The Long Interview: Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus

Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus is a linguist at Swansea University. Within the department, she convenes and teaches the second-year undergraduate module Discourse Analysis, as well as the third-year module Language in the Media. She also supervises undergraduate dissertations and PhDs which focus on how different institutions (e.g., political parties and the media in the UK) use language to construct particular identities for vulnerable groups, such as individuals living in poverty or suffering from mental health.

As the academic year ended, I managed to catch up with Nuria to chat about her work.

What’s your area of specialism in Applied Linguistics?

Within Applied Linguistics I focus on Discourse Analysis, and when I do Discourse Analysis I’m always interested in institutional contexts of communication; quite often contexts that are mass-mediated. So, that used to be broadcasting but nowadays I am much more concerned with digital platforms.

So, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram?


So, what kinds of things do you work on, in relation to these new media environments?

For the past four years I have been working on various aspects of digital trust and influence. What I mean by that is how, when we communicate in digital environments, such as online forums and social media, we may seek to get others to place their trust in us, rather than in other people who may be competing for their attention or to get ‘their voices heard’ in those public spaces. My research asks: how do we seek to influence others, or get them to trust us, through the way we express our views and opinions digitally? In doing that, I have focused on those seeking to influence, or seeking to gain our trust, who are not doing it for positive reasons.

Such as?

Well, one context I’ve been looking at is online grooming, specifically how online groomers seek to develop trust in them from the victims. This is for deceptive purposes (interviewer’s note: sexual abuse). I look at how they seek to influence children’s behaviour through the language they use.

Sounds quite ‘dark’. How do you manage to separate yourself, personally, from the material you investigate and focus on the work of language analysis?

It is indeed a most distressing topic, especially as I am also a parent of young children. However, it is an issue that requires urgent attention from researchers and where linguists in particular can make a most valuable contribution.

Is this the only project you’ve worked on recently?

No, not at all.  Another, recent, example would be online radicalisation, which I have been working on as part of my involvement in the Swansea University founded Cyberterrorism Project.

What does that involve?

So, I’ve been examining online propaganda magazines published by jihadist groups. The language and images used in these magazines are a means by which these groups try to attract and recruit others to their ideology. But most recently, within this strand of my research, I’ve been looking at far right extremist groups in the UK and Australia –  how they use social media, specifically Twitter and Facebook. This research project is led by a Swansea colleague in the College of Law and Criminology: Dr Lella Nouri. It asks what do these groups seek to achieve? Is it to mobilise people? Or is it recruitment? What themes and narratives do they construct in their messages, and through which specific uses of language, for example, which sociolinguistic styles?

Which groups have you been looking at in particular?

Well, recently Swansea University’s Cyberterrorism Project held a conference Terrorism and Social Media  (interviewer’s note: Nuria was part of the organising committee) and I co-presented work done on the far right extremism project using two groups as our case study: the UK group Britain First and an Australian group called Reclaim Australia; some of the funding for this research came from Edith Cowan University in Australia and some from Swansea University’s CHERISH-DE centre.

When you say ‘language’ is it just ‘words’ you’re talking about here?

No, when I say language I mean language in context, and always as part of a complex, though fascinating, semiotic system that also includes images, sounds, non-verbal communication and any other sign-based means.

I know, from discussion with some of our third-year students, you have just finished another project. What’s that?

Yes, I’ve recently completed a research project funded by Swansea University’s CHERISH-DE Centre into trust in crypto-drug markets. So, those are places in the dark web in which people sell and buy drugs. And, in my case, we’ve been looking at all the forums (a c. 250 million word corpus) in what is considered the flagship of crypto-drug markets: Silk Road. The research project has examined how trust is sought, developed and assessed by buyers and sellers in that crypto-drug market.

Ah, I can see that connection between language and the very human issue of trust and influence. But what’s unusual or innovative is the context?

That’s right. In all these projects, you can see the common theme is the salience and relevance of language in achieving trust and influence, always considering how digital environments may shape and be shaped by the process. You know, it’s not the same to persuade using a 140-character limit (for Twitter) than when you have a much more flexible limit (e.g. a feature article in an online magazine or a non-character restricted forum post). It’s also different when people have an aspect of illegality surrounding the communicative environment, that is, when they’re aware that their actions may be subject to law enforcement activity. So yes, the interconnected issues of trust and influence unify the themes of my research, which examines them within emerging communication platforms in our digital era.

Does your work mean that you collaborate with other academics or institutions? How ‘applied’ is your research?

To the first part of your question – yes, most of the time, really. I’ve enjoyed working with scholars from other disciplines – mainly criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, historians and, lately, security studies experts. But (and this is relevant to the second part of your question) it’s not only with academics that I collaborate! I think it’s important in the kind of applied work that I do to reach out from the ‘academic ivory tower’ and engage with the real world. So, I work with many stakeholders.

Who are these ‘stakeholders’?
Well, regarding my work on online grooming communication, I’ve developed a partnership with the NSPCC, which involves the development of materials that will support professionals who work with children – principally social workers. These children may have been subject to online grooming, or may be vulnerable to it. In June this year, we presented key project findings at a specialist session at the annual NSPCC How Safe national conference which was attended by stakeholders such as the government and private businesses, and the interest in our work has grown substantially through this dissemination and collaboration.

With the crypto-drugs market project I’ve also been in direct contact with the Home Office and local law enforcement in South Wales, as well as a workshop presentation on the use of linguistics methods for investigating crypto-drug markets for the UN. Really, it’s key that we extend our knowledge beyond academia and Applied Linguistics is a discipline that provides many opportunities for activities and work beyond traditional education contexts.

Actually, as part of the dissemination, knowledge exchange and engagement activities linked to the projects I’ve outlined, I was at the Universidade de Brasilia in May this year to talk to academics and students there about my research into digital trust and influence.  And discussion always lead to further discussions about current and potential future projects. So, while I was there, the idea of collaboration on the issue of far-right extremists’ use of social media was discussed, as they have similar issues in Brazil. Collaboration is infectious!

In what way do students studying Applied Linguistics at Swansea benefit from the research that you do?

I think the students benefit directly from my research-led teaching. By that I mean that I always include examples of my latest project in my courses – I change my curriculum and teaching materials every year to make sure they’re topical and relate to cutting-edge research. So, in the past academic year, for Language in the Media, the 3rd year students worked on communicative means of persuasion in crypto-drug markets, and the second-year students on Discourse Analysis worked on the speech act of requests in online grooming chat logs. So, in this way, the projects are relevant to potential careers (that involve project work) and they get a taste of what it’s like to do applied research.

I have also applied for SPIN project placements (student paid internships) and three years ago, through a collaborative SPIN with the College of Law and Criminology, students from the college were able to spend four weeks at a leading centre for terrorism studies located within the University of Massachusetts Lowell. They also took part in a summer school at Swansea University where they were taught interdisciplinary methods, including corpus linguistics, for researching into online radicalisation. They subsequently presented their research and I’ve co-published work with them (see here).

Again, this year I have another SPIN project where two of our students are working on online grooming communication. This is not only with me but also the larger research team that involves NSPCC professionals. This is good as it exposes them to stakeholders, state of the art research,and collaborative working during their undergraduate studies.

What are you moving on to now?

Well, I have recently secured a two-year funded Leverhulme Trust Award for a project which concerns language barriers in the youth justice system. Specifically, we will investigate assessment interviews with young people who have come into contact with the youth justice system.

A move away from the digital environment, then?

Yes, for this one. Although the project does not examine digital contexts, it is nevertheless concerned with how best to develop effective communication  between youth justice workers and young people  who have come into contact with the youth justice system, for which interpersonal trust is essential .

One of the project’s specific aims is to stimulate a shift towards examining the role and impact of professional language use on the communicative efficacy of assessment processes in the Youth Justice System. We believe that the effectiveness of communication in Youth Justice interviews depends in part on how Youth Offending Team practitioners carry out these interviews, as well as on how willing and able the young persons are to contribute to them.

Will this be another collaborative project?

Yes. The principal-investigator in the project is a renowned criminologist, Professor Stephen Case, from Loughborough University. And we are also working with Dr Ralph Morton who is an early career researcher at Loughborough.

So, what form will this project take?

Well, it started in March 2017 and will run for 24 months. We are working with recorded interviews done by youth justice assessment teams in England and Wales. What we’re looking at is how they can make sure their communication with young people in the system is as effective and positive as possible. We will be able to offer suggestions and recommendations for enhanced practice. So the idea, really, is to support both the professionals and the young people. We will be involved in the co-creation of materials to help day-to-day practice. We plan to use Conversation Analysis as our main analytic framework. Ensuring our work is fully compliant with best practice in research ethics is paramount in this project. In terms of recording real-life interactions (interviews, specifically) between youth justice professionals and young people, for example, we are particularly mindful of perceptions of intrusion depending on our recording choices (e.g., video versus audio?) into what is a high-stakes, real-world setting.

An easy one now! What do you love about language and applied linguistics?

Not so easy – there’s so much Alexia!

Ok, I’ll re-phrase: what is so important about language and Applied Linguistics? Why do a degree in it?

One of the things I love the most about studying language is that, as you can see, it enables you to work with, and learn from, colleagues from other disciplines, as well as from a wide range of professionals. I often say to them ‘everybody needs a linguist’ at the onset of our collaboration and they look at me as if to say, ‘we’re not quite sure.'” But they always end up with: “ok, yes, we do need a linguist on our research team!”

I love how language, and research into language, is so central to almost every aspect of human behaviour. The issues I am interested in cannot be fully understood without a strong linguistic focus.  A number of stakeholders and other disciplines have a keen interest in trust and influence in digital environments, but have not considered the key part played by   language. Yet, if you take the worrying issue of online grooming, for example, you soon realise that it is a communicative process, that it’s about persuading someone to do something for you. Ok, there is also likely an element of coercion involved, but it’s about using language to attain particular goals.  Language is key.

So, I guess that I love how fundamental language is to anything that is human. If there is anything that makes us human, it’s language and how we use it, which is precisely what my research focuses on, across a range of contexts. It allows me to work across a number of disciplines in and out of academia, advancing human knowledge.