Exploring the Rhetoric of Fake News through Twitter Hashtag Analysis

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I share our collective concern with the circulation of misrepresentations and outright lies online, which has seen increased attention during and after the 2016 United States presidential election. However, I wonder about the purchase of post-truth responses. In this post, I’ll offer a brief critique of post-truth rhetoric and suggest a social media analysis activity that engages with fake news.

Thinking with Bruno Latour, we have never been post-truth if we simultaneously recognize that we have never had access to truth in the Platonic sense. Fake news reflects a similarly problematic enthymeme gesturing toward some singular real news. Even the most dutiful reporter cannot offer a completely objective and unproblematic representation of reality. Acknowledging this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature of reason and critical thinking. Instead of dwelling on the demise of truth, we should consider how we can counter alternative facts through a pedagogy that examines the ways in which social institutions like the press, science, and the scholarly community produce and communicate sound facts—transparency in methods, validity in argumentation, and criticality in conclusions. In other words, we can refigure the problem from the loss of truth to a crisis of facticity.

A facticity crisis occurs when sources of reliable facts about our world are undermined. Such facticity disruptions are not unique to our moment in history and indeed can be positive when our sources of facts do not merit our confidence upon critical examination. The printing press, for instance, helped to usher in our age of liberalism while at the same time coming under attack from those who had historically controlled access to information. No doubt the spread of publishing resulted in an increase in the circulation of dubious claims, which remains clear today to anyone who has browsed the magazine rack while standing in line at the supermarket. Notwithstanding, printing technology also allowed for the more open and critical examination of our world. Why has the printing press advanced rationality and freedom, while the internet today appears to be challenging both?

One clear difference between the two technologies is that we have had centuries to develop and teach critical print literacies such that truth claims could be identified and debated. Digital technology has complicated source analysis—even for so-called digital natives. This presents a rhetorical challenge. Beyond simply labeling fake news, a rhetorical approach to this crisis seeks to engage with baseless news stories to determine how they become suasive for different audiences and spread online. This builds critical reflexivity in digital environments, which is related to Wayne Booth’s call to interrogate the reasons behind our beliefs as part of a broader rhetorical program.

To incorporate critical digital engagement in our classrooms, we should engage with fake news where it spreads—on social media. I’m suggesting a variation of Quinn Warnick’s Hashtag Analysis project as part of a pedagogy that encourages students to think critically about how fake news functions rhetorically and how that relates to the validity of truth claims. Rather than tracking one hashtag as in the original assignment, students identify several hashtags in this version. As an example, I have written a blog post on several hashtags about vaccines and how they circulated among both vaccine proponents and members of anti-vaccination movements. The tags should be about the same current topic but reflect different ideological commitments. Tags should neither be too limited in scope nor too broad, so students will need to spend some time exploring hashtags and considering their rates of use. Be prepared to limit topics and hashtags to support your outcomes and the needs of your students.

Many tools exist for studying Twitter content including several free options. I recommend TAGS to mine tweets containing the hashtags under study. Next, compare and contrast trends in the resulting corpuses using Voyant Tools. Voyant Tools is a good visualization and quantitative analysis tool for beginners, though the website can get a little clunky with large datasets. R is more robust, but the command line interface is not especially forgiving for new users.

Students can use these tools to compare and contrast the rhetorical moves found in the conversations surrounding each hashtag in order to determine how different kinds of news stories become suasive and circulate among different social media audiences. They can then consider how to use their findings to ascertain the credibility of online sources, to think about how we might productively critique untrustworthy sources, and to provide good reasons for their beliefs. This process of analysis helps prepare students to make their own judgments about the validity of sources based on how they make arguments as opposed to plugins based on predefined lists, which effectively outsource this type of critical thinking. Specific assignments will vary depending on your outcomes, but could include anything from an in-class discussion activity to a semester-long tracking project comprising several deliverables.

With scaffolding and support, hashtag analysis can be appropriate for secondary, undergraduate, and graduate students. This winter I led an analysis activity using TAGS and Voyant Tools while visiting a contemporary history course for high school sophomores. Engagement with online sources was required as part of the class, so the students had some familiarity with Twitter coming into the session. With help from their teacher and me, everyone was able to get TAGS and Voyant Tools up and running and conduct initial analysis during a single class period.

Students compared corpuses and discussed how keywords and sources trended in different conversations in small groups during the class. Some students were initially disappointed to find that some of their corpuses contained a large volume of retweets, but we considered how retweets relate to authority and ethos online. We discussed how viral sources can be rhetorically analyzed and traced to determine the validity of truth claims and to engage with facticity as a collaborative social practice. I led this session on social media analysis as part of a larger presentation on digital citizenship that encouraged students to critically reflect on their behavior online and the reality of digital objects as part of our shared world.

About Author(s)

Andrew is a PhD candidate in rhetoric and writing at Virginia Tech studying digital rhetoric and human centered design. His current research focuses on applications of speculative realist theories to digital technology including social media, video games, and online learning platforms.

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