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)

 

Internet Dialects and Online “Space”

I know I’ve been posting a lot lately about the Internet and digital literacy, but this time, it’s based off on one of the more recent Idea Channel videos:

To summarize, many online “speech communities” from specific groups and interfaces have their own linguistic patterns, expressions, and focuses. In the language of the video, they have “dialects,” just as different geographic regions have different wording, slang, and linguistic personalities.

For example, as the video shows, the /b/ forum on 4Chan feels and sounds coarse, chaotic, and (to some) unfriendly. Or Tumblr tends to use many .gifs based off of the .gif-friendly interface.

As I think of these topics, I often turn to the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his conception of the “public sphere.” While the details often differ depending on the theorist or the argument, the public sphere is essentially a space where people from different backgrounds can meet and discuss topics in a united context. Imagine a park, bringing together a web of people, or a coffee shop, open constantly to the public.

A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]
A handy diagram to give some clarity. [Image from main.nc.us]

For Habermas, one of the key principles of the public sphere is its “universal access.” Here, many others attack him, as access to the public sphere often requires certain things, like a reliance on shared symbols and rules, a level of education, and material access. Many also critique his assertion that this public sphere must be rational, a carryover from the historic genealogy that Habermas uses. Action- and meaning-defining discourse may be happening, they arguem even if it is not “rational.”

Thus, while the Internet may seem like a “public sphere” of sorts, it clearly isn’t because it lacks this universal access. You need a connection, something many people do not have, and the Internet lacks the order and unity that a public sphere seems to imply. Its borders and spaces have no geographic limitations. Some exist beyond the realm of legislation. Professional or educational websites coexist with amateur, joking, obscene, pornographic, criminal, and chaotic spaces. Many different languages and symbols collide, and many users don’t “discourse,” but troll or produce random content, like “YouTube poop.”

My vocabulary is deliberately spacial and organic here. Like our living spaces, the Internet is a lived-in space, changed by those who live in it. Or, to go back to language, the Internet is always in a constant dialogue with itself, as the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen it. It builds meanings, connotations, and references constantly through the shared use of its symbols and spaces. Memes change. Expressions change. Words emerge, like “smol” or “lol.” The Internet and digital technology, in Bakhtin’s language, is the new novel, alive and changing.

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