Media research with its finger on the pulse

15 Jan 2024

Ruth Wendt, Professor of Communication Science, researches digital literacy in algorithmic spaces

“Fake news, algorithms, online hate: exploring issues at the bleeding edge of our culture is a distinguishing feature of our discipline, for sure,” observes Professor Ruth Wendt, who since 2022 has been Professor of Communication Science with a special focus on Digital Literacy in Algorithmic Spaces at LMU. “These are highly topical phenomena, which students are personally familiar with and take up in their bachelor’s and master’s dissertations.”

Ruth Wendt studied educational science, psychology, and communication science at LMU. “This threefold division of subjects in the Magister degree back then – and the interdisciplinary interplay between them – would go on to color my subsequent research career.” In 2014, she obtained a doctorate in communication science at the University of Münster with a thesis on Online perpetrators: an analysis of individual and structural explanatory factors for cyberbullying in school contexts.

From 2010 to 2015, she was a research fellow at the Universities of Hohenheim and Münster. Subsequently, she worked in the field of digital literacy for the first time as a research consultant for children, adolescents, and media at the German Youth Institute (DJI), a role she held until 2017.

Porträt von der Kommunikationswissenschaftlerin Professorin Ruth Wendt. Sie trägt einen schwarzen Pullover und ein hellgraues Jacket.

Professorin Ruth Wendt

© LMU/Jan Greune

Media literacy against fake news

Next, Wendt was a postdoctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media (IWM) in Tübingen. “Working at institutes outside the university sphere may seem unusual for someone pursuing an academic career,” says Wendt. “But universities today are more attuned to practical applications and knowledge transfer than in the past.” In the 2021 summer semester, Wendt was interim professor for communication science at LMU before returning to the German Youth Institute in 2022. Later that year, she was appointed to her current professorship at LMU.

Her main research interests run the gamut from media skills, use, and impacts to media socialization and education. She is particularly interested in how children and adolescents use and are affected by digital media, and in digital media practices and impacts in families and schools. In a current project, for instance, Wendt is exploring how education programs can help adolescents acquire media literacy competencies – when it comes to matters such as recognizing fake news. Another project is titled: Algorithms and artificial intelligence in the everyday lives of adolescents.

Although still too early for systematic results, “we’ve already seen in focus groups that schoolchildren do in fact use high-profile AI programs such as ChatGPT in their schoolwork – to try things out, be creative, research homework, and so forth.” In general, her investigations have shown that while teenagers are often highly clued in on a theoretical level, they do not behave accordingly online. “We’re asking why this is.” The answer – “as ever in the social sciences” – is a complex interplay of factors, such as peer norms, prior education, parental attitudes, etc.

Content analyses of internet posts

Adolescents understood very well that social media were showing them content selected by algorithms, but often they did not see this as a bad thing, reports Wendt. “After all, algorithms find things that the adolescents like – moreover, they seem to play a useful role for teenagers in bringing structure to the deluge of information available.” On the other hand, the focus groups revealed that the teenagers had fears around AI, particularly in relation to their professional futures. As the focus groups were comprised almost exclusively of academic high school students, the researchers are additionally investigating a sample containing a variety of educational groups in a representative study.

Another research topic of Wendt’s is so-called sexual microaggressions, such as appear in the comment sections of the posts of female influencers. “Obviously, these places contain no shortage of more serious aggressions either, but the idea is to enhance our ability to grasp, define, and localize these subtle yet very frequent microaggressions,” says Wendt. She investigates this subject, for instance, through content analyses of the posts of or interviews with female influencers.

In her teaching, too, Ruth Wendt covers highly topical subjects. At the moment, for example, she is giving a seminar on how mental illnesses are depicted on social media. “Events like this are very well received – and students develop their research topics out of their own experiences.”

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