Bellisario College doctoral student studying how social media gets political

Penn State gives Joe Cruz the opportunity to study politics through the lenses of comic books, film and social media

Joe Cruz, a doctoral student in the Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State, studies politics through the lenses of comic books, film and social media. Credit: Jonathan F. McVerry / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joe Cruz does not have a one-track mind. If he did, he wouldn’t be in his third year of doctoral work in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

Reluctant to begin the lifestyle of a doctoral student and the single-focus that comes with it, Cruz learned there was a better way. He found out he could examine several types of media — comic books, film and social media — and study their effects on issues important to him. It was a perfect match for the Puerto Rican-born researcher who always seemed destined to be a communicator.

“Not a doctor or fireman or the usual stuff,” he said. “When I was 6, I knew I was going to be on the radio. I played with cassette recorders. I got a camera when I was 12. That is where my passion (for communications) started.”

When he was 22, Cruz moved to New Jersey and enrolled at Kean University, located in Union, New Jersey, 18 miles west of New York City, to study broadcasting and media.

Cruz graduated in 2012. After graduation, he continued to work for the campus radio station, as well as a nearby bank. There was a time he thought a career in banking was in his future, but his passion for communications was too strong.

He enrolled at Rutgers University to begin work on a master’s degree in communication and information studies. It was there he met Jeffrey Lane, a sociologist in the university’s communications department who was working with poor communities in New York City. Lane studied how Facebook could be used to monitor activities and communications within the city’s poor communities.

“Research having social value caught my eye,” Cruz said. “I saw research as helping society in general, and I wasn’t necessarily aware of that before.”

Cruz’s interest in politics began while he was a high schooler in Puerto Rico. He made several appearances on the radio speaking as the “youth perspective” for one of the national parties. He was 17 and it was his first experience talking on air.

“It’s embarrassing to think about now,” he said with a laugh. “I had no idea what I was talking about.”

Given his political energy, it’s no surprise Cruz brings a community-minded approach to everything he does. He and a friend launched a theater group in his hometown in Puerto Rico. With little to no acting or production experience, they got a sponsorship from a local church and put on shows for five years.

“I needed a creative outlet,” Cruz said. “I never took a theater class, but I enjoy helping and volunteering. There was nothing to do (in my hometown), so we figured, ‘Let’s hold auditions.’”

Even while living in New Jersey, Cruz would frequently fly back to Puerto Rico to help with the productions. The schedule was “fun, but exhausting.” He said he wouldn’t have the energy today, but that’s OK because nearly all his time and focus go toward his doctoral work.

While exploring doctorate programs, Cruz was afraid he’d be forced to pick a discipline and then spend the rest of his life exploring the ins and outs of one narrowly focused topic.

“That’s just not me … it’s not my personality,” he said. “So, I have three areas of study that don’t necessarily overlap.”

Instead, he found Penn State provided a valuable breadth and depth of expertise and opportunities for graduate study.

Patrick Parsons, professor of telecommunications in the Bellisario College, said tackling multiple areas of study is not uncommon for graduate students, but it’s challenging. Luckily, Parsons said his graduate advisee is one of the most organized people he knows.

“Joe has got this renaissance ability to be a specialist in a bunch of areas and bring them together,” Parsons said. “On one hand, he can move from the history of political mobilization and social media development of political activism all the way down to elections in Puerto Rico and the role of social media there.”

It’s a wide area to cover and that’s exactly how Cruz likes it. Plus, his research interests don’t end there.

Cruz studies how comic books exemplify current global and national issues. He is working on a book chapter with Matt McCallister, professor of film-video and media studies, on how superheroes like Batman and Ironman promote hyper-individualism.

“They show us that you are good on your own if you have enough money and have the resources,” Cruz said. “If you are a part of the team, you’re the one leading. You’re the one with the vision.”

Cruz has studied film as well, mostly productions from Puerto Rico. He says the films he studies are often designed to build nationalistic enthusiasm. A lot of movies from his home territory don’t garner the attention U.S. films get, but they have the nationalistic themes that Cruz finds fascinating.

“I’ve been keeping a list of all the films I’ve seen my entire life,” Cruz said. “I am using that list as data now. I can revisit movies from all genres and see how nationalism is manifesting.”

When Cruz teaches COMM 150: The Art of Cinema, he cites the Nazi film “Triumph of the Will” as an important example of propaganda and the power of nationalistic film-making. The key takeaway, he said, is that the camera often lies.

“The camera is never neutral,” said Cruz. “You can set it up to emphasize certain things.”

Cruz loves the classroom and hopes to include teaching in his academic career. Parsons said Cruz’s attention to detail carries over to the classroom and helps him thrive in front of students.

“Joe is very personable,” Parsons said. “It’s a great blend of being very well organized, but when he sits down to talk he is very laid back and relaxed. All that works well for the classroom.”

Lastly, Cruz’s work also examines the ever-evolving world of social media. More and more researchers are studying the role online formats like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have on political and community engagement. Cruz calls it “digital citizenship.”

“We essentially have two lives — the real world and the social media world — that sometimes overlap,” he said. “Some of the research I am doing looks into those two streams of behavior. How is social media dividing us into clusters? How are people using it to develop into communities?”

As Cruz’s areas of research align, he hopes to have a dissertation idea in time for a January proposal defense. He plans to conduct most of his dissertation work next summer with a first draft coming in the fall. While he doesn’t have specifics, he is considering analyzing how political campaigns use online videos to create and maintain fear.

“My time at Penn State has been great,” Cruz said. “The faculty here are amazing and very welcoming. I am forever grateful for that. I am not sure if this (Ph.D. process) is supposed to be fun, but it is. It’s not easy, but it’s fun.”

Last Updated June 14, 2021