Skip to main content

Faculty Spotlight: Olga Kamenchuk

Studying the intersection of political psychology, public opinion, and policy analysis with a focus on Eastern Europe

Get all our news

Subscribe to newsletter

I'm interested in the way people process and understand information, including manipulations of information.”

Olga Kamenchuk
IPR associate research professor

Olga Kamenchuk headshot

After graduating college in the late 1990s, Olga Kamenchuk worked as a journalist at a local radio and TV station in Ivanovo, Russia. At the time, the press was relatively free under President Boris Yeltsin, the first popularly elected Russian president.

After leaving journalism, Kamenchuk watched the country shift toward authoritarianism over the years under Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin. The government began to regulate the internet, while people self-censored themselves out of fear or went to jail for what they posted on social media. 

“The way I remember it [Russia] was very far from that,” Kamenchuk said, looking back at the changes in the country over the last several decades.

Kamenchuk, an associate research professor in Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research and an associate professor of instruction in the School of Communication, now studies public opinion and political psychology with a focus on Eastern Europe.

“That's one thing that interests me as a researcher—authoritarian countries—as well as authoritarian backsliding in new democracies or democracies in general,” Kamenchuk said.

After getting her PhD in psychology in the United States, research has always been a part of her various roles in academia, think tanks, intergovernmental organizations, and NGOs both in Europe and the U.S. Along with conducting research, she would often present it to the media. 

“I'm interested in the way people process and understand information, including manipulations of information,” she said.

Using Public Opinion to Bridge Divides

Feb. 24, 2024, marked the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a war which many Ukrainians see as beginning in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Since 2022, over half a million people from both countries have died, according to U.S. officials, and an estimated 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes.  

One of Kamenchuk’s new research projects is investigating how Ukrainians and Russians see one other and how they believe the conflict should be resolved. She and her colleagues are conducting surveys and analyzing media sources and social media posts from both countries to understand each group’s attitudes toward the other. While she started this project before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she points to the impact the war has had on it.  

“I think the war made it more even more important to see what might be distancing people [from one another],” she said.

For Kamenchuk, this research is personal. She’s ethnically Ukrainian, spent summers in Ukraine growing up, and has relatives in Ukraine and Russia—giving her insights into both sides of the conflict. Learning how Ukrainians and Russians see one another could be crucial to drive policy that could bring a resolution to the war.

“It's very interesting to me to look at the future,” Kamenchuk said. “If we can help policymakers to find some kind of management or potential solutions to such horrible conflicts and perceptions and the way people feel about each other—this is something that interests me.”

One of the challenges of collecting traditional survey data in a conflict zone is that many Ukrainians are now refugees, either internally or in other countries. This has made using computational methods to analyze social media datasets critical to help control for changes in Ukraine’s population.

Ayse Lokmanoglu, professor of communication at Clemson University and a former postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern, is currently working with Kamenchuk on this research. Lokmanoglu says Kamenchuk’s regional expertise and understanding of international policy are an asset to her as a researcher, but her curiosity makes her unique.  

“I think she has a natural curiosity that every researcher says they have, but she actually has,” Lokmanoglu said. “Her curiosity drives the project to be better.” 

Investigating How Emotions Drive Behavior

After Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fled the country and the ones who stayed experienced crackdowns by the Russian government for expressing their disapproval of the war. But this was part of a long history of Russian censorship.

Another line of Kamenchuk’s research focuses on political psychology and how emotions drive the success of state-sponsored disinformation. To understand how people respond to these kinds of restrictions, Kamenchuk and communication and policy scholar and IPR associate Erik Nisbet, who are married, conducted a study before the war in 2018 to explore how Russians perceive and respond to the risk of online activism.

Their research shows that Russians used their emotions more than reason when calculating the risk of engaging in political activism online. How much a person cared about the issue also mattered—people who felt strongly about a topic were the most likely to engage in online activism.

“We noticed that this relationship between emotions and political expression can be very different, depending on how informed are people on the topics that can be deemed controversial,” she said.

This research has broader implications beyond Russia, Kamenchuk says, in terms of how we understand why democracies backslide and what has worked to stop countries from sliding into autocracy.  

“Can we do much in Russia? I'm not sure, honestly, at this point,” Kamenchuk said. “But can we do something in those countries, which have been democracies or are still democracies, but seem to be backsliding? That's where we might do something. 

In a 2021 study looking at how Russians responded to state-sponsored misinformation about COVID-19, Kamenchuk and Nisbet coined the term “informational learned helplessness” to describe the fatigue people feel when they have been exposed to repeated false and misleading information and they give up trying to figure out the truth.

“People can feel helpless, trying to make sense of what they're seeing around themselves,” she said, explaining that they eventually stop trying to determine fact from fiction.

Technology can play an important role in empowering people to spot misinformation, Kamenchuk says, pointing to a large-scale "pre-bunking" campaign by Google’s Jigsaw against misinformation about Ukrainian refugees. In 2022, Jigsaw launched a series of social media videos in European countries such as Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to tackle emerging misinformation with anti-refugee narratives. 

"These methods can incorporate digital engagement for societal resilience,” she said.

Olga Kamenchuk is an associate professor of instruction in the School of Communication, an IPR associate research professor, and an IPR associate.

Published: April 17, 2024.