Fake News, Affect, and Media Literacy (C&W 2018)

Here is my introduction as part of a round table at the 2018 Computers and Writing Conference at George Mason:

As Bruce McComiskey describes in his recent Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, “fake news” has become another means to validate and circulate falsehoods, facilitated by social media and an audience’s desire to share and support this erroneous news. But it goes beyond this. As Collin Brooke argues in “How Trump Broke/red the Internet,” many people critiquing articles share them, causing it to trend, and beyond human agents, bots share and comment. “The Spread of True and False News Online” by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral finds that fake news tends to spread faster than truthful sources on Twitter.

As an example, fake news offers a sticky paradox: opponents of “post-truth” are often hampered in their fight by broader histories of habit (especially in the media), infrastructure, and economic goals and models. While this brief introduction does not have the space to detail this, I want to describe what I mean, why it’s significant, and two approaches.

A Backdrop: Media and Post-Truth Rhetoric

In terms of these histories of habit, Michael X. Delli Carpini argues in “Alternative facts,” “Rather than an exception, ‘Trumpism’ is a culmination of trends that has been occurring for several decades” (18). The blur between news and entertainment, the weakening of traditional gatekeepers, and the growth of what Carpini calls a “multiaxial” and “hyperreal” media landscape, where contradictory news co-exists and information often replaces the underlying material reality it represents—all of these represent long-standing trends contributing to Trump and post-truth rhetoric.

Mainstreaming fringe discourse also contributes. As Waisborg et al argue in “Trump and the Great Disruption in Public Communication,” mainstream news offered platforms for fact-free, intolerant discourse from formerly fringe groups, and as Zeynep Tufekci argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, algorithms on sites like YouTube often draw viewers to more extreme content. Angela Nagel, in Kill all Normies, and a recent report from Whitney Phillips in Data and Society also point out this mainstreaming, highlighting the role of trolls. Furthermore, as Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression highlights: the digital infrastructure often enforces hegemony and racism.

As rhetoric has long been central to public deliberation, we need to teach what has become of this deliberation. While political enmity, fractured discourse, and fake news are not new—from Ancient Athens killing Socrates to the strife of Reconstruction—our media landscape is. And I think two points bare deeper scrutiny.

Possible Responses

First, as Zizi Papacharissi argues in Affective Publics, we often underestimate the role affect in public debate. This is especially true today, as her work with social media shows. Many of these point-and-click economies rely on affect, often stoking social change—or the means for it—through revenue models, forming “affective publics” as networks organize online and offline. Many legacy media outlets also rely on affect to draw and maintain viewers, informing coverage. While we, as a field, may often prioritize logos and ethos in writing, we need to recognize affect and its ability to circumvent other appeals—through humans and interfaces.

Second, much as the digital humanities has advocated working with computer science departments while developing computer literacies of our own, I think we need to connect with media and journalism. As public rhetoric often takes place through news—fake or otherwise, on television or through Facebook—we need to connect with those who do this work, how it is done, its history, and how it circulates. In other words, we need to interrogate the whole structure, not just consumer media habits and literacies.

Patricia Roberts-Miller argues in Demagoguery and Democracy that demagoguery comes from an underlying culture. Even as we fight the daily battles of post-truth rhetoric, we must also—per our energy’s allowance—combat the underlying war, as it pervades our media, politics, and daily lives.

 

Works Cited:

Bockowski, Pablo J. and Zizi Papacharissi, eds. Trump and the Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018.

Brooke, Collin Gifford. “How #Trump Broke/red the Internet” Skinnell 122-141.

Carpini, Michael X. Delli. “Alternative Facts : Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New U.S. Media Regime.” Bockowski and Papacharissi 17-24.

McComiskey, Bruce. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2017.

Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2017.

Papacharissi, Zizi. Affective Publics : Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Phillips, Whitney. “The Oxygen of Amplification.” Data and Society. 22 May 2018. Web.

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. New York, NY: The Experiment, 2017.

Skinnell, Ryan, ed. Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump. Exeter, UK: Imprint, 2018.

Tufekci, Zeynep. “YouTube, The Great Radicalizer.” The New York Times. 10 March 2018. Web.

Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, Sinan Aral. “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science 359.6380 (2018): 1146-1151.

Waisbord, Silvio, Tina Tucker, and Zoey Lichtenheld. “Trump and the Great Disruption in Public Communication.” Bockowski and Papacharissi 25-32.

Image Credits:

Featured: Lorie Shaull, “Lightning strikes Trump bus…fake news?” (via CC)

 

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CCR 634: Doing things with Words

When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.

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CCR 633: Multimodality, Part 2

Chapter three begins with the “prosumer,” an idea that Alexander and Rhodes borrow from Daniel Anderson. The “prosumer,” they describe, is “a convergence of the consumer and the professional in terms of new media tools” (106). Many new media tools allow consumers, formerly just receivers, to produce products, thereby acting as professionals. This, in turn, allows a more critical focus on production, as it is no longer black-boxed behind the usual channels, but in the hands of the consumer.

This similar idea–that of consumer as professional or producer–also connects with the Situationalist notion of “détournement,” a form of “pillaging or appropriation,” as Frances Stracey describes (qtd. in Alexander and Rhodes 112).  The Situationalists argued that capitalism had the constant need to project a “spectacle” of needs that inspire consumers to thirst after products, so people should critically produce to counter this.

Alexander and Rhodes connect these ideas to current DIY movements, but emphasize the “critical” dimension of this production. In other words, it’s not simply enough to be critical, in a humanities sense, or to produce; one must use production in a critical way, engaging in multimodal production through new media tools. They provide the example of images that grew in “excess” from their work that argue their work or ethos as “queer rhetoric” scholars in different ways.

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CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy

As Amy Wan highlights, citizenship is a messy word, a word that comes up in many discussions about writing but rarely gets interrogated or defined. It exists as a “ambient” term.

At its most reductive, it’s a legal status, as Wan points out. But it also has a cultural element infused with literacy. As Wan notes, “it [citizenship] is not simply a conferred legal status, but cultivated through a number of civil political, and social rights and obligations” (27).  Literacy training allows one to “cultivate” these abilities, letting people who lack literacy–like the immigrants whom Wan discusses–enter as “productive” members of society.

Here, once again, literacy instruction is tied up with gate keeping. Instructors of writing, as part of the ambient cohort of literacy training, do citizen training. And the roles of this citizen, while having many contradictory forms, closely align with economics in Wan’s view: “Through an emphasis on productivity and economic survival in literacy training, immigrants were taught the importance of literacy as a habit of citizenship and as a marker of productivity” (41). And this productivity was further aligned with the habit-training of literacy. “Good” citizens are not only literate and productive, but honest and clean.

And above all, this citizenship bore the odd paradox of becoming part of something–the state, the market, the culture, etc.–but had whil being individual. One chose to be productive, good-natured, and American, says the narrative, by pursuing literacy.

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IST 700: Sentiment, Affect, and Twitter

This week’s readings brought me back to my time teaching in Egypt, during the election of Morsi and the coup the following summer that put him out of power. Though my Internet access was limited both summers–largely relegated to communal computers and one dodgy PC in the prep room–I often tried to check in with Twitter.

My second summer, the day of the military takeover, a few tweets entered the stream about tanks in Cairo and the Presidential Palace. I saw journalists and activists positing frantically, while others were trying to get confirmation. No one knew what was happening. For a few days, protestors for Tamarod had taken to the streets against Morsi. Meetings both with and without Morsi went on amid these protests. For my part, the seminary where I was teaching was on lock down, preventing anyone from coming or going without approval. So beyond the nightly sounds of protestors gathering for nearby hot spots, Twitter was my only window–or “stream”–on the action.

I felt surreal during the take sightings. Seeing the news pour in on “real time.” None of the networks had anything, but across Twitter, people were mobilized and locked in.

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Humdrum aesthetics, ambiance, and everyday affect

I’ve been off lately. Like a typist with baseball mitts on or a table with uneven legs. Finishing up coursework, graduating, moving back to my parents to prep for the next phase of life, I’ve been recalibrating my humdrum “average everydayness,” to use Heidegger’s term.

Doing so has left me lurching, back peddling, and out of sorts. Fortunately, I’ve been riding it out well, even thinking about my daily driftings, dustings, and feelings as they fit the humdrum aesthetics of everyday life.

I like looking at life aesthetically, as this view implies the ever messy, artful, and personal position we have. While we often talk about “building” a life or going on “journeys,” I’ve always pictured life like a canvas, gradually accruing layers of paint as we rub away and redraw our life into becoming. Talking in terms of poetry, Nietzsche puts it well in The Gay Science: “we want to be the poets of our life–first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters” (240).

So we paint our lives through “daily fidelity,” as Camus puts it, through little etches and big thoughts, baby steps and bounds, each day passing as we glide, slip, and work within our daily world.

But we aren’t alone in this process. We also have other people in our lives, immediate and present or steering from a distance. But other things, like weather, geography, and the objects that allow our habits, compose our canvas as well. To use a term I’ve been thinking about lately, our lives have “ambiance,” situated, embedded, and present in a broader cradle of being. I tend to side with Thomas Rickert on this perspective: that traditional self/world or subject/object dichotomies are flimsy and over simplifying, even wrong in a way. We are worldly and bodily, not simply a self in a body in a world.

Moreover, many of these things recede from our immediate perspective, but still exert an influence. For example, I ran out of tea recently. Normally an everyday object taken for granted, its absence skewed my routine, affecting my whole day. And through the move, my placement of everyday objects has changed, from my wallet and keys to my pants and socks. All these little differences from things long-since receded change my humdrum aesthetics. They change my life.

In Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, she maps and probes many of these “ordinary affects” and the largely diffuse and unconscious effect they exert. As she writes, worth quoting at length:

Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. (5)

Difficult to pin down, analyze, articulate, or even notice, these ordinary affects steer our lives. Stuff happens that we can’t fully articulate or trace, but we know that something is happening. Something is throwing itself together. Assembling. Doing. Changing. Being. And, often, this something catches us up in its folds. We resonate in mutual ambiance, distilled into becoming.

As Stewart describes, a biker couple enters a restaurant and mentions an accident, creating a conversation, creating a “we.” The greenery of a city increases well being. A collection of affect leaves me waking up at noon instead of 6:15, blinking at my clock, in a sprawl of blankets, dazed thoughts grasping at the wakefulness that gradually pools into a day, gathered up into a life.

“Grain upon grain, one by one,” writes Beckett, “and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”