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ICA Top Paper: Malik, Youk, & Weber

Paper authors: Musa Malik, Dr. Sungbin Youk, and Dr. René Weber

In our lead up to #ICA24, we are providing information about papers that received Top Paper awards from the Communication Science and Biology (CSaB) Interest Group. Each paper received exceptionally high scores from reviewers. These papers reflect outstanding scholarship in CSaB. Today’s Top Paper features Malik, Youk, and Weber’s paper: “Beyond the screen: Looking for moral understanding in user comments on YouTube short films”. Be sure to check out the paper at #ICA24

CSaB: In a few short sentences, what is your study about?

Our research sheds light on the different ways in which audiences engage with and think about complex moral narratives. We noticed that in existing media psychology research, there has been limited scholarly attention directed towards evaluating the specific construct of moral understanding, which remains conceptually distinct from related constructs of moral knowledge, moral judgment, etc. To address this, we have combined insights from moral philosophy literature with media psychological and computational methods. In the paper, we propose eight dimensions of moral understanding—moral awareness, reasoning, emotional response, personal anecdotes, motivation, contextualization, self-reflection, and aesthetic perception. We hope that our theoretical explication of these dimensions helps inspire research in media psychology that can help the field study this construct with more precision. Furthermore, using large language models, we have analyzed the prevalence of our proposed dimensions in YouTube user comments. Our analyses show how different moral themes, like harm and loyalty, can trigger a range of cognitive and affective reactions that are potentially reflective of audiences’ moral understanding. We hope that our results not only offer new insights into how moral content affects audiences’ moral understanding but also provide guidance for future research that aims to leverage large language models in studying the exemplification of moral content in media.

CSaB: How did you come up with the idea for this line of research?

We were greatly inspired by our discussions at the Moral Media Conference 2022, hosted at Michigan State University. The conference gathered researchers from across the field, and we were fortunate enough to learn from their insights on how narrative media both shapes and reflects moral norms. Soon after the conference ended, and motivated by these interactions, we decided to explore how moral understanding is articulated in social media environments. Specifically, we were interested in examining if and how audience comments on YouTube short films could enhance our understanding of this construct.

CSaB: Tell us more about the team!

I am Musa Malik, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication at UC Santa Barbara and a senior researcher at the Media Neuroscience Lab. My research primarily focuses on the empirical study of morality in narratives and its impact on audience cognition and behavior. Recently, I have taken an active interest in exploring how AI value systems can be aligned with the values of the communities that interact with them. My co-author, Dr. Sungbin Youk, is an assistant professor in the Division of Communication and Media at Ewha Womans University and former member of the Media Neuroscience Lab. Sungbin received his PhD at UC Santa Barbara in 2023. His work utilizes computational and neuroscience approaches to extend our understanding of communicative phenomena such as persuasion, entertainment media, and excessive media use. Dr. René Weber, a professor in both the Department of Communication and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UC Santa Barbara, directs the Media Neuroscience Lab ( and is a member of UC Santa Barbara’s Neuroscience Institute ( He is a pioneer in using computational methods and brain imaging technology to study a wide range of topics in media psychology, including the appeal of media entertainment, diversity and inclusion, media violence, and the effectiveness of campaigns.

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