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PhD Student Position in Computer Science - Detection of Contextual Political Communication

Institutionen för datavetenskap




  • Type of employment Temporary position longer than 6 months
  • Extent 100 %
  • Place Umeå

The Department of Computing Science is seeking candidates for a PhD student position in Computer Science, with focus on detection of AI-driven contextual communication. AI-driven advertising is frequently put forth as one of the main successes of deep learning, and there is an outright arms race between the major advertising platforms to offer their customers the most effective means of influencing their viewers. Contextual communication has advantages compared to personalised advertising in terms of data privacy, but it also involves new and possibly even more severe risks: It seems likely that it can drive polarisation of not only opinions but also beliefs and may, over time, come to pose a serious threat to social cohesion and democratic processes.  With the announced project, we want to provide methods to detect the presence of contextual advertising in the context of political communication. We will then use these to enrich our understanding of the dynamics of political systems, and how these may change when AI-driven communication is injected.

The PhD student will contribute to a multidisciplinary theory of AI-driven contextual communication. The project combines qualitative and quantitative methods and is conducted under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Johanna Björklund and Jesper Strömbäck, Professor in journalism and political communication at the University of Gothenburg. The student will receive education in machine learning, algorithm analysis, and empirical methods, as well as behavioural, communication and audience studies.

The Department of Computing Science is a dynamic environment with around 100 employees representing more than 20 countries worldwide. The student will be part of the research group for Foundations of Language Processing, which studies the theoretical and practical aspects of representing language on computers, and its interconnection with other sources of information. The group consists of 4 senior researchers and 7 PhD students who collaborate in varying constellations. The PhD student will also collaborate with Jesper Strömbäck’s political communication research group at Gothenburg university, which involves regular research visits.

The PhD position is part of the Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program on Humanities and Society (WASP-HS) aims to realize excellent research and develop competence on the consequences and challenges of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems for humanity and society. This 10-year program is initiated and generously funded by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation (MMW) with 660 million SEK. In addition to this, the program receives support from collaborating industry and from participating universities. Major goals are more than 10 new faculty positions and more than 70 new PhDs. For more information about the research and other activities conducted within WASP-HS please visit

The WASP-HS graduate school provides foundations, perspectives, and state-of-the-art knowledge in the different disciplines taught by leading researchers in the field. Through an ambitious program with research visits, partner universities, and visiting lecturers, the graduate school actively supports forming a strong multi-disciplinary and international professional network between PhD students, researchers and practitioners in the field. It thus provides added value on top of the existing PhD programs at the partner universities, providing unique opportunities for students who are dedicated to achieving international research excellence with societal relevance.

Research Project
Online advertising relies on automated real-time auctions of advertising space. The reigning method is personalized advertising, where ads are matched with the viewer profile, but the industry is seeking alternatives that avoid the use of personal information. An emerging solution is contextual advertising, where the ad is instead matched with the surrounding media context. The techniques can also be combined, but this aggravates the privacy risks.

To gain a better understanding of how and where contextual communication is used in political communication, and when it is combined with personalized advertising, we propose to develop diagnostic methods. In an initial form, these can consist in repeatedly requesting articles from one and the same online publisher and evaluate how the ads received relate to the article content and user profile supplied. If the ads are not independent from content topic and user profile, there is reason to believe that there is a targeting mechanism in place. In this case, we can make controlled changes to our requests, to probe the behavior of the targeting system. Once the diagnostics are in place, we can use these for a comparative study to better understand how and where contextual advertising is used for political purposes.

The project thus combines qualitative and quantitative methods. Before experiments can be run, we need to formulate a theoretical framework in which to express our hypotheses. We then set up experiments, collect real-world data, conduct statistical analysis, and discard or refine our hypothesis in response to the outcome. The result is an empirically grounded theory of AI-driven political communication over the contextual programmatic ecosystem, together with software tools to detect and analyse its usage.

About the position
The successful applicant will receive a monthly salary for a period of four years full time research, provided that expected study and research results are achieved. The position may also include part-time teaching (normally up to 20%). If so, the total time for the position is extended accordingly (up to maximum five years). Expected starting date is 1st of September 2021 or as otherwise agreed.

Admission requirements
The applicant is required to have completed a second-cycle level degree, or completed course requirements of at least 240 ECTS credits, of which at least 60 ECTS credits are at second-cycle level, or have an equivalent education from acquired in another system, or equivalent qualifications. To fulfil the specific entry requirements for doctoral studies in computing science, the applicant is required to either have completed courses equivalent to 90 ECTS credits in computer science. However, due to the multidisciplinary nature of the project, it is permissible that at most 20 of these credits are substituted for credits in politics, media and communication, statistics, discrete mathematics, or mathematical modelling.

Since research is conducted in an international research environment, the ability to collaborate and contribute to teamwork, and a very good command of the English language, both written and spoken, are key requirements. Candidates are expected to have a background in computer science; a specialization in artificial intelligence or machine learning is a merit. Candidates from related disciplines, with a very good understanding of fundamental concepts of computer science and good programming experience, may also be considered. Candidates should furthermore have an interest in political communication.

- A complete application must contain the following documents:
- A cover letter including a description of your research interests, your reasons to apply for the position, and your contact information
- A curriculum vitae
- If applicable, copies of completed BSc and MSc theses and other original research publications
- Certified copies of degree certificates, including documentation of completed academic courses and obtained grades

Applications must be submitted electronically using the e-recruitment system Varbi, and received no later than June 25, 2020. Reference number: AN 2.2.1-829-21

The procedure for recruitment for the position is in accordance with the Higher Education Ordinance (chapter 12, 2§) and the decision regarding the position cannot be appealed.

As we strive for a more balanced gender distribution within the department, we encourage women as applicants.

For additional information, please contact Johanna Björklund at

We look forward to receiving your application!

Registration number

AN 2.2.1-829-21

Union representative


090-786 53 65


090-786 52 96


090-786 54 31




Umeå University wants to offer an equal environment where open dialogue between people with different backgrounds and perspectives lay the foundation for learning, creativity and development. We welcome people with different backgrounds and experiences to apply for the current employment. We kindly decline offers of recruitment and advertising help.