Erika Franklin Fowler

Erika Franklin Fowler

“What are we feeding the machine?” poses Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler. It’s a question she asks of both her research subjects—political advertisers—and her research team. As director of the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP), she and her team are studying election ad content and its effects on public opinion, enabling journalists, citizens, and scholars to hold governments and special interests accountable.

Since the 2010 election cycle, Professor Fowler has led the student researchers involved with the Wesleyan Media Project in providing real-time data revealing who’s spending money on federal election advertising, what those ads promote, and who benefits. The importance of their work only intensified following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision, which opened the floodgates for unlimited spending on television and increasingly online. “Identifying and classifying election advertising from the myriad groups online is so challenging that Facebook asked us for help with their own data,” Professor Fowler shares.

In her cross-disciplinary Delta Lab, for example, two students are investigating how and when guns appear in ads, either substantively or symbolically. By revealing what messages ads send concerning guns, these students are (figuratively) arming academics, journalists, and policymakers with the evidence-based arguments they need to have impact.

“Each student brings their own skill set and interest to the challenge, and that opens creative problem-solving,” says Professor Fowler. “Many college students sit back and listen. At Wesleyan, you get the most interested and engaged student audiences who push you and your ideas further.”

Erika Franklin Fowler is Professor of Government and the Director of Wesleyan Media Project.