Breanna Blackwell & Undergraduate Research

June 28, 2022

Breanna Blackwell, a third-year undergraduate student from New Zealand, conducted a SSHRC-funded research project alongside Oumar Kane, Derrick O'Keefe, Aimé-Jules Bizimana, and CMNS professor Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi. The group wanted to find out what themes could be associated with memetic social media discourses around COVID-19 and climate change.

By empirically analyzing memes deployed through Facebook and Instagram, they discovered a relationship between political ideologies and views on both COVID-19 and climate change. Their findings revealed specific themes that showed these different ideologies: memes present COVID-19 as either a problem to or solution for climate change; memes portray different effects between COVID-19 and climate change; some meme interactors consider both COVID-19 and climate changes hoaxes and/or conspiracies.

A political polarization lies between liberal and conservative groups as well as between climate change believers and deniers. Though intended mostly for humour and entertainment, the emained memes showed an attack of both left-wing and right-wing political views, which made the research team conclude that memes need to be taken seriously as a medium of communication.

Breanna played a crucial role in this project. She sifted through thousands of memes to help create the codebook that would later lead to the findings on the intersection between COVID-19 and climate change beliefs. She also read other essays related to the topic and then helped write parts of the published paper, particularly the method results and introduction.

We met with Breanna to chat more about the experience.

How did you find yourself a part of this project?

Since I'm majoring in Statistics and minoring in Communication, I wanted to find something that bridged the two worlds. I ended up taking Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi's CMNS 431, where we had to pick a topic and research it. We spent the entire semester on this one project and at the end, we submitted a final paper with our findings. I got the idea that this might be a road I wanted to take, so I reached out to Dr. Al-Rawi and asked if he had any research assistant openings.

Would you recommend getting into research as an undergrad?

Absolutely. Even if you don't think you want to do research in the future, it is such a fantastic learning experience because the process builds such a valuable skillset, like time management, writing, and teamwork, which will help you in everything else. It's also cool to see something go from an idea into a published paper.

Have your CMNS courses influenced the success of this research experience?

Yes. Every single one of them. Even if the courses weren't research-specific, everything I learned in the School of Communication worked as a building block in my contribution to this project. I do recommend Al Rawi's CMNS331 and 431 specifically, though. They are great courses to get a realization of how research can be enjoyable.

What have you learned about yourself from this project?

That you can find something here at SFU that combines all your interests. This project incorporated all the aspects of CMNS and Stats that I love without being too far into one field or the other. I also learned to have a little bit more faith in myself. This experience gave me the confidence to ask for opportunities that maybe I wouldn't have otherwise.

What advice would you give your fellow undergrad peers?

If you have a professor or course you thoroughly enjoy, reach out and ask for an opportunity. If you've reached out to someone you really admire, you're going to learn so much from them. Being open to opportunities is the best way to figure out what you want to do in your career. You could be a part of something you never thought you'd be.

I would also say, remember it's okay not to be perfect. As long as you're putting in the effort and are passionate about what you're doing, there are resources and people who will help with the rest. Have faith in yourself, too. You're already well on your way.

You can find the full research article, "COVID-19 in the Time of Climate Change: Memetic Discourses on Social Media," here.