased. We discuss the implications of our findings in theorizing the persuasion effects of corrective information in the contemporary media environment.
Our work reveals that highlighting fact-checking as a unique genre can be a double-edged sword given the competing effects on belief updating and media perceptions:
FEATURED WIP: Li, Jianing*, Ran Tao*, Liwei Shen, Sijia Yang. 2021. “Hope Over Fear: The Effectiveness of Hope Appeal Enhancements to Debunk COVID-19 Misinformation Amid Heightened Threat.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of International Communication Association. (* shared first-authorship)
Abstract: Much as the spreading of COVID-19 misinformation parallels the mounting fear the pandemic induces worldwide, the emotional basis for misinformation susceptibility is understudied, hindering the identification of effective emotional enhancements to improve factual corrections. In a between-subject experiment, an online sample of Chinese residents were randomized to receive 1) either threat information describing the pandemic’s risk and severity, or no threat information; and 2) either one of the two versions of corrections varying in the components constituting hope appeals, a factual correction, or a misinformation only control condition. Across five topics, threat information induced more misperceptions; and hope appeals presenting words of optimistic outlook and efficacy information mitigated threat’s deleterious impact, improving belief accuracy and behavioral intentions as a result. Our study highlighted the importance of emotions, particularly hope appeals, in fighting against the COVID-19 infodemic in China and beyond.
ONGOING: How do social network features and algorithm-recommended stories influence how willing users are to correct others when seeing misinformation, and the quality of such peer-to-peer correction? (and Sijia Yang, Liwei Shen, Ran Tao, et al.)
Social Media Skepticism
FEATURED WIP: Li, Jianing. 2021. “Theorizing Social Media Skepticism: How Two Distinct Types of Skepticism Impact Information Behaviors and Election Legitimacy.” Paper presented at International Communication Association Political Communication Division PhD Student Preconference.
This project is funded by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Read the Social Data Dissertation Fellowships Announcement.
Read the coverage about this project on the website of School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison.
Abstract: This project theorizes two distinct types of social media skepticism and tests their antecedents and ramifications in the context of the 2020 US presidential election. Despite the consensus on the importance of fostering skepticism for an informed citizenry, exactly what constitutes and underlies “healthy” skepticism toward social media misinformation is largely unknown. Existing research provides both hopeful and concerning findings on how social media skepticism relates to democratic outcomes. This project seeks to (a) establish conceptual and empirical differences between “accuracy motivated” and “directional motivated” skepticism toward social media misinformation and (b) identify the influence of discourses in news stories and social media utterances in fostering these two types of skepticism. Most importantly, this project seeks to (c) examine differential impacts of these two types of social media skepticism on outcomes crucial to democratic governance, including how citizens selectively choose ideological information, discern misinformation, and form views about election legitimacy. Using computational and panel survey approaches, this project tests these propositions with a combination of social media data, news media data, and public opinion data. While the definition of “healthy” skepticism will likely be the subject to a normative debate, the findings from this project will provide novel empirical evidence on the diverging consequences produced by two types of social media skepticism associated with how citizens consume information and interpret elections.
Information/Economic/Social Inequalities, Beliefs, & Attitudes
FEATURED WIP: Li, Jianing, and Michael W Wagner. 2021. “Partisanship in Context: The Asymmetric Influence of Local Newspaper Availability and Selective Exposure on Political Misperceptions in the U.S.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of International Communication Association and targeting for submission at Journal of Communication.
Top Poster Award (paper receiving highest ratings among the submissions programmed for the poster session), Political Communication Division, International Communication Association.
Abstract: How people consume information and understand facts is an inherently multilevel problem, but inquiry frequently stops at the individual-level. We highlight how disparities in local newspaper availability across communities influences individuals’ partisan selective exposure and congruent political misperceptions. Using a quasi-experimental design enabling comparisons of individuals living in counties with different local newspaper availability but otherwise matched features, we found that lacking a local newspaper in one’s county is associated with a decrease in national mainstream media use. Moreover, lacking a local newspaper amplifies partisan selective consumption of liberal media, but not conservative media. Beliefs in falsehoods disseminated by elites from both major parties are influenced by selective exposure and amplified by local newspaper context, while liberal media use is more sensitive to the contextual variances in local news environments than conservative media use. We discuss how these asymmetries have implications for understanding the health of the political information ecosystem.
Key findings summarized in our ICA poster:
FEATURED BOOK CHAPTERS: Friedland, L. A., Shah, D. V., Wagner, M. W., Wells, C., Cramer, K. J., and Pevehouse, J. C. W. (2022). Battleground: Asymmetric Communication Ecologies and the Erosion of Civil Society in Wisconsin. Cambridge University Press. (Co-author in two chapters: “Studying the Wisconsin Communication Ecology” and “Immigration: Complex Issues and Conservative Asymmetries”)
Highlights: How do politics, social life, media, and communication intersect to create conditions of polarization, contentiousness and political upheaval? Through the lens of Wisconsin, the book chapters I co-authored integrate public opinion survey data, contextual data, social media posts, news coverage, and qualitative interviews to examine how identity, communication ecologies, and socioeconomic inequalities together shape public opinion in immigration, health care, and the economy.
ONGOING: How do social, economic, and political features of counties relate to how county parties communicate to voters on Facebook about elections? (with Sadie Dempsey, Jiyoun Suk, Josephine Lukito, Dhavan V Shah, Lewis A. Friedland, Michael W Wagner)
Racial Inequality & Racial Justice
FEATURED WIP: Li, Jianing, Josephine Lukito, Ellie Fan Yang, Jiyoun Suk, Dhavan V Shah, and Michael W Wagner. 2022. “Framing Black Lives Matter: The Persistence of Language Cues over Identity, Context, and Media Use.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of International Communication Association.
This paper won the Top Paper Award from the Political Communication Division at the International Communication Association in 2022.
Also in The Washington Post Monkey Cage: When do voters support Black Lives Matter or the Green New Deal?
Highlights: How is public support for Black Lives Matter influenced by framing of the movement’s collective action goals? How do frames resonate with racial and partisan groups, and individuals with different media diets and protest experience? How do community-level demographics and protest features shape public support for Black Lives Matter?
ONGOING: How do types of COVID-19 misinformation disproportionately influence racial/ethnic groups living in urban and rural communities? How do inequality-induced, low-levels of news literacy and institutional trust serve as mechanisms in affecting COVID-19 misperceptions? (and Sijia Yang, Liwei Shen, Ran Tao, Porismita Borah, et al.)