Undergraduate student finds place in DMAC Lab

When Charan Ramachandran acted on his genuine curiosity of exploring a subject outside of his normal coursework, it paid big dividends—not just for him, but also for the professor.

Ramachandran, a graduating fourth-year student who majored in Entertainment and Media Studies and computer science, reached out to Bart Wojdynski, director of the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab, his freshman year asking if he could be involved with projects the lab was researching. Ramachandran participated in the experimental Research Living Learning Community his freshman year and one of the topics was encouraging students to reach out to professors whose work is of interest. Ramachandran learned of Wojdynski’s research with eye-tracking and wanted to understand more so he reached out.

Charan Ramachandran and Bart Wojdynski look at the eyetracking software in the DMAC Lab.
Charan Ramachandran and Bart Wojdynski look at the eye-tracking software in the DMAC Lab.

“I remember he said ‘I don’t know what I’m interested in, but for now I want to see what you are doing and how I can help,’” remembered Wojdynski, a Jim Kennedy New Media Professor and associate professor of journalism. “As time went by, he became an indispensable team player and helped with things we couldn’t do otherwise.”

Four years after volunteering as a research associate with the DMAC Lab, Ramachandran has some research credits on his resume and several new skills to take into the work force.

“The DMAC Lab has taught me a lot,” Ramachandran said. “My work there taught me how to produce an application on time and test it before delivery. For instance, I hadn’t developed mobile applications before, but this pushed me to learn how to do that and figure it out.

I have Dr. Wojdynski to thank for all that.”

Research in the DMAC Lab uses eye-tracking technology to study how consumers view and evaluate media message on a variety of platforms, including websites and mobile devices. Despite a pause in activities due to COVID, Ramachandran participated in numerous research projects including a Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities presentation analyzing social media by health orgs related to opioid epidemic and designing a web-based Twitter feed.

The largest project he was involved with was designing a custom Instagram app that was used in one of the first eye-tracking studies involving Instagram on a mobile device. Wojdynski explained that during COVID, it became clear that there were a lot of researchers interested in effects of viewing social media content in a realistic setting. In Jan 2021, the DMAC Lab purchased a new eye tracker and mobile phone stand with a high-definition video connection to the phone, allowing researchers to record everything on screen as the viewers scrolled their device.

As the lab group was designing a study to test effects of social media content, Ramachandran suggested the team build its own customizable Instagram app to present the content just like users typically view it.

Close-up of eye-tracking machine gathering data from an Iphone.
A close-up of the new eye-tracker that records and collects data based on sample content viewed on mobile phones. Ramachandran designed a customizable Instagram app to present content just like users typically view it.

“He learned code in Swift, but had to figure out a lot along the way to make it as realistic as possible,” Wojdynski continued. “Designing a submission form for creating custom posts, with time stamps , the number of likes, how to have hashtags to show up blue, a carousel effect—Charan figured out how to create all of that and presented four or five versions. It was amazing.”

The research will be presented at the International Communication Association conference in Paris in late May.

In addition to practical skills and research experience, Ramachandran found a network of friends.

“When we are in the lab, it doesn’t feel like a hierarchy at all,” Ramachandran concluded. “Dr. Wojdynski—he’s one of us and I’m one of them. Even though I’m an undergraduate, I feel like part of a team and put in a lot of effort to be an active member. I’ve made a lot of great friendships there.”

Ramachandran graduates in May and will move to California this summer to start work as a software engineer with YouTube.

Ph.D. student profile: Shuoya Sun

Shuoya Sun (MA ‘16) found that Grady College with its Digital Media Attention and Cognition (DMAC) Lab was the best place to pursue her research interests: how media context affects processing and evaluation of digital ads.

Sun said it was her previous job as a media planner that started her interest in consumer psychology.

“I wonder how consumers make decisions and how different media choices and environments affect their responses to ads,” Sun said of her interest. “I thought graduate school was the place to seek answers.”

Last Fall, Sun was the lead author on a paper that earned recognition at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication virtual conference. The paper, “How multitasking during video content decreases ad effectiveness: The roles of task relevance, video involvement, and visual attention” won third place in the Advertising Division and was co-authored by Bart Wojdynski, director of the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab and a Jim Kennedy New Media Professor; Matt Binford, Ph.D. student; and Charan Ramachandran, an undergraduate student.

Media multitasking is pervasive, and the research found that divided attention during multitasking may reduce how advertising is attended to and processed by consumers. Sun and her collaborators collected the data in an experiment with 153 participants, using the DMAC Lab’s eye-tracking equipment and through attitudinal and task-relatedness surveys completed by participants.

“The research aligns with my primary research interest and looks at the advertising format I like the most—in-stream video ads,” Sun said. “I’m grateful to my collaborators from the Digital Media, Attention, & Cognition Lab. It is their support and hard work that make this award more meaningful.”

Sun looks forward to expanding her research but is also interested in topics like ad effectiveness-related topics in green advertising and how humor may influence ad processing Sun also researches.

Not surprisingly, it’s the professors that make Grady stand out in Sun’s opinion.

Shuoya Sun (second from right) enjoys attending college activities like Dawgs with the Dean with other graduate students. Also pictured are Ph.D. students (from left) Andrea Briscoe, Youngji Seo and Marilyn Primovic. (Photo: contributed)

“I think the professors at Grady are really helpful,” Sun said. “They love to hear about your research ideas and work with you on a research project. They would also involve you in their projects when there is the chance.”

She also appreciates the funding opportunities through scholarships and graduate assistantships.

“Both at Grady and UGA at large, there are research-related funding opportunities to apply for,” Sun added.

Sun earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and journalism from the Communication University of China in Beijing. When she decided to return for her master’s education, she researched graduate schools online before deciding to apply to Grady College.

“I learned that it’s home of the renowned Peabody Award, offers different concentrations to suit student interests, and enjoys a good reputation nationwide,” she said of her decision. “In addition, it’s in a southern state of subtropical climate with mild winters,” she added half-jokingly.

Sun plans to find a job in research once she has her degree.

“A relaxing short vacation is also desired,” she concludes.

Warnings can alert consumers to ‘fake’ news

Being reminded about the existence of misinformation disguised as legitimate news can boost news readers’ ability to identify articles that are “fake” or false, according to researchers at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The research suggests that social media platforms could play a role in preventing readers from falling prey to misinformation designed to look like news. Led by Bartosz Wojdynski, Jim Kennedy New Media Professor at Grady College, subjects were provided with four science articles to read—two legitimate news articles and two that were fictional stories. Once the subjects read the news articles, they asked the subjects a series of questions.

The study found that readers who were given a warning that science misinformation exists were more discerning in classifying news articles as false or true. Warned readers also rated the two false articles as less credible than those who were not warned.

“It is important to occasionally remind news consumers to use their critical thinking skills,” Wojdynski said. “Since many articles are found through social media, this study shows the impact that even an automatic disclaimer on Facebook could have in reminding people to use their best judgement when they look at webpages.”

The study, authored by Wojdynski and Grady College doctoral students Matt Binford and Brittany Jefferson, was recently published in “Open Information Science.”

Online misinformation designed to look real is often referred to as “fake news,” although in recent years politicians and celebrities have adopted that phrase to dismiss factual news stories that are not to their liking, Wojdynski said.

Authors of misinformation or spam content typically style their content to resemble news to capture clicks or make readers think it is real, Wojdynski said. Because of this, many readers assume that because a story looks like news, it is factual.

The study, titled “Looks Real, or Really Fake? Warnings, Visual Attention and Detection of False News Articles,” used sophisticated eye-tracking equipment to examine which page elements participants viewed while evaluating each story. Elements included the headline, source information, the date the story was published, author information, internal story links and external page links. This information was compared with the post-survey questions to determine what role, if any, these design elements played in helping to identify the credibility of the article.

The study found that more people spent time looking at links to other content published by the website than bylines and timestamps. Time spent viewing two-page areas – those containing links to the publisher’s other content and those containing identifying information including the banner and URL – predicted correctly classifying one of the articles as false.

“This is important because a lot of literature talks about people looking at the URL and the source information, but this research shows that subjects are also trying to get a sense of who the publisher is by looking at what kinds of other stories they publish through external links,” Wojdynski said.

Post-survey questions measured the level of agreement that participants had with questions about credibility like “This article told the whole story” and “I found this article to be believable.”

The results of the study showed that participants receiving the warning that not all content that looks like news may be credible significantly increased false news detection compared with those who did not have the warning.

“This study makes a case for how, although media literacy interventions are our best way to influence how people evaluate online sources,” Wojdynski said, “a simple reminder to be discerning can have an impact.”

This research will also set the foundation for future eye-tracking research examining how subjects use the web to verify information in determining whether an article is credible or not.