Magdalena Wojcieszak

Having grown up in a communist Poland in a family of journalists, early in life Magdalena Wojcieszak (Voy-che-shack) – an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication–became acutely aware of the social and political importance of media and communication. Dr. Wojcieszak’s father would show her pages of the newspaper he worked for with entire lines missing (yes, propaganda and censorship!), and she remembers wondering what impact that missing sentence or paragraph could have on Polish citizens and the democratizing society.
Magdalena Wojcieszak

Magdalena Wojcieszak

That curiosity led her to study sociology, and – during an  European Union fellowship in Italy – to focus on communication science. After all, it is not possible to understand the processes that lead people to cooperate, express their views, or instigate social change without accounting for the influence of media and communication in general.

During her entire career, through the PhD at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, assistant professorship at the IE University in Madrid Spain, and associate professorship at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam, Dr. Wojcieszak has been interested in political communication, public opinion, and in how the changing media environment creates both opportunities and challenges for informed publics and tolerant citizenry. More specifically, she has examined the effects of online and offline media, interpersonal discussions, online social networks, and specific political messages on citizens’ attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions. Dr. Wojcieszak has applied her expertise to problems of extremism, intergroup relations, and attitude polarization, among other issues increasingly relevant to diverse societies.

In her early research, Dr. Wojcieszak aimed to empirically test the alleged democratic benefits of deliberation and exposure to dissimilar political views. Theorists have long hoped that encountering arguments that challenge individual prior beliefs promotes “representative thinking” (Arendt, 1968, p. 241), “sound political judgment” (Page, 1996, p. 2), and “enlightened understanding” (Dahl, 1989, p. 105). To her surprise, analyzing participants in online discussion forums of radical environmentalist and neo-Nazis, Dr. Wojcieszak found that exposure to dissimilar  views might have some problematic effects. Neo-Nazis become yet more extreme and more mobilized to confrontational political actions if their acquaintances, friends, and family do not share their political views. Dr. Wojcieszak identified these deleterious effects also in the context of structured and moderated face-to-face group deliberations about sexual  minority rights in Poland, with gay rights opponents turning more negative toward the LGBTQ community if their views were countered by other discussion participants. The findings from this line of research have been published in Political Communication, Political Psychology, Journal of Communication and Social Science Quarterly, among other journals, showing that, rather than becoming more tolerant thanks to interactions with others who do not share her firm beliefs, a strongly opinionated person will strengthen her prior views and become more hostile toward the other side. In fact, in a forthcoming article, written with Rachid Azout and Claes de Vreese from University of Amsterdam, and based on the analysis of longitudinal panel survey data combined with content analysis, Dr. Wojcieszak found that mere exposure to media coverage of a contentious political issue (i.e., the European Union) can polarize individual attitudes among strong Euroskeptics and Europhiles alike.

In that work, Dr. Wojcieszak identified communication and media exposure as potential “threat” to mutually understanding citizenry. She now aims to expand upon this foundation to test individual, communicative, and contextual factors that could  increase social cohesion. Some of the questions she explores include: What kind of media messages decrease prejudice toward personally disliked groups? Are there ways to encourage people to select online content that challenges what they personally believe and – perhaps more importantly – to consider this content open-mindedly? In several recent projects, involving scholars from Spain and Singapore, she is finding that short personal comments under online newspaper articles (what she conceives as online intergroup contact) decrease perceived threat and social distance toward undocumented immigrants and sexual minorities, and that messages that present an immigrant as sharing some similarities with the native audience (i.e., similarity in terms of social identity) can improve attitudes toward a larger immigrant group. Also, relying on professionally designed mock news site, Dr. Wojcieszak shows that priming the importance of open-mindedness prompts partisans in the  US to engage in more unbiased information selection processes, inviting them to select balanced political content about President  Trump and the current administration.  These are among several other projects directed by Dr. Wojcieszak.

This summer, she has been awarded a prestigious European Research Council Starting Grant to build on her prior findings. The awarded project, titled  “Europeans exposed to dissimilar views in the media: investigating backfire effects” (EXPO), will examine the specific conditions in which exposure to dissimilar political views in the media amplifies or attenuates hostilities among citizens with different opinions. Dr. Wojcieszak’s project aims to use online behavior tracking, automated content analyses, panel surveys, qualitative work, and experiments in three countries to address three key questions: (1) Under what conditions does exposure to dissimilar political views occur? She aims to show what individual, social and system-level factors encourage people to see dissimilar content, on which issues, and through which traditional and online media. (2) Under what conditions does exposure to dissimilar political views backfire? This crucial question attends to immediate and cumulative overtime effects and also to the factors that enhance or minimize polarization. For whom, when and why can dissimilar exposure cause backfire effects, increasing extremity and hostility? (3) Last but  not least, how can we minimize the harms and maximize the benefits of exposure to dissimilar political views? Dr. Wojcieszak proposes that certain cues in media content can open people to dissimilar views and minimize backfire effects.  She hopes that the results of this 5-year long project will offer insights for scholars, policymakers and practitioners working on media diversity and social cohesion. 

In addition to her research, Dr. Wojcieszak is highly engaged in the scholarly community. She is the Board Member at Large for Europe of the International Communication Association. She also serves as the Editor of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research and on the editorial boards of Journal of Communication, Political Communication and Developmental Psychology (Psychologia Rozwojowa, a Polish academic journal). She has received several awards for her research and teaching. Applying her research to real world conflicts, Dr. Wojcieszak has worked with the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the University of Pennsylvania, assessing public opinion about the conflict in Darfur and examining how Iranian citizens and journalists inside and outside Iran engage with and use various media outlets and online, mobile and offline communication tools.

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