You have, perhaps, felt it: the whirl and reel of finding yourself halfway through the looking glass, the startle of pulling yourself back from disinformation’s gravitational pull.
The March 1-2 symposium, Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Age, addresses this cultural phenomenon. Professors Amber Buck and Cindy Tekobbe have organized the symposium, anticipating the subject’s ability to bring together scholars from around the country, enrich pedagogical practices, and connect with other disciplines.
The timely symposium will attract experts, including keynote speaker Alice Marwick, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Faculty Advisor to the Media Manipulation Initiative and the Data & Society Research Institute.
Scholars of digital rhetoric, Buck says, have been arguing for years that in digital communication “privacy is important, authenticity is important, and how communities are built online is important.” After the 2016 election, and revelations of disinformation campaigns, as well as ensuing controversies surrounding “fake news” and “alternative facts,” these issues have become more urgent to a broader audience.
It is important that citizens and students alike grapple with the fact that, as Tekobbe explains, “there is no standard moderation of the internet. Perhaps there shouldn’t be, but certainly discussions about the reliability and trust in the platforms, and who polices the content, are vital.”
Buck and Tekobbe both see the symposium as a chance to address this urgent topic for the classroom. For instance, “a huge part of first-year writing is to teach students how to verify and use sources in their work,” Buck points out. But when reading online, she notes, it’s important to ask if you “can trust that people are actually discussing ‘trending topics’ or if these ideas have been weaponized for someone else’s purpose.”
While some might readily determine accurate sources from disinformation, the stakes for the classroom are high. “Not only do we need to teach our students more complex notions of digital literacy,” Tekobbe adds, “but we also have to prepare graduate students to teach this skill. So pedagogically speaking, we need to produce teachers who can recreate digital literacy pedagogy in writing classes.”
In some ways, this symposium explores age-old questions about the nature of “truth,” “trust,” and “authenticity.” “These philosophies date back to Plato,” Buck says, “but it’s reinvented in this digital age.”
“It’s new,” Tekobbe interjects, “in terms of how we’re frequently online and always subject to digital influence. The internet is constructed to create echo chambers that cause messages to ping around and around and around in your brain.”
The 2016 election was certainly a watershed moment for this phenomenon, but both Buck and Tekobbe point out other key moments. “I had been watching #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and particularly #SayHerName,” Tekobbe emphasizes. “Those movements raise questions of what activism looks like in digital space. Then there was the revelation that Russian trolls had been manipulating these hashtags to cause political dissension and to divide, which undermines the activism.”
Buck observes that social media platforms were integral for movements like the Arab Spring, but that “Gamergate demonstrated how you can use those same tools as a weapon to create disinformation and harassment.”
The symposium itself will explore these facets of the digital age, with participation from local activists, as well faculty and students from Communications and Race & Gender Studies. Gender is a particular focus of the symposium’s approach to post-truth and for good reason: concepts of gender have played an immense role in so many of the cultural flashpoints of weaponized disinformation, including the aforementioned Gamergate, the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation process, and of course, the 2016 presidential election.
Tekkobe also notes “Undisputed among scholars is that we’ve given voice to our cultural patriarchy and misogyny, and instead of thinking reflectively of how we can build digital spaces that are more egalitarian, we’ve just dumped that culture online,” Tekobbe points out. “Online technology sharpens abuse and cuts more broadly. To organize a mob doesn’t take much effort, and you don’t have to go door to door to find the mob. All you have to do is throw up a subreddit and say, ‘Here’s the name of the person I’m going to harass. Here’s the hashtag we’re going to use.’ That is all it takes.”
For teachers, for students, and for engaged citizens, the March symposium promises to be a vital examination of an urgent topic. For more and updated information, including the event program, please visit the symposium’s web site at: https://posttruth.ua.edu.