October 15, 2018

The Rhetoric of Fake News

Without a proper academic study, it’s difficult to say just how much the passing along of fake news (mostly by linking and tweeting) is the result of not knowing something is fake but passing it along because it fits a world view or knowing it’s fake but passing it along because it fits the needs of a persuasive intention. There are other ways to bifurcate this and many possible explanations I’m choosing to ignore right now.

I think Regina Rini’s column in The New York Times is interesting and instructive in coming to some understanding of this situation. Specifically, she foregrounds the role of situated ethos in the viral growth of fake news: We tend to believe friends and family whom we trust. As she says:

Part of the reason that people believe you when you share information is this: they’ve determined your credibility and can hold you accountable if you are lying or if you’re wrong. The reliability of secondhand knowledge comes from these norms.

So she’s proposing a different way for Facebook, in particular, to use the power of credibility to fight fake news. Here’s the upshot:

Instead of using this data to calculate a secret score, Facebook should display a simple reliability marker on every post and comment. Imagine a little colored dot next to the user’s name, similar to the blue verification badges Facebook and Twitter give to trusted accounts: a green dot could indicate that the user hasn’t chosen to share much disputed news, a yellow dot could indicate that they do it sometimes, and a red dot could indicate that they do it often. These reliability markers would allow anyone to see at a glance how reliable their friends are.

There is no censorship in this proposal. Facebook needn’t bend its algorithms to suppress posts from users with poor reliability markers: Every user could still post whatever they want, regardless of whether the facts of the stories they share are in dispute. People could choose to use social media the same way they do today, but now they’d have a choice whenever they encounter new information.

I like this idea. Here’s why I think it won’t work:

Of the two propositions I mention to start this post, I have reason to believe (my hypothesis) that the linking and tweeting of fake news for a rhetorical purpose is more likely than passing it along out of ignorance about its fakeness. I doubt there are many people who are a mere head-slap away from realizing — Gadzooks! — “I’ve been passing along Birther nonsense because I trusted Uncle Joe. If only there had been a red dot!” My contention: Uncle Joe’s nonsense got passed along because his niece or nephew had a persuasive intention to do so whether the stuff was true or not. A reminder: As long as you don’t get caught and shamed, lies and fallacies and fake news are just as much tools of rhetoric as, say, Aristotle’s artistic proofs.

An uncomfortable number of people today do not trust the news media despite its attempts at transparency and its well-established Code of Ethics. Who, exactly, is going to trust a red dot placed by Facebook based on … what? Where’s the trust coming from? What’s the ethos?

I really do like Rimi’s idea … ten years ago.

It’s too late.

June 25, 2018

Harshing the Civic Mellow

Nail. Head. Hit.

When it comes to protests, mean words, civil disobedience, boycotts, public shunning, we may disagree when one or other is wise or called for. But these are entirely legitimate tools of political action, civic action. Many calls for civility are simply calls for unilateral disarmament from those protesting injustices and abuses of power.

That’s Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo.

Calls for civility almost always come from people with social, economic, and political power who don’t want their tender mellows harshed.

June 20, 2018

Why I Laugh at Millennials

I’m a Baby Boomer.

And I’m an admirer of the theory of generational personality developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

Add one more thing: I’m a fan of the Milennial generation of which my daughter is a member.

But I laugh at them. I laugh at them to shame them. I laugh at them as a rhetorical strategy. I want to convince them to vote in numbers that would eclipse my generation. I want them to save us from ourselves.

So I laugh at them and shame them. I shame them on Facebook. I shame them in the classroom. I shame them in face-to-face conversations. I shame them because I’m ashamed of my own generation and the mess we’ve made of things. I shame them because I cannot think of a more effective way to engage them on the topic of voting (and I’m ashamed of that).

I don’t tell them how to vote or what politicians to support because I trust and admire most of their values.

I shame myself because I’m begging them to vote.

June 19, 2018

Big Lies, Small Lies, and Child Abuse

The government is telling lies about its abuse of children on the southern border. Like any fallacy, logical or otherwise, this tactic can certainly be employed as a rhetorical strategy. Big news there, right?

There’s been plenty of fact-checking and outrage. But let me suggest another tactic for ending this abuse of children: Shine a light on those responsible.

Big news, again, right?

No. I mean expose the people who are actually doing the dirty work on the ground: Border Patrol agents. These men and women need to take moral responsibility or become monsters. Former Head Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowske lamented the effect this duty might have on the agents.

I suggest each agent is morally responsible for their own soul. If agents choose to put children in cages — and make jokes about their anguish (re: PBS link above) — then we have the right to hold these individuals responsible for the damage they cause.

Agents should refuse this duty. And they should gladly accept any consequence for refusing as morally superior to following heinous orders.

I’ve been tweeting about it:

January 9, 2018

No. Just no.

The ancient Greeks put a lot of stock in the ability to speak well in public. They understood effective speakers to have political and cultural power. They made moral judgments about their fellow Greeks based on the ability to speak well in public. In general, it was within the range of unbelievable for them that the unworthy could be good public speakers.

That seems naive to us today. But, simplistically, there are big cultural and technological differences between us and the ancient Greeks. The power of public speaking, and all the assumptions they made about its most effective practitioners, was reality for them.

Oprah Winfrey gave a (rhetorically) good speech at the Golden Globes awards ceremony.

Now some members of the Democratic Party and the political left (including pundits) —  tearing a page from the ancient Greek playbook —  are losing their minds because — OMG! — she could be President.

No. Just no.

I have already had my fill of amateurs who have launched their political careers in offices not meant as political training grounds. The current governor of Missouri — Eric Greitens — is a good example of not using an executive office to learn how to be a politician. Maybe he’ll get it someday. But it’s not looking good.

There’s another example I can think of. And maybe after I finish the sloppy Michael Wolff book I’ll have something to add.

Oprah Winfrey and I share much (not all) politically (if I understand her correctly). That doesn’t mean I want her anywhere near the Oval Office.

And, IMO, sober members of the political left in this country should be aghast that this terrible idea has been planted in the brain of another entertainer with a massive ego (just check out her magazine covers).

Look, a big problem (i.e. not the only one) with Trump isn’t his policies– to the extent that you agree or disagree with any given policy and to the extent that he can be said to have policies and understands them. An important problem is he’s an entertainer — an amateur politician — with a massive ego who is learning (or not, as the case may be) how to be a politician having achieved an office that should be the final chapter in a long story of public service in governance.

This was, BTW, a legitimate criticism of Obama — not enough experience going in. But he was a professional and avoided doing things such was Tweeting about his big button.

Please, Ms. Winfrey. Check that ego. You give a good speech. You are not ready to be President.

Please, Democratic Party, do not make me beg you to avoid making such a massively stupid choice.

November 30, 2017

The John Wayne Shot

My Carbon Trace documentary team is working on a film called Syrian Doctor (working title) about the mental health crisis in Syrian refugee children that has been called “human devastation syndrome.” (You can follow our progress on Facebook.)

Along the way we have done some humanitarian work (i.e. provided video) for the Syrian American Medical Society. For example, we created this mission recap video from the April medical mission to Jordan. Below is the climax of that video illustrating a bit of video rhetoric (ethos and pathos): something I call the John Wayne shot.

Imagine John Wayne. The actor? A specific character? My guess is the image that popped into your head was Marion Morrison in a cowboy costume walking confidently toward danger — to save the day.

The John Wayne Shot from acline on Vimeo.

That’s exactly the heroic image the John Wayne shot is supposed to invoke. Here’s what it looks like (at :18) at the climax of the video with doctors as the heroes.

November 29, 2017

I Bought A Digital Subscription

I just renewed my digital subscription to The New York Times this week.

Last night I added, for the first time, a digital subscription to the Washington Post.

I’m a sucker for that “democracy dies in darkness” tag line. Here’s what I actually think about such things. But this an emotional response, not an intellectual one.

And this is, IMO, dead on:

But such incredulity misses the deeper significance of this stuff. The brazenness of it is the whole point — his utter shamelessness itself is meant to achieve his goal. In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power — the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.

(Obvious quibble from my theoretical perspective: rendering reality irrelevant IS a persuasive intention. But never mind.)

In a nutshell, this is one reason the press finds it difficult to cover President Trump. And it hints at the way forward.

My long-standing cure (one of many) remains unchanged: the rhetoric beat.

March 17, 2017

Rhetorica Update

A few things going on this spring (cuz, yeah, it has arrived in Missouri):

  • My Carbon Trace Productions documentary team has two projects in the works: 1) Student Debt (working title), and 2) Syrian Refugee Doctor (working title). For the latter, my team and I leave for Jordan in three weeks to begin filming. BTW, only 4 days left for our crowd-funding campaign for the trip. Click here to see the particulars and make a tax-deductible donation.
  • I am compelled to push this idea: Every journalist needs to begin asking this question of public officials: Do you mean that literally? That whole “literally” thing may be the gift that keeps on giving for the news media in the weeks ahead. I’m going to pull that thread a bit and see what happens. It’s related to the stenography issue.
  • Should Rhetorica become the site for an extended examination of the rhetoric of documentary film (and, perhaps, multimedia journalism, especially in its long audio and video forms)? Oh, no! Not another re-invention! 🙂
November 7, 2016

A Quick Interjection in the Silence

Rhetorica, as a site examining media-political rhetoric, remains retired.

But I have to call your attention — whatever is left of my readership — to Jay Rosen’s current entry on PressThink. The whole thing is important, but this struck me in particular:

How can you say to readers: these people live in a different reality than we do… and leave it there? That is not the kind of story you can drop on our doorsteps and walk away from. It’s describing a rupture in the body politic, a tear in the space-time continuum that lies behind political journalism. I don’t think the editors understood what they were doing. But even today they would find this criticism baffling. We reported what people in this movement believe. Accurately! What’s your problem?

Back in the day, here’s what I wrote about facts as a liberal bias.

September 13, 2016

On Futility

I should have known better.

I was right the first time.

I dramatically cut back on blogging here (2010ish) in part because the effort seemed futile.

To that point I had created what I think is an interesting body of work (might even be a book in here somewhere). Several academic essays, a book chapter, and an encyclopedia chapter came from it. I achieved tenure at Missouri State University in part because of Rhetorica. There’s nothing like daily, written engagement to keep you focused and help you develop ideas.

Rhetorica began as “Timeline” — a blog at my Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2000 site run on the servers of the University of Missouri – Kansas City as part of a graduate project in rhetorical analysis. Rhetorica is one of the oldest, continuously-published blogs on the internet.

I am very proud of it.

I’ve attempted a few times to re-jump-start it — the silliest of those attempts being the “doom files” days. But that silliness actually said something important about where my head is and has been.

Blogging about the rhetoric of journalism and politics these days is simply an exercise in frustration and futility. Donald Trump is the final nail in a lot of coffins. Our civic discourse is damaged — potentially beyond repair. Political journalism doesn’t have the tools to help correct it because, frankly, political journalists are a big part of the problem and seem unable/unwilling to understand how and why. They are slaves to their master narratives and biases.

No amount of blogging is going to make the slightest dent.

Rhetorica will remain open as long as I have a credit card that works. And I will, from time to time, post things here.

But the main project is finally over. It’s really been over a for many years now. I wish I had had the grace to realize it and close the lid.

Here’s another “but” and a hopeful one: Carbon Trace Productions is now the main creative focus of my life — although not necessarily the associated blog 🙂 My 60s are going to be my documentary years!

Last year my team of students and I completed our first documentary short entitled Shared Spaces.

This past May we completed our first feature documentary entitled Downtown: A New American Dream. It is an official selection at the 2016 New Urbanism Film Festival in Los Angeles next month.

We also have projects working about the student debt crisis, the Trans-Siberian Rail Road, and homeless cargo-bikers who make their way picking through our dumpsters.

The Rhetorica Network will remain my main brand. I’m not sure what that means 🙂

← Previous Posts