Semiotics and Constructing Fake News

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I recently started asking students to examine how creators of fake news use fragments of truth as a rhetorical technique to strategically design misinformation that is intertextual, sticky, and extremely spreadable. I want students to recognize how fake news conjoins to a larger intertextual network of alternative facts in the media. Fragments of truth are actual facts that have no direct connection to a particular piece of fake news but they can represent the fabrication if there is an existing set of interchangeable signs and signifiers already circulating in the media that both the falsehood and the fact can signify.

For example, Kelly Ann Conway’s alternative fact about the Bowling Green massacre depends on the circulation of existing media that constructs a view of Muslims as irrational. This distortion of Muslims can easily affix itself to the fact that two Iraqi men, both Muslim, were arrested in Ohio in 2011 near Bowling Green for supporting terrorism with financial donations and bolster the distortion about Muslims. This truth, despite its diffuseness from Conway’s lie, is capable of linking to a larger intertextual network of misinformation about Muslim extremism in the media that paralyzes an intended audience’s decision-making processes during an important exigence like an election.

Readings

To gain an understanding of semiotics and how difficult it is to stabilize meaning, we read “The Death of the Author” and some shorter excerpts from Barthes’ Image, Music, Text about the three levels of semiotics. We pay close attention to the third meaning, the obtuse meaning, which has no signified, because it facilitates spaces where obscure and alternative realities get validated. We also read Charles Pierce’s work on the dynamic interpretant and relate it to how we generate meaning from text. Pierce’s theory of the dynamic interpretant synthesizes well with Barthes’ third space and the ambiguity and instability of signification that fake news thrives on.

Brief excerpts from Foucault’s Order of Things allow us to discuss the role resemblance plays in knowledge formation, and how ideas that “rub up against each other” can fasten together even when those ideas have no significant relationship. Adjacencies between ideas join ideas together in a chain of information. If two things appear connected, then, out of convenience, they can become adjacent in the chain. Bazerman’s “Intertextuality: How Texts Rely on Other Texts” provides us a methodological lens to locate intertextuality. We use Bazerman to examine and discuss intertextuality in a variety of texts (articles, music, film, TV, and books) to prepare for the assignment tasks.

To learn how sources circulate, lose their original contexts, and attach themselves to alternative contexts, we read excerpts from Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture and Spreadable Media. Hunt Allcott and Matt Gentzkow’s “Social Media and Fake News” provides us a more in depth purview of how fake news spreads into third spaces and facilitates ambiguous interpretations, and in Made to Stick Dan and Chip Heath’s six principles of stickiness help explain the lasting impact of fake news and why it is so difficult to undermine or remove from media circulation.

The Assignment

Students locate a fake news website or post and use the categories and questions below to generate ideas and material for a two-three page analysis essay. Students examine how fake news is constructed for an intended audience and how it relies on intertextuality to distort the facts and increase spreadability.

Identify the Issue: What is fake, and what is that issue’s intertextual relevancy? Selecting a point of contention to distort is part of a rhetorical process that requires a strategy. Fake news is spreadable because it allows many different people to join the conversation. How spreadable is this issue? Why? How does exigence and kairos impact this selection process?

Identify the Audience: Who is the fake message targeting and why? What do they believe, and what are they willing to believe? An intended audience may use skewed representations to accept a fabrication on a literal or arbitrary level.

Identify the Mediums: What mediums and forms are used to create and circulate the fake news? YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat? What advantages does one medium have over another for creating and spreading fake news?

Identify the Intertext: What levels and techniques from Bazerman’s article are present in the content, and how does each level and technique impact the fabrication(s)? Where are the aspects of truth? How are they woven together with fabrications? Which levels and techniques make that easier? I provide a couple of examples for students to model, facilitating the collection of intertext.

For example, Bazerman’s fourth level of intertextuality states that a “text may rely on beliefs, issues, ideas, and statements generally circulated and likely familiar to readers, whether they would attribute the material to a specific source or would just understand it as common knowledge.” Below are screen shots of article headlines on a fake news site (newpoliticstoday.com) that students can examine, identifying specific names and phrases that they recognize and then analyzing how those names and phrases rub against and connect to the fabrications on the site.

Headlines from New Politics Today

Bazerman’s third technique for intertextuality is the “mentioning of a person, document, or statement . . . that relies on the reader’s familiarity with the original source. No details of meaning are specified, so the second writer has even greater opportunity to imply what he or she wants about the original . . . without having to substantiate them.”

Students can locate this technique and determine the beliefs, issues, ideas, and statements familiar to its intended audience and how that audience is catered to on the site. Names and statements like, “Allahu Akbar,” “ISIS,” “Shooters,” “Shotgun,” “Beheading,” “Iraq,” “Disrespect,” “Dead,” “Arrested,” and “Punks” can connect to an existing dialogical network of fabrications about Muslims and terrorism that is itself a distortion of truth.

Write the Analysis

Now students can draw conclusions about how fake news is designed and delivered, and address the following question: how does fake news rely on intertextual networks to create the illusion of truth and increase spreadability and stickiness? Students can write about how key names and phrases in the headlines are part of a larger intertextual media network. They can expound upon how “key phrases enter into social circulation . . . [and]form the basis of an intertextual series, i.e., a text that reoccurs across multiple, overlapping contexts” (Hodges 85) and distracts the audience from the totality of the obfuscation. Also students can write about how aspects of truth in fake news attempt to limit and control skepticism.

Conclusion

This assignment asks students to explore how words, phrases, and images can connect to a larger dialogical and intertextual network of misinformation that is already in media circulation. We consider how fake news destabilizes truth by controlling the relationships between words and their representations—between signs and signifiers. Students analyze how fake news relies on intertextuality to mix and mesh disconnected facts with lies. Intertextual explications are important because they reassemble the contexts necessary for rhetorically analyzing social media and discerning fact from fiction.

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles. “Intertextuality: How Texts Rely on Other Texts.” What Writing Does and How It Does It. Routledge, 2004.

Hodges, Adam. The “War on Terror” Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality. Oxford University Press, 2011.

About Author(s)

Dan Martin is an Associate Instructor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida where he teaches a variety of writing courses. His research focuses on digital and multimodal writing, FYC, and WAC.

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