Introductions

I am a fifth year doctoral student in the Political Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. I hold an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, where I grew up.

My research focuses on studying media and political behavior in India. My interest in studying political behavior was fueled by the summer of 2014, when India held its general election, the largest democratic exercise in the history of human civilization. The election was particularly special for me: it was the first time I was eligible to vote, and I was working on the campaign team for a Member of Parliament. I went door to door and spoke to hundreds of voters, many of whom mentioned their frustration with rising corruption in the country. The closer I looked at the election the more confused I felt; rampant corruption was visible to voters, and still it seemed to have no effect on the election outcome when as many as 186 ministers with criminal backgrounds were elected to power. Could it really be that party ID was so influential to the electorate that it was willing to
overlook corruption? Or did the extent of corruption in India actually give people a reason not just to tolerate but also to actively prefer candidates who knew how to “work the system”? As I looked for answers I realized that I did not have the insights or the data that I would need to answer them.

My experience with the 2014 election and my MA research brought to light how little we knew to answer the question of why a voter casts a ballot in a given way in the world’s largest democracy. In addition, it highlighted how little we knew about partisan identity in the Indian context. In America, scores of research studies focus on people’s attachments to parties and on partisan motivated reasoning, a phenomenon where people seek out information reinforcing prior partisan beliefs. In the world’s largest democracy, we knew little to nothing about the strength of ideology, partisan attachments, or motivated reasoning. Having little recourse to survey data – for such data simply did not exist in India – when I started my PhD I delved into the world of designing and conducting my own surveys and experiments. Little over four years since my doctoral studies began, my work is still focused on survey and experimental methods.

My dissertation, in particular, grapples with the challenges that the new world of the Internet and WhatsApp has brought to India, and my research aims to pilot and design tools to foster trust in the right kind of news and reduce the uptake of political misinformation. My research evaluates the effectiveness of interventions to combat political misinformation in India and the power of partisanship and motivated reasoning to affect information processing. To answer these questions, I develop and use experimental and survey methods to study the relationship between newer forms of media like WhatsApp and their effect on fake news, polarization, political participation, and quality of democracy.

My summer and final year dissertation research is being supported by a generous grant from the Sobti Family Foundation. This summer, I am pursuing new lines of research surrounding COVID-19 misinformation, affective polarization, and a survey on Indian-American political behavior and attitudes ahead of the 2020 US election.

As we begin a difficult fall semester, and as new projects begin to finally take shape, I look forward to updating this blog with more details on their progress.

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About Sumitra Badrinathan

I am a fifth year Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. My research interests include studying misinformation, media effects and comparative politics, with a regional focus on India. I use experimental and survey methods to study the relationship between newer forms of social media like WhatsApp and their effect on fake news, polarization, political participation and quality of democracy. I hold an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.