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Almost a decade ago, Eugenia Rho was a recent graduate of Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government, working as a business analyst at a management consulting firm. Now, the informatics Ph.D. candidate is finalizing her postdoctoral plans for Fall 2020 before heading to Virginia Tech, where she has accepted a position as a tenure-track computer science faculty member for Fall 2021. Her journey from humanities to computer science wasn’t without its challenges, but her political science background informed her dissertation, “Quality of Democratic Discourse in the Age of Political Hashtags and Social Media News Consumption.”

“Eugenia is a passionate and driven scholar who has carved her own path in the department,” says Informatics Professor Melissa Mazmanian, Rho’s adviser. “Her qualitative and experimental research on how simple design choices and platform reputation affect the nature of dialogue around major social issues is timely and important.” Mazmanian co-authored a related paper with Rho, “Political Hashtags & the Lost Art of Democratic Discourse,” which received an honorable mention at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 20). “It is an ethical imperative that we begin to understand how to foster more productive dialogue online,” says Mazmanian. “Eugenia’s research is a substantial step in the right direction.”

You can learn more about Rho’s research in the article she wrote for The Conversation, “Political Hashtags Like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter Make People Less Likely to Believe the News.” Here, she talks about some of the unintended consequences of online design and why you might need to rethink that COVID-19 hashtag.

Can you talk a bit about your path to UCI and what made you decide to study informatics?
I studied political science at Columbia, and that was certainly a very different experience compared to the research I’m doing now, but the interest in human behavior has always been there. That was the common thread that kept me interested in understanding why people are doing certain things and how technology is contributing to that. After earning my degree in political science, I worked at a consulting firm, and one of the clients was a major insurance company. We had to help them understand why people were dropping out of purchasing insurance on their website and how the webpage design affected dropout rates. I was able to work with a lot of engineers, designers and data scientists from a business perspective, and that got me really interested in informatics.

How was the transition to computer science?
Transitioning fields and learning how to use new methods require you to be incredibly self-driven, but also to be very patient with yourself. Everyone has different learning curves — you need to figure out what works for you and practice self-empathy. Motivationally, what has worked best for me is staying true to my interests and focusing on the problem I’m examining.

Your research focuses on designing online spaces that “foster interaction rather than sharpen social differences.” Why is this important to you?
The way we access factual information and our ability to talk to other people about this information is really the basis for finding common ground despite having social differences and different political views. But a lot of that is crumbling right now with the rise of misinformation, with a lot of people on both ends of the political spectrum shouting out whatever they think is the ultimate truth because, these days, you can back up anything with whatever “fact” you find online. It’s not just important to me. It should be important to a lot of people who are in one way or another involved in affecting online spaces.

On top of this, [the] research [that Mazmanian and I conducted] shows that social media design features like political hashtags can elicit polarized reactions and affect how we consume information. Right now, more than ever, we’re relying on so many online resources to get information, so it’s important that tech companies like Facebook and Twitter, as well as policymakers and social activists, keep in mind how online design affects how people talk and obtain information on the internet.

What motivated you to research the effects of political hashtags?
What initially sparked my interest was seeing the #MeToo movement evolve. When it first started, it wasn’t as polarized. Everyone was like, “this is great — we should hear survivors’ voices.” But after a while, you see this hashtag being weaponized to villainize people, pinning them as those starting a witch hunt against men. I wanted to see how this hashtag evolved through dialogue in online spaces, and how that evolvement created a change in perspective around survivors of sexual harassment talking about their stories using this hashtag. Motivated by this, we [Mazmanian and I] conducted a controlled online experiment to see what happens when we present the same article with, versus without, political hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

Were you surprised by the findings?
I did expect differences in people’s reactions, but I didn’t know the difference would be this distinct. While you might expect people who are very liberal or conservative to have preconceived notions about these hashtags, what was really surprising was how these hashtags affected those who considered themselves to be politically moderate.

If you look at research into social movement theory, these are the most important people. For something to materialize into actual change, you need to convince people in the middle. Hashtags were created to spark this movement and persuade people to join in, but it’s actually backfiring. In our experiment, many people who saw these articles but with hashtags left comments like “this is fake news” or “this an advertisement.” These were articles published by The New York Times or NPR. If this is how hashtags are affecting the way people perceive news around social issues, then not just politicians, tech companies, and activists but even journalists need to rethink how they use hashtags in their headlines and on social media.

So are there lessons here for people posting about the coronavirus on social media?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I recently read an article about how the coronavirus is now evolving as a cultural war, how it’s being politicized as something where people who have certain political beliefs think that it’s a way to pressure them into staying inside and so forth. And I’m very curious to see whether social media posts that include COVID-19 hashtags have been evolving in a way where the hashtag no longer stands for COVID but for something else — or whether these hashtags have a framing effect on the way people talk about other things.

With 2020 being an election year, what are your concerns when it comes to politics and social media?
This is not just a fight between two parties; it’s a fight against misinformation. A lot of people, even educated people, are not that great at distinguishing misinformation from factual information. And now things like hashtags related to social issues are affecting the way people perceive facts as well. Part of this really comes down to how people feel about what they see. A lot of the things that you come across on social media, even if it’s news, can trigger emotional reactions. That’s exactly what some of these political hashtags are doing, and this emotional reaction can carry over to the way you interpret and perceive content.

I would definitely like to study what kind of design interventions can improve the way content is viewed in relation to hashtags, but I think there’s no definitive answer right now. And there’s no way one party can solve this problem. It’s not just the people who are producing the information. We need to educate people who are consuming the content as well.

Any advice to prospective graduate students?
You have to have grit, and you have to be open to change. A lot of unexpected things can happen, but you have to take those hardships as an opportunity to figure out what really inspires you as a researcher. My initial adviser ended up retiring, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I had to take a hard look at what was driving me to stay here. Aside from research interests, my current adviser Melissa Mazmanian was a big reason I decided to stay. I cannot express how grateful I am for the support and encouragement I have received from her over the years. When I think about how I will mentor my Ph.D. students, I know I will draw from my experiences with Melissa. Working with her as her Ph.D. advisee really motivated me to not only become a better researcher but a thriving academic who is also truly compassionate. I am very lucky that I have been able to work with her and so many other wonderful people here at UCI. Earning your Ph.D. is not a one-person effort — it’s a lot of solo work, but you grow because of other people.

Shani Murray