Watson Session A.6: Rhetorical Futures: Inventions and Ethics through Social Media


Presenters: Caddie Alford (Virginia Commonwealth University), Matthew Breece (University of Texas), and Bridget Gelms (San Francisco State University)

Alford, Breece, and Gelms consider the ethical implications of social media platforms, like Twitter and YouTube, and of open access to social media that results in user comment threads and user re-circulation of content. The panelists use specific social media events and locations as case studies to argue that ethics and social media are entwined in complicated ways that rhetoricians can and should render visible.

Caddie Alford, “On Not Leaving Things Alone”

Using an Aristotelian frame for her consideration of clickbait and its contribution to the continuum between opinion and fact, Alford interrogates the perception of idleness ascribed to social media behaviors, especially to those who comment on clickbait articles.

Alford uses examples from ClickHole, a satirical website that parodies the so-called “clickbait” websites that produce content with catchy headlines to draw readers in and keep them clicking through the site. ClickHole publishes articles, videos, image slide shows, and more with misleading and incendiary headlines to capture readers and elicit an emotional response.

Alford explains that such interactions with clickbait reveal doxa to us, and that social media practices by users who engage in the comment threads are revitalizing topoi. Doxa, or popular belief, manipulates user’s emotional strings, causing them to click through headlines, scan articles, and invent persuasion in the comment threads. Digital topoi condition users to feel social, and to engage in emotional and creative rhetoric.

In the end, Alford argues, rhetoricians should call one another to rhetorical generosity, as they unearth meaning from user’s digital choices. While some argue that discussions on comment threads have devolved to the idle, Alford believes that such conversations are revealing and embodying new forms of rhetoric that should not be left alone.

Matt Breece, “#YouYoo: Leslie Jones and the Effects of Tu Quoque Trolling”

Breece argues that popular social media platforms where users can share their opinions with millions of people at a time, like Twitter, have become a discursive ecology that circulates and recirculates politicized rhetoric.

Breece develops a case study of a particular incident displaying the patterns and effects of this discursive ecology. His case study focuses on the interactions among actor Leslie Jones, her 2016 Ghostbusters movie release, and Twitter. Breece describes an incident that begins on July 18, 2016, following the weekend-release of Ghostbusters. Initially, Jones’ Twitter feed was full of content from people who enjoyed the movie and want to share their support. However, as the day progressed, Jones began receiving critical tweets in her feed and racists memes through direct messaging. Jones posted screenshots of the direct messages to her public Twitter feed, drawing more people into the conversation. Soon, a fake Leslie Jones Twitter account is created and used to tweet homophobic and anti-Semitic insults directed at Sony Pictures and Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos had been an outspoken critic of what he perceived to be hostile feminism and silencing political correctness aimed at censoring conservative thought. The fake Jones account is exposed, and Yiannopoulos’ Twitter account is suspended, which leads Twitter users to call for a reinstatement of Yiannopoulos’ account and a suspension of Jones’ real account.

Breece notes the multiple opportunities for analysis, including the initial racist memes sent to Jones via direct message, the subsequent homophobic and anti-Semitic tweets from a fake Jones account, and the defense of Yiannopoulos and resulting campaign to suspend Jones’ real Twitter account. Breece focuses on the tu quoque response by Twitter users who shift their criticism towards Jones, accusing her of hypocrisy and reverse-racism. This stage, Breece, argues, “highlights the rhetorical sophistication of trolling and harassment campaigns and the ethical challenges they present.” Through analysis of the tu quoque events, Breece is able to examine how a particular trolling strategy exploits ethical values.

Jones argues that she is the victim of racism and posts images of racist memes that have been sent to her through direct messaging. In response, Twitter users gather Jones’ tweets from the past several years in which she discusses white people to argue that Jones is guilty of reverse racism. The majority of the Jones’ tweets that are circulated as evidence of reverse racism are from Jones’ live-tweeting of the 2012 and 2015 Grammys and the 2014 Academy and Emmy Awards. During these live-tweeting episodes, Jones tweets about many celebrities, white and otherwise.

The circulation of Jones’ tweets in which she is made to look like a racist serve to undermine her victimization, and also encourage further harassment as retribution. Such retribution silences discourse and discredits claims of abuse, in this case, undermining all claims of racial discrimination. Breece argues that this functions as a “cynical and nihilistic reversal that claims that we all can claim discrimination; therefore no one can claim discrimination.” Thus, social media serves to disturb an ethical reality by circulating arguments that victims and victimizers are indistinguishable. Breece ends with a call to rhetoricians to untangle both the discursive forms, but also their nihilistic effects.

Bridget Gelms, “The Free Speech Debate: Misinformation & Propaganda on YouTube”

Gelms explores the ethical implications of sites like YouTube, which allow users to post content for viewing by anyone who can access it. She uses PragerU, an organization that posts short, informational videos to YouTube, because the organization is currently suing Google citing violation of First Amendment rights.

PragerU targets young people by generating short, animated videos that appear to be informational. Their videos espouse conservative rhetoric that blurs the lines between opinion and fact, as their website argues that they help viewers to “get smarter five minutes at a time” (prageru.com). A sample of their video titles includes “Why you Should Love Fossil Fuel” and “There is No Gender Wage Gap.”  A video titled “The Inconvenient Truth About the Democratic Party,” bears an accompanying image of a confederate flag and a figure dressed in a white, hooded cloak.

Google has restricted PragerU content, but notes that the restrictions only apply to users who have opted in to the restricted mode. This means that the default settings provide access to PragerU content, and only the user can choose to restrict access to the channel. While PragerU brought a lawsuit to Google citing First Amendment rights violations, the first judge who heard the case dismissed it, noting that Google is not subject to First Amendment oversight because it is a private institution.

Gelms reveals through her study of PragerU that social media plays a significant role in our civic functions, institutions, and public opinions, a role that is not yet fully realized. Gelms situates PragerU within the “misinformation crisis,” and argues that we must rethink how we engage with social media and how user circulation of content increases and decreases the rhetorical velocity of misinformation. As teachers, rhetoricians can help students become more informed about how algorithms control content, and how platforms like YouTube affect our digital environments and conceptions of truth.


All three speakers urged rhetoricians not to ignore the public discourse happening on social media and to take responsibility for teaching students about how materials circulate online, how they are created and controlled, and how to understand the rhetorical work taking place in posting, sharing, and interacting with content and other users online. Rather than dismiss online conversations or content as insignificant or inconsequential, rhetoricians can take special care to highlight the rhetorical work happening in these sites from a framework that interrogates the ethical implications layered within them.

About Author

Kristin vanEyk

Kristin vanEyk is a doctoral student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on multilingual student experiences of First Year Writing.

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