Research Spotlight: Examining the Impact of Communicative Processes on Civic Engagement Among College Students During a Crisis

The objective of this ongoing study is to collect preliminary data on how message content and social norms impact college students’ responses to preventive behavior calls to actions (i.e., mask-wearing as an act of civic engagement) in regards to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and how these responses are exacerbated when such messages  interact with individual differences. More precisely, we investigated how/when Twitter messages calling for mask wearing among college students are processed and either accepted or rejected.

This study also seeks to provide insight into the impact of communicative efforts on civic engagement among university students and how that communication occurs during times of crisis. Civic engagement is linked to adherence to public health recommendations, particularly when such recommendations are so closely associated with political positions. Specifically, mask wearing is operationalized as an act of civic and community involvement given its potential impact on the health and well-being of self and community members, which is clearly an issue of public concern. As such this study will address four specific questions:

  • How does such communication occur? (message characteristics);
  • Where does it occur? (channel of communication);
  • With whom? (ingroup vs outgroup sources); and
  • What is the relationship of this communicative process on civic engagement?

Understanding the relationship between the likelihood to accept a message or call to action (e.g., adherence to a public health recommendation such as mask wearing) based on message characteristics/channels and underlying sense of civic engagement, will allow for development of more efficacious health crisis messages that mitigate harm and increase prosocial attitudes and behaviors within the FSU student community, more specifically those that bridge individual actions to collective and civic wellbeing.

Central to the efficacy of social media messaging is identification of potential barriers to information processing and how these are exacerbated when they interact with individual differences (pertinent to this study, how emerging adults engage with call to action messages). Health-related choices and behaviors can be strongly influenced by social norms. The pressure to behave in accordance with their peers, either through perceived social norms and/or peer pressure, plays a critical role in whether an individual chooses to adopt or reject specific health behaviors. It may be possible to leverage these group-level processes to reduce high-risk behaviors among college students. Given changes in social functioning and social expectations that individuals are suddenly experiencing, information related to the COVID-19 pandemic stemming from credible and reputable sources might be decisive in addressing public action.

Because the study uses an experimental design, pretesting the stimuli was a crucial first step to ensure that the messages and corresponding images elicited the expected differences between or among experimental conditions. Numerous messages and images were pretested to determine which best met the desired conditions (likely to emanate from a peer vs. non-peer). In addition to testing potential images of peer and non-peer messengers and message content, the use of particular emojis and hashtags was also pre-tested. This was accomplished utilizing MTurk, an online panel study platform that is appropriate, ethical, and standard practice for nationally representative samples. MTurk participants (age 18-25) were recruited in exchange for monetary compensation. To explore on a macro level cultural differences, we tested these messages with a sample of 100 individuals in the US within our target population age range and 100 individuals in India within the target population age range. India allowed us to look at collectivism, which greatly differs from the US’ individualistic culture, while maintaining the survey in English. Additionally, Indian students account for ~10% of the international student body at Florida State University with the total Indian population of students on campus growing at an average rate of 2.1% over the last couple of years (College Factual, 2019). Although in the manipulation check we tested against two cultures (collective versus individualist), US versus India, it is understood that within the FSU student body the differences may not be as marked, still many co-cultures exist. Given the exploratory nature of the study, however, these macro level differences will help demonstrate in group/out group preferences.

Some consensus arose in participant reactions to messages, emojis, and hashtags when asked to identify which ones a peer would or would not be likely to post. Collective preferences for certain images stemming from various sources (peer and non-peer) were also evidenced. Based on the pre-test results, two images and two messages (one peer versus one non-peer) were identified for both the U.S. and India populations. Suitable messages, emojis, and hashtags were also identified.

Images

In the India pretest, the image (message source) on the left scored highest on the homophily scale, whereas the image on the right scored the lowest.

Images

In the India pretest, the image (message source) on the top scored highest on the homophily scale, whereas the image on the bottom scored the lowest.

In the U.S. pretest the image (message source) on the top scored highest on the homophily scale, whereas the image on the right scored the lowest (below).

Messaging

In the India pretest, “Just a reminder that #COVID isn’t over yet” emerged as the message most likely to be tweeted by a peer, followed by “Let’s wear masks so we can actually attend college 🙂 k thanks.” 

In the U.S. pretest, the same two messages were ranked highest but in the reverse order — “Let’s wear masks so we can actually attend college 🙂 k thanks” was identified as the message most likely to be from a peer. The messages least likely to be tweeted by a peer were “Who’s doing their part to protect our community” and “As COVID-19 cases among young adults surge across the nation, please do your part to keep the university community safe by remaining vigilant over the summer.”

Emojis

In the India pretest, “❤️” and  “🇮🇳” (76.8%) emerged as the most likely emojis to be used by a peer in a mask related message. The  “🦠” and “🙌” emerged as the least likely emojis to be used by a peer in a mask related message. Approximately 77% of respondents said a peer would likely use the “🇮🇳” emoji.

In the US pretest,  “❤️” and “😷” emerged as the most likely emojis to be used by a peer in a mask related message. The  “🦠” and “🙌” emerged as the least likely emojis to be used by a peer in a mask related message. Approximately 64% of respondents said a peer would likely use the “🇺🇸” emoji.

Hashtags

In the India pretest, #WearAMask and #COVID19 emerged as the most likely hashtags to be used by a peer in a message. The hashtag #inthistogether was unlikely to be used by a peer, as was #staysafe. In the US pretest. #staysafe and #WearAMask emerged as the most likely hashtags to be used by a peer in a message. The hashtag #inthistogether was unlikely to be used by a peer, as was #covid and #StayStrongUSA

Jessica Wendorf Muhamad – Faculty & Staff Directory

Dr. Jessica Wendorf Muhamad is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Associate Director of the Center for Hispanic Communication in the School of Communication at Florida State University. Her research focuses on understanding how and why enacted, entertainment-educational experiences influence individuals.. You can learn more about Dr. Wendorf Muhamad here.

Patrick Merle, Ph.D. – Faculty & Staff Directory

Dr. Patrick Merele is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Florida State University. His research interests include media effect with an emphasis on political and international perspectives. You can learn more about Dr. Merele here.

Source for featured image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/seven-assorted-colored-rotary-telephones-774448/

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