Meet Lisa Oswald, a PhD researcher at the Hertie School

The computational social scientist talks about how she benefitted from the PhD programme and her recent publication in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

PhD researcher Lisa Oswald joined the Hertie School’s Data Science Lab in 2020 from Oxford University’s Internet Institute. She talked with us about the Hertie School’s PhD programme, interdisciplinary exchange and the power of social media.

When did you decide to become a researcher?

Already during my undergraduate studies in psychology, I noticed I was interested in research. At the same time, I realised it exceeds that of individual human behaviour which we study in psychology. That is why I specialised in social psychology and – after my German master’s degree – joined the University of Oxford for a second master’s degree in social data science. I have always found the interlinkage of social media, democracy and human behaviour quite fascinating, and this is something I am studying in my dissertation on public discourse in online environments.

Having studied at such a prestigious university like Oxford, why did you move to Berlin for your PhD?

With Brexit's unclear and adverse effects on academia, I wanted to leave the UK. I heard of the Hertie School by mere coincidence because I just happened to meet PhD student Leonie Neuhäuser at the Data Science Lab. The stipend-based programme sounded very promising to me. It is rare in Germany that your living expenses are fully covered, that you have time to focus on independent research early on and that you can profit from an interdisciplinary environment.

How do you benefit from the PhD programme?

In many ways. First of all, I have a great supervisor at Hertie. I work with Simon Munzert who also introduced me to teaching statistics and introduction to data science and with whom I am coauthoring on several research projects. Furthermore, as we PhD researchers are organised more around thematic fields than academic disciplines, I am benefitting from exchange with colleagues at the Hertie School’s other centres of competence and colleagues from joint PhD programmes across Berlin, as well as from the European university alliance CIVICA. I can easily build up my network from there. I also enjoy the different PhD courses. From research design to researchers’ public communication – the programme combines profound academic knowledge with practical soft skills. The fact that the programme is structured has also helped me a lot. I had to pin down my research fast and have needed to present updates multiple times.

With a recent publication in Nature Human Behaviour, you seem to be quite successful. How did you master first authorship with the journal?

I think two factors proved helpful for publishing “Digital Media and Democracy: A Systematic Review of Causal and Correlational Evidence Worldwide”. First of all, I benefitted from the insights of my co-authors at different institutions. Secondly, I feel the topic hits a nerve. For a long time now, researchers have tried to find out whether social media has negative impacts on democracy. Numerous publications have come to different conclusions. What our work offers is a large cross-analysis of almost 500 studies.

And the results?

As often, it depends. In our analysis, we found that in established democracies, social media can have negative impacts on the political system. But in authoritarian regimes or restricted democracies, they can have positive effects. In these contexts, people mobilise use social media to mobilise for political change. And I think this is the main reason that research at the intersection of data, psychology and democracy is so powerful and interesting to me.


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