Rory Lee, Ball State University
Matthew G. Davis, University of Massachusetts Boston
Stephen J. McElroy, Babson College
(Published March 24, 2022)
In March 2019, the University of Alabama’s Department of English hosted a symposium titled “Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Age.” Featuring interdisciplinary scholars and activists, the symposium offered a space to “discuss the implications of digital media for rhetoric, civic discourse, and disinformation” (“Digital Rhetoric”). Positioned shortly after the 2018 midterms and almost 20 months prior to the US presidential election in 2020, the symposium also provided a kairotic moment to examine how digital rhetoric and digital media not only impacted politics and election cycles but also made possible (and continue to make possible) the conditions that mark the current post-truth era, which is inflected by the rapid creation, dissemination, and consumption of mis- and disinformation.
As teacher-scholars invested in exploring both the emerging field of Digital Rhetoric and the relationship between digital rhetoric and politics, we viewed the University of Alabama’s symposium as an opportunity to build upon and extend our recent scholarly inquiries into how leading scholars in Digital Rhetoric define the nascent field (Davis et al., 2016) and develop and enact a pedagogy reflective of the field (McElroy et al., 2020). Therefore, we video-interviewed 18 scholars at the symposium, asking them 10 questions each about how they define, teach, research, and explain the importance of digital rhetoric. More specifically, and as it concerns this audio-video project, we asked these scholar-participants to describe the overall significance of politics to the study and practice of digital rhetoric.
As those familiar with the history of the larger discipline of Rhetoric and Composition know well, questions regarding the presence and role of politics in the teaching of rhetoric and writing are not new (e.g., Baker-Bell, 2020; Berlin, 1988; Faigley, 1992; Hairston, 1992; Kynard, 2013; Miller, 1993; Samuels, 2017; Stenberg, 2015). Furthermore, many within the discipline share the belief that teaching is an inherently political act. That said, the advent of the digital as a new medium for rhetorical activity, coupled with the way the digital has appreciably altered how people are (dis)informed about and participate in politics, invites us to revisit the question of politics and rhetoric—and not only in pedagogical terms. More succinctly put, we wondered: how does digital rhetoric intersect with politics?
According to those whom we interviewed, and as Erika Sparby put it, digital rhetoric intersects with politics “in every single way.”
What’s more—and to our happy surprise—the scholar-participants we interviewed transformed our version above into another, perhaps more productive version: how can we articulate and make apparent to others the extent to which politics intersects with, informs, and underpins digital rhetoric in all of its various instantiations? In what follows, we invoke and employ a familiar frame—Cynthia Selfe’s lens of paying attention (1999). Below, and alongside the corresponding video, we share how these scholar-participants are paying attention to the intersection of digital rhetoric and politics, what they’re paying attention to in particular, and where they think more attention is needed.
How Do We Pay Attention?
Though some foundational works in digital rhetoric have centered politics in some fashion (e.g., Banks, 2006; Gries, 2015; Losh, 2009; Hidalgo, 2017; Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson, 2019; Selber, 2004; Selfe and Selfe, 1994), the symposium at the University of Alabama marked a moment of more explicit attention to politics in digital rhetoric. Or, as Kathleen Blake Yancey phrased it (no doubt channeling Cynthia Selfe), “digital rhetoric has been part of politics for a while. We simply haven't paid attention. Now, we’re paying attention.” In that regard, the 2016 Presidential Election—and the digital rhetorical activity both before and after—serve as an obvious backdrop for this symposium and this audio-video project. However, as expressed through the collective voices of these scholar-participants, 2016 is but one loud alarm demanding attention among a cacophony of digital political sirens.
Scholars in digital rhetoric are devoting increasing attention to politics because digital rhetoric plays an increasing and convoluted role in politics. One way to pay attention to and unpack these relationships is through familiar frameworks: Big P Politics and little p politics. As Jeremy David Johnson says, we might start by thinking of Big P Politics in the sense of “governmental structure.” Here, we might find ourselves asking questions about the ways in which that structure has changed—or has the potential to change—given current and still emerging digital media and rhetorical practices. But what has been perhaps more apparent in this framework, as Jeremy David Johnson and Alice Marwick both articulate, is how the digital has transformed little p politics—that is, “the exercise of power” and “the way we negotiate power” in and through online interactions. In watching and listening to these scholar-participants discuss what we’ve paid attention to and what still needs our attention regarding digital rhetoric and politics, one quickly recognizes the persistent presence and importance of power: who has it, how it is perpetuated and reinforced, and how it might be resisted and subverted.
To What Do We Pay Attention?
As for where the field has devoted its scholarly attention vis-à-vis digital rhetoric and politics, those interviewed identify three areas in particular: platform design, algorithms, and activism. It’s also worth acknowledging, as Jennifer Sano-Franchini does, that those working outside the field of Digital Rhetoric motivate some of this recent scholarly momentum (e.g., Eubanks, 2019; Nakamura, 2007; Noble, 2018; Wachter-Boettcher, 2017). In terms of platform design, concerns about the power of the interface are not necessarily new (see: Selfe and Selfe, 1994); however, according to these scholar-participants, those concerns have become amplified and extended in recent years. On one hand, these concerns include the ways platforms are designed by certain individuals—often cishet white men—whose identities and biases are coded into the platform designs. On the other hand, these concerns include for whom platforms are designed—which users are envisioned during development and, just as important, which are not.
In addition to who is (and is not) designing platforms as well as for whom platforms are (and are not) being designed, there’s the critical question of what platforms are designed to do. Some of these functions are made obvious to users through interface design and platform marketing, but other functions are less visible or more insidious, operating algorithmically. The push and pull of algorithms can result in individual users encountering very different content from one another on shared platforms, thus having very different experiences—a phenomenon largely absent in other media. And because algorithms, like platforms, are not neutral but rather technological constructions that contain traces of the subjectivities and ideologies of their creators, these scholar-participants are particularly concerned about the way they will (continue to) be (ab)used in politically problematic ways.
Although the aforementioned concerns among these scholar-participants about platform design and algorithms capture the ways in which designers and programmers can exert political power over users, particularly in less recognizable ways, the potential for digital activism is nonetheless greater than ever. This potential is often the result of, as Amber Buck argues, invention that occurs when users take existing digital technologies and use them in ways not originally intended. We witness such innovation perhaps most often among minoritized groups, and, as noted by a handful of scholar-participants, we need to make and hold space for such groups to share their stories and their digital rhetorical strategies and tactics.
Where Should We Pay More Attention?
Learning about these activist movements, and about the ways platform design and algorithms both assist and hinder them, is also a means to illustrate to students the political implications of digital rhetoric in their everyday lives. Aristotle, as Yancey notes, carries less cachet with contemporary students. That said, while the affordances of digital media in amplifying activist rhetorics are accessible and exciting, the potential for and the effectiveness of bad faith and toxic rhetorics are also heightened. Those interviewed here made it clear that we need to pay more attention to digital threats, both collective and individual, and to the emerging digital tactics used to combat such threats.
The need to pay attention to both threats and tactics of resilience and resistance seems to us only to have grown in importance since 2019. These threats include aspects of alt-right rhetoric, (Russian) disinformation, and (Qanon) conspiracy theories, all of which work to weaken democracy and civic discourse. Over the past half-decade, terms like “fake news,” “disinformation,” “information bubbles,” and “echo chambers'' have become commonplace in our political lexicon, and they’re becoming more common terms (read: exigences) within our classrooms as well. All of this indicates a change in the way people engage politically: that is, such engagement is increasingly happening online and—because of platform design, algorithms, and activism, along with bad faith and toxic rhetorics—it’s shaping individual users in ways they do not recognize. For Ryan Shepherd, all of this signals a clear set of questions for the post-truth age: “How do we understand how these digital tools are being used, how do we make sure that others understand how these digital tools are being used, and possibly how do we regulate how these digital tools can be used?” The question of regulation will undoubtedly be met with resistance, but it nonetheless underscores the role of ethics in digital political rhetorical activity and the study and teaching thereof.
A final area that needs more attention is the collection of user data and the proprietary software facilitating it. As Stephen McElroy says, “What has really captured my attention [...] is how what we’re not seeing actually is itself very much political. And that is to say that we are not being allowed to see certain things—like how Facebook’s algorithm works, for instance.” Big tech and software companies, as Marwick notes, are disincentivized from providing access to their data; consequently, the type of work that scholars in digital rhetoric and other academic fields are capable of doing is quite different from that of researchers working at tech corporations. So while these scholar-participants are paying attention to algorithms in some insightful ways, they’re also unfortunately precluded from paying attention in other insightful ways.
As digital media, interfaces, and networks proliferate, accordingly and increasingly interposing themselves and their inventors as mediators of discourse and of our everyday realities, so too increases the urgency to identify, assess, and understand the “exercise of power” and the “way we negotiate power” within those realities. And while the scene of national politics functioned as a flashpoint for conversations at the University of Alabama symposium, the accelerated consolidation of power by leading tech companies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made these conversations more salient. We thus invite readers to join these scholar-participants in considering how we might better focus and enable our attention in order to ensure a more just and democratic future and to foster a more digitally- and civically-conscious pedagogy.
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