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Does artificial intelligence make people more tolerant?

Silvia Westerwick researches media consumption in society

Can artificial intelligence use music to make people more tolerant of others? Silvia Westerwick wants to investigate this question in a research project in the near future. She explains: “Music plays a major role in defining our own self and our group affiliations. On the relevant music portals we are swamped with suggestions for tracks that might possibly be in line with our own musical tastes. I am interested in what happens when AI, or artificial intelligence, breaks through established preferences and suggests to someone a type of music that they have never listened to before – Latino pop, for example. Will users click to open or immediately click to close? How could recommender systems contribute to people opening themselves up to this type of music and, as a result, becoming more open towards groups that they do not feel affiliated to, like Latinos?” Since 2022, Silvia Westerwick has held a professorship in media studies with a focus on web science. She will conduct the project together with Steffen Lepa from the Audio Communication Group.

Westerwick spent 19 years conducting research in the United States, most recently at Ohio State University. A central theme of her work is identifying reasons why people choose certain media content. The “why,” according to Westerwick, allows deep insights into what drives people, how they are socialized, and how they perceive other people. “And the motives are diverse. I wrote a big book about it, but ultimately you can break it down to four main motives: the usefulness of information, the regulation of one’s own mood, self-socialization (that is, what society expects of me), and the need to have one’s own opinion validated. The scientific term for this is ‘selective media use,’” says Silvia Westerwick. During her last project in the States, she came to a surprising realization in this regard. “We looked at the impact of being given the opportunity to like or negatively rate a text. Before and after reading political content, we surveyed the test subjects’ attitudes about issues such as abortion, gun control, and welfare benefits. Then they were given texts on these topics to read on a news website, and we found that by using the ‘like’ option, their agreement or disagreement with the topic of the article became even more pronounced – sometimes even in cases when they had not read the article at all, but only the headline and the first few lines,” says Silvia Westerwick.

According to the 2022 online study conducted by the German public television broadcasters ARD and ZDF, 14 to 29-year-olds spend almost seven hours per day on the Internet. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is not a matter for Westerwick to judge. However, we do need to be aware of the consequences. “People who are forever using online content that is constantly being optimized by providers in terms of maximum emotionality and bonding power are more likely to find their real environment – a real sunset, for instance – boring and are less able to concentrate on it. That's a great pity!”

Author: Sybille Nitsche