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Veni grant for communication scientist Philipp Masur

15 June 2022
Communication scientist Philipp Masur of VU Amsterdam receives a Veni grant of 280,000 euros from the Dutch Research Council (NWO). This was announced by the NWO in April. He is awarded this grant for his research project: ‘Bad influence through social media: How online behavioural contagion propagates problematic behaviours and what we can do against it’

Social media seems to facilitate the adoption of problematic behaviours, for example, incivility, or risky practices, like disclosing too much. However, the exact psychological mechanisms and ways to protect against the negative consequences of such behavioural contagion effects are unknown. Masur: “We know from psychological research that what others do is one of the most powerful influences on our behaviour. In past research, we’ve already discovered that social media can facilitate these contagious effects through prevalence of posts and algorithmic curation.” The basis of Masur’s Veni project is to better understand such behavioral adoption, particularly when it comes to risky or societally unwanted behaviour.

This project combines experimental, tracking, and simulation methods to study online behavioural contagion and its boundary conditions. Masur: “If you want to study how a social environment affects you, it is difficult to do so just in an experimental setting, or a self-report survey. For this project, together with a colleague, we came up with a new type of methodology. Because you can’t manipulate people’s friends on social media, we thought, what if we could put people in a simulation? So we created a fully functional social media networking site. We then populated it with bots that look and feel like real people but are programmed to behave a certain, controlled way. When participants use the platform, they believe that all other users are real people. This allows us to observe their reaction to different behavioral norms.”

The project further analyzes whether media literacy protects against the adoption of problematic behaviours and tests whether subtle nudges embedded into the social media design can prevent user from adopting these behaviours. Masur: “If we understand what is happening, we might also better understand what we can do against it. At what point can we intervene, or how can you make people more critical about adopting these behaviours?”

Masur's academic career has been marked by research into how communication and technology affect our everyday lives. “I started by investigating privacy in broad terms. What is it, and how does it matter to people in their daily lives? I studied how people perceive privacy and whether it mattered for how they behave on social media. Why do people disclose so much information on these platforms? I investigated if the gratification of disclosing the information is so strong, that we discard risks. I further found that people lack the knowledge and skills to implement meaningful protection.” With the Veni, he extends this work by focusing more specifically on the impact of the social environment on our behaviors.

Philipp Masur has been Assistant Professor for Persuasive Communication at VU Amsterdam since September 2020. He earned his PhD in the social sciences at the University of Hohenheim in 2018. He has previously worked in departments of communication at the University of Hohenheim and the University of Mainz and was a visiting scholar at Cornell University.

Veni, along with Vidi and Vici, is part of the NWO Talent Programme. Veni is aimed at researchers who have recently obtained their doctorates. Within the Talent Programme, researchers are free to submit their own subject for funding. In this way, NWO encourages curiosity-driven and innovative research.