Propaganda and Political Manipulation (Selectivity, Memes and Shitposts)


This is an excerpt from a chapter of my book, Women’s Voices in the BlueWave Resistance on Twitter: Cruel Optimism (Lexington Books, Rowman and Littlefield, 2023).  I thought this might be interesting or useful for people who are invested in working with political propaganda and memes. The book uses Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism” version of affect and gender theory to investigate political communities on Twitter during the period between 2015 and 2022, but I don’t think you need to be familiar with her work to get something out of this. The key idea from Berlant here is her idea of “impasse.”  I use the impasse to talk about memes as a kind of borderland, an impasse for holding emotions and various kind of attached meanings that lead to communication (and in some cases, the perpetuation of propaganda).


impasse (photo of wall)
Chabe01, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Political propaganda has been in the news for as long as scholars have written about how governments persuade their citizens. In recent years, the manipulation of emotions through social media platforms has been a major focus of these discussions. In 2020, the Oxford Internet Institute surveyed over 80 democratic countries, and found evidence of how social media manipulated public sentiment in all of them (“Social Media Manipulation,” 2021). Propagandistic information can be spread directly, through word of mouth and verbal statements, and in its simplest definition, it includes the use of facts to do so (although the simple spreading of facts is not normally what we associate with propaganda). Britannica defines it as “dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumours, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion” (Smith, et al., 2021). But more specifically, it is the manner in which these are used that make it propaganda: “the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth). Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas” (Smith, et al., 2021, italics mine). They elaborate on the popular means:

Contemporary propagandists with money and imagination can use a very wide range of signs, symbols, and media to convey their messages. Signs are simply stimuli—“information bits” capable of stimulating, in some way, the human organism. These include sounds, such as words, music, or a 21-gun salvo; gestures (a military salute, a thumbed nose); postures (a weary slump, folded arms, a sit-down, an aristocratic bearing); structures (a monument, a building); items of clothing (a uniform, a civilian suit); visual signs (a poster, a flag, a picket sign, a badge, a printed page, a commemorative postage stamp, a swastika scrawled on a wall); and so on and on. (Smith, et al., 2021)

In the era of social media, distribution through financial backing is not nearly as important as the ability to trigger bursts of imagination and cooperation between groups of people who are willing to spread propaganda. Nor is it necessary for those people to know that what they are doing is spreading propaganda. Propagandists often believe that they are educators or entertainers and that any selectivity or pressure they exert in their messaging is done simply to make their communications more effective. The difference between education and propaganda, according to Britannica’s Bruce Lannes Smith and others (2021), can be a relatively subtle one:

Educators try to present various sides of an issue—the grounds for doubting as well as the grounds for believing the statements they make, and the disadvantages as well as the advantages of every conceivable course of action. Education aims to induce reactors to collect and evaluate evidence for themselves and assists them in learning the techniques for doing so.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because conspiracy theorists have assumed the motives of educators for themselves (the phrase “do your own research” is a popular response of conspiracy-minded to those who challenge them in public forums). While education requires an acknowledgement of as many sides of an issue as possible in order to evaluate them, propaganda usually actively suppresses information that weakens its premise. While actively lying and/or twisting facts is not necessary, propaganda is always selective in what it presents, and there may be less active vetting of new messages that support the propagandistic messages. From this perspective, almost any political group is steeped in some kind of propaganda, including Twitter political groups such as the BlueWave Resistance. Propaganda is not always dangerous, but can become so when it is verifiably false and misleading.

Perhaps the premier form for propaganda in the age of social media is through the creation and spreading of political memes. Defined succinctly by Ryan Skinnell (in the working definition of the word–for a historical overview, see Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976)), “Memes are visual, often funny, snippets of communication — pictures and gifs — that can be easily shared on social media, text messages, and email” (2020). Journalist Douglas Haddow (2016) describes memes, referencing their use in the 2016 Presidential elections, as “now born from the swamps of the internet in real time, distributed from the bottom up…a form of anarchic folk propaganda.” Skinnell (2020) argues that memes are “counterproductive to some kinds of communication”–namely, what we think of as clear, direct, “unvarnished” communication– and that this is a feature of memes, not a bug. Memes, according to media scholar Henry Jenkins, are “spreadable” rather than “sticky” (Skinnell, 2020). This means that memes are fashioned to facilitate quick spreading more than attract and engage focused attention; in other words, they are not fashioned for extensive scrutiny, like a well-structured argument, or a Rembrandt painting. Stickiness is related to authorial/speaker/creator control over the message. (Think back to Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric and especially pathos, how pathos relates to the audience’s emotions as determined by the speaker and how the speaker shapes their discourse to that emotion, exercising authorial (or speaker) control.) Conceive of a well-structured argument as being like a laser beam. Within a small field of influence, it can be directed to a precise point and have a powerful impact as it meets its target. Now, think of a meme as being more like a virus (they don’t call popular memes viral for nothing). A virus spreads, replicates, and evolves, redesigning its host along the way until it takes over as much of the host body (in this case, the public consuming it) as possible. Like the great majority of viruses, memes are spread far more widely than they are damaging (most of us consume a meme and we may chuckle, wince, or cringe, but nothing else happens, although we might spread it to someone else out of interest or amusement). As Skinnell (2020) writes,

Although memes aren’t sticky, they’re nevertheless valuable because they can be altered and diffused widely. Ordinarily, people would want to control their messages and therefore prefer stickiness. With memes, though, the message is only part of what spreads [italics mine]. The reason memes are so important is they retain certain kinds of meaning even when the message is very different from what it was at the meme’s origin point…Memes don’t prevent or inhibit communication in a spreadable culture, but they do shift how — and with whom — we communicate. Memes cultivate narrow, ideological audiences by streamlining communication. Memes don’t prevent us from communicating with others; they reduce our conscious awareness of the communication that we’re engaged in. They reduce communicative friction.

Memes, like some other “gestures” of social media I’ve discussed in the paragraphs above (such as hashtags and the use of emoticons, which can also be indicative of memes and used in certain communities “to meme”), work in what Berlant refers to as the impasse (2011, 199). People have occasionally remarked to me that memes make people stupider, and perhaps this is related to the reduction of conscious awareness of communication that Skinnell refers to here. On the one hand, memes are appealing because they require so little intellectual energy to share; on the other, they gesture at a great deal of potential for affective impact in the impasse, where most of the time, not much happens. If there is no affective impact, there isn’t much motivation to spread the meme–although after a point, people may be spreading it simply because it is spreading, and that is ok, because “the message is only part of what spreads. Spreading memes is what Berlant calls a “spreading out” activity, one without a clear purpose or goal; her examples included activities like eating for pleasure or sex (Berlant, 2011, 98). The relationship of memeing to political activity is unique in that it is, in a certain way, the opposite of purposeful political activity. Berlant distinguishes this kind of activity from anything related to self-sovereignty (2011, 98). A meme doesn’t need to be fully understood, needs to be easy to spread, and needs to give some kind of pleasure (loosely defined) in spreading it.

Unlike some other kinds of social media posting that can be harnessed for propaganda purposes, like the active spreading of misinformation, memes are seldom direct enough to stand scrutiny of a factchecker or to violate terms of service. Memes are sleeper agents of political propaganda, infecting others while tossing and turning in the impasse as they dream. And infect they do. Memes are associated with a practice known as shitposting, and the relationship between the two help us to better understand memeing’s role in Berlant’s discussion of gestures, glitching, and the impasse–and how this can play a role in political social media culture. Financial Times defines shitposting as “posting ostentatiously inane and contextless content to an online forum or social network with the effect of derailing discussion” (Skinnell, 2020). In other words, it is a form of decomposition. Shitposting can be verbal or visual, but it’s always unreliable. As pointed out by Jillian Murphy, “[Shitposting] can also self-consciously and self-deprecatingly be used to present earnest thoughts or genuine effort in a way that seems less earnest and genuine” (Skinnell, 2020). To some readers/viewers, a shitpost may seem like a normal, innocuous post or comment, but it’s usually steeped in irony–or at least, some of the audience will read it as ironic. Then others will pick it up and start sharing it. One might see similar or identical phrasing or graphics (if it is visual) showing up in other discussions, forums, or message boards. A shitpost might, in fact, begin as a genuine or sincere message somewhere and be turned into something quite different over time. This happened with references to “an hero” and “I lost my iPod” when used in a context of reporting a suicide. The supposed origins of this shitposting meme is explained in the Urban Dictionary:

The term originated in a poorly written eulogy posted on the MySpace memorial page of a boy who shot himself after he lost his iPod. The poem frequently referred to the boy as “an hero.” Though the use of “an” with words beginning with “h” is acceptable when the letter is silent–as in many varieties of British English–it was incorrect in this case, since the author did not write the rest of the poem in British English. The use of “an” before “hero” might also be inferred to be a careless error from the many other instances of poor style and grammar found in the rest of the source material. The term subsequently gained wide acceptance as a means to refer to those, such as the aforementioned boy, who kill themselves. Though the term is frequently applied to people who kill themselves needlessly, many famous, easily justifiable suicides are regarded as an heroes (e.g. Adolf Hitler). (crummy_fingers, 2010)

The original poem seems to have, possibly, been a quite sincere although awkward attempt at a tribute by a young person to a dead classmate. The chaotic message board 4chan picked up on it first, and posters there turned it into a shitpost which has subsequently become one of the most well-known memes in existence. One can occasionally see references to “an hero” and “I lost my iPod” even today in Twitch chat or Reddit forums whenever a the topic of suicide comes up or some other random circumstances of grief, despair, or loss comes up (even if it is trivial).

One of the most well-known, well-traveled shitposting memes with considerable political impact has been Pepe the Frog, as summarized on Know Your Meme (Z, et al., 2016-2022). Pepe, the “sad frog” in his most familiar form, was created for the comic series Boy’s Club by Matt Furie in 2005 (Z, et al. 2016-2022). The frog first became a meme in 2008, after a comic was published that showed Pepe urinating blissfully while saying, “Feels Good Man;” this prompted sharing of the image of a happy Pepe saying the phrase on 4chan’s /b/ (random) board (Z, et al., 2016-2022). The image was posted by Jon Hendren on Something Awful in February 2008, and then edited by some unknown person to display a sad-faced Pepe captioned by “Feels Bad Man” (Z, et al., 2016-2022). From there, Pepe began to spread widely as a reaction image, and Tumblr blogs, Instagram feeds, subreddits, and a Facebook page followed over the next few years. There were popular tweets and Instagram posts using the meme by performers Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj in 2014 that garnered attention from the public. It is unknown how Donald J. Trump, in October 2015, became aware of Pepe–possibly through Katy Perry’s well-traveled tweet, which gained more than 17,000 likes and 10,500 retweets. However, he possibly may have been aware of the image created by Malaysian artist Maldraw, who on July 22, 2015 posted a Smug Pepe as Donald Trump “overlooking a face at the U.S.-Mexican border holding back sad Mexicans drawn as the Feels guy” on 4chan (Z, et al., 2016-2022). Use of this association between Trump and Pepe grew on 4chan and Reddit in the months to come. On October 13, 2015, Trump tweeted “an illustration of Pepe as himself standing at a podium with the President of the United States Seal….Within 16 months, the post gathered upwards of 11,000 likes and 8,100 retweets” (Z, et al., 2016-2022). Then, in response to Hillary Clinton’s September 8, 2016 speech at a fundraiser where she referred to half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” Trump tweeted an image based on a poster of the cast of the 2010 film The Expendables, featuring himself as Smug Pepe along with images of well-known conservators and retitled The Deplorables. The source was an Instagram post by his son, Donald Trump, Jr. (Kampeas, 2016). After this, it became habitual for mainstream media to refer to Pepe the Frog as a white nationalist symbol, notably after the Anti-Defamation League declared it one (Mele, 2016). The Daily Dot published an article that refuted Pepe’s associations, “Pepe the Frog is not a Nazi, no matter what the alt-right says,” which stated, “Pepe lacks political affiliation” (Klee, 2016). Pepe’s innocuous and humorous beginnings gave people enough room to use the image as they saw fit, to dither about it and with it–it was yet another example of a gesture in an impasse (Berlant, 2011, 170). Whenever people tried to assign him to a political ideology directly, those who had assigned other meanings (or no meanings) to him protested or said that they didn’t understand the problem. Actual shitposters, which Jessica Logsdon (an artist who was sued for selling a Pepe painting on eBay in 2017) most likely was, also publicly claimed they didn’t understand the negative associations, and hid their real motivation behind the unreliability of the icon’s “true” meaning (Z, et al., 2016-2022).

Another developing shitposting meme is “do your own research,” the phrase I mentioned earlier that is often invoked by conspiracy theorists. This one is a little trickier and one will not find it in Know Your Meme or the Urban Dictionary, although as of mid-2022, “The ‘I Did My Own Research Starter Pack,’ a collection of images, is in the Know Your Meme (2020) database, sourced to originate from a Reddit post by u/IRunFast24 in the subreddit r/starterpacks (2020). “Do your own research” is generally a stab at established, mainstream scientific advice and guidelines, or generally accepted mainstream scientific knowledge, significantly focusing on the safety or efficacy of vaccines, or the legitimacy of human-driven climate change–but it can also invoke the core beliefs of the MAGA cult QAnon (such as prominent Democrats being child traffickers who drink human blood to increase their lifespan) (Roose, 2021), flat earthers, doubts about Barack Obama’s birth as an American citizen, and rejection of the reality of the Jewish Holocaust, among other topics. The phrase is shitpost-worthy because, undoubtedly, some people are sincerely conspiracy theorists who believe that vaccines have microchips in them for tracking locations, or Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of infants–but there are other people who simply enjoy the outrage of those who are upset by such claims and will post the phrase just to cause unrest and discomfort. For some, “do your own research” is less advice than it is a signal to QAnon adherents or antivaxxers that they are on board with a certain set of beliefs, that they reject liberals or Black Lives Matter, for instance. Additionally, there is always the possibility that this innocuous phrase just means, literally, that someone needs to do research on a topic, such as a teacher talking about their students, or a scholar responding to a critic who they feel has not done sufficient information gathering on a subject. The context matters, but the phrase is now so often appearing in QAnon supporters that it is difficult to know how sincere or ironic someone who simply tosses off the phrase is being. In July 2020, Ethan Siegel published an article in Forbes, “You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research,’” which seriously and straightforwardly addresses the reasons why people should not “wing it” when it comes to science guidelines on serious health matters (2020). “Unless we start valuing the actual expertise that legitimate experts have spent lifetimes developing,” Siegel (2020) wrote, “‘doing our own research’ could lead to immeasurable, unnecessary suffering.”

In October 2021, The Greenville News reported that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environment Control began using an unrelated meme–red flag emoticons–to cast suspicion on the phrase “I’ve done my own research on Facebook” from their official Twitter account (Chhetri, 2021). The journal reported in an earlier article by Jordan Mendoza (2021), “The red flag meme you’re seeing on your screens is being used to convey what some people determine to be conversation deal-breakers. Users are sharing quotes — some real and others not — that they deem to be a warning sign of possible problematic behaviors or beliefs, and then following those quotes with several red flag emojis.” This is an example of how one meme can be used to qualify and adapt to another. The SCDHE is acknowledging that “do your own research” and its variants are problematic, repetitive content that casts incredulity on official vetted knowledge from scientists or other mainstream authorities, and they have responded by playing the game, getting into the impasse so to speak. Memeing and shitposting are communication techniques of the impasse, that space imagined by Berlant where communication essentially does a Heisenberg principle move–it communicates as it becomes less clear; it is decomposition rather than composition. “Do your own research” is not a particularly fun or entertaining meme (although the starter pack meme is making strides), but it is starting to trend that way as parties with ironic or critical perspectives begin using the phrase to lift it out of any kind of straightforward criticism of mainstream information.

Like emotional appeals (pathos) in general, memes can be seen as enthymemic in nature, perhaps in a more extreme way than most invitational emotional gestures. A meme begins as an invitation to “catch” it and use it, without much other stated agenda or nod to any kind of consequence. There may or may not be an intent behind the use of a meme, at least at first, but intentions may begin to drift around in the impasse in which memes dwell. Memes have the most power when any intentions attached to them are not widely apparent. We see this clearly with the Pepe meme; it gained popularity before the “normies” (a catch-all term for people who adhere to mainstream media and views, in this case primarily those who are too clueless to meme) became aware of it, and by the time a particular ideological community had adopted it, so many had been using it for such a wide variety of purposes that many rejected the fact that it could be used to support toxic behaviors. As a result, those using it for toxic behaviors, primarily the encouragement of normalizing white nationalism, were able to claim that they, too, were innocents just using a cute frog to support “free speech.” Intention is the part of the enthymeme that is not overt, not spoken, and to complicate matters with memes, intention is not always the same. It is only within a particular audience, as Skinnell (2020) points out, that the meme communicates a clear intention that they have agreed upon.

Memes, spread easily online, have changed the game of political propaganda forever. Their power comes from within the impasse, the place Berlant speaks about as being relatively free of consequentiality, at least initially. They do not require purposefulness to gain traction, nor understanding of any meaning that the public assigns to them. They do not require an investment of capital to go viral, and initially their popularity may arise in what seems a very random way; they require the ability to make some kind of affective impact, but that impact does not need to be what the creator of the meme intends. Once their impact gains traction within a particular ideological community, established influencers (such as political candidates or corporations) are free to use them for their own agendas, although doing this can also dampen the appeal of the meme as those not clearly affiliated with the ideology may reject it (as happened with Pepe the Frog). This doesn’t take into consideration those whose primary purpose is to disrupt any coherent political ideology entirely, who are instrumental in spreading memes.

To cite:
Davidson, Cynthia A.. Women’s Voices in the BlueWave Resistance on Twitter : Cruel Optimism, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central, 59-66.

GAI and Me

As we make our way through the semester, the lure of the module on Artificial Intelligence grows, especially for the teachers in the course. I noticed that a few people focused on the article by The Learning Network, “What Students Are Saying About ChatGPT.” I would love to see an update on this article about every six months to see what students are saying now…and now…and now. My personal experience in teaching college undergraduates last February was that they did not seem to universally be aware of ChatGPT. Some say that they really were aware and were trying to hide it, or felt uncomfortable talking about it because of caution or shame. That’s possible. I think especially the discomfort is a strong possibility, as no one, including students, really knows HOW to talk about ChatGPT in a healthy and effective way. I really just started trying to make an effort to do so this fall semester with my students.

My first response to ChatGPT in the press was annoyance. We’re all tired after years of crisis from the pandemic and …the world at large being rather chaotic, politically and economically and otherwise. As I began to read about it, my next general response was rage about the way that people talked about it–this was before I even tried the application myself. This fall I did a presentation at the SUNY Council on Writing conference about the manner in which writing teachers who are promoting the use of ChatGPT talk to instructors who are either resisting its use or undecided/indifferent to it. This came out of early research of books on Amazon and forays into educational social media where faculty and administrators were sharing their experiences and concerns. I was really put off by a general coerciveness in the literature and a condescension towards teachers (K-12 and beyond) who might want to support bans of ChatGPT and similar programs, or those who may think they are immune to the effects of it in their work. To put it frankly, much of the conversations had a bullying tone to them. I had a sense also that some of the promoters of GAI seemed a bit mesmerized by it, enchanted by it, as they used metaphors from science fiction to talk about GAI–either to say “this is not The Terminator” or compare it to HAL from 2001 A Space Odyssey, for example, which just felt rather childish to me. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think most teachers need to be convinced that ChatGPT is a danger to their families and friends or even that it is a sentient being; these are educated people we’re talking about, right? My undergraduates don’t think that ChatGPT is a sentient being, so why would teachers?

Much of what I perceived as coercion in the published work on ChatGPT, some of which contains excellent tips for its use by the way, was predicated on reiteration of the specter of job loss statistical predictions related to what is seen as a coming invasion of GAI in the workplace. Judy Estrin, an American entrepreneur, business executive, and philanthropist, and currently CEO of JLABS, LLC, a privately held company focused on furthering innovation in business, government, and nonprofit organizations,  published a short essay in Time, “The Case Against AI Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” Obviously Estrin is not a technophobe, but she is someone especially privy to understanding how people in the Silicon Valley culture communicate to the public about innovative technologies. She referred to an article in The Guardian by Timothy Snyder to describe the politics of technological innovation promotion in Silicon Valley, and to warn how it is being used to shape the entire future of humankind around these technological innovations.

Estrin refers to the  current hype of AI as a “politics of inevitability,” based on Snyder’s political terminology. Troubling red flags and facts are put aside to be dealt with at a later time or for others to sort out, as indicated by phrases like “government needs to look into this further” or “educators need to sort out these problems.” Concerns are suppressed as the audience is shown the extraordinary benefits that will come in the face of what’s already inevitable. Those who are still reluctant may be urged to get with the program, be a grown up, deal with reality, and be told that if they don’t see the potential wonders now, they will. If they refuse, they’ll be left behind in the dust.  The other polarity, the politics of eternity, fixates on the let downs of the past and in current technological innovations, they see nothing but pain, seeing only the bad potential outcomes. They resist change because they believe nothing good will ever come out of it, pointing to past failures. This contributes to a cycle of promotion and resistance. In the AI conversations, we see this as a “war” between sides–those who are pro-AI and those who are not. Everyone can get swept up in it–teachers, students, parents, the media.  But according to Estrin, this polarity is fueled by Silicon Valley in their desire to promote their products, and is nothing new. AI is new, but the polarizing fueled by commercial interests is not. 

While this coercive tone in published work, like books, is tempered by a more respectful approach to the audience (somewhat), in social media conversations it can get a lot more raw and strange. On a social media group for educators interested in AI, one gentleman made it his duty to attack every teacher who expressed concern about their students turning in work they were sure was AI-generated. I posted to him that his language was disempowering and unsupportive, to which he replied that my feelings don’t matter, because AI has no feelings. Now, that’s bizarre, but it does show you that some teachers really do not know how to handle the emotions that this emerging technology generates for them.  Educator blogs, which are not peer reviewed, also can get a bit aggressive, like the ones that have declared the “death of the essay.” I really think that this aggressiveness is a byproduct of a grieving process (grieving over the loss of one kind of control) that some educators are going through and, instead of acknowledging their anxiety, projecting incompetence and denial onto other teachers who more actively express their feelings of anxiety and concern.

All this aside, I did end up playing around with ChatGPT eventually and I did find it interesting. I invited my undergraduates to research it for their Writing 102 papers, and in the fall, more have taken this up. Some confessed to having used it, either to play with or yes, to cheat (not in my class of course-lol, honesty goes only so far and self-preservation kicks in; but I still think the students who admit to this as less likely to use it “dishonestly” in a class that has a clear policy about it).  I suspect some of them do use it to draft their essays in various ways. While my assignments are hardly foolproof in preventing the use/overuse of it,  they do require students to do a lot of various different things that ChatGPT cannot do for them, at least on its own. For one, ChatGPT really cannot do citation. Also, my particular way of teaching tends to make students dig and explain and contextualize a lot so if they were going to use the chatbot, they might end up doing more work than if they did not use it.  One way I’ve encouraged students to use ChatGPT is for locating and researching stakeholders for their argument essays, which is something they have to do and document (in other words, they must prove what their potential audience/stakeholders think about their research topic). I’m also letting them actively use it to find arguments for the research they have already done. Since all the literature about educational uses of GPT say that it’s important for students to learn how to prompt chatbots in order to be viable in jobs in the future, I figured we should try learning how to do this together. Our relationships with our students are, in my opinion, our best superpower as teachers, and the most valuable tool in learning to navigate this new “invasive” technology.

Remediation, Adaptation, Evolution

Remediation is literally everywhere, which ironically can make it difficult to talk about in fresh and unique ways. For me, remediation leads into the next module on our list–Bodies, Interrupted–in which we look at how digital communication reshapes the way that we think about presence and absence, especially when it comes to the body. One could say that this is a remediation of presence and absence, among other things related to having a material presence. But that’s getting a bit ahead of myself. Remediation is not at the start a very complicated idea. We’re all used to it. It is UBITQUITOUS! And it seems to be reaching pandemic levels in 2023 with sequel-mania, various adaptations, and an incredible fascination with nostalgia.

One could say that digital rhetoric is itself a remediation of classical rhetoric. Eyman does not identify it as such, but the first chapter of Digital Rhetoric introduces us to the historical shifts in rhetorical studies and wades through those shifts and changes that bring us to his conceptualization of what digital rhetoric is. To define digital rhetoric, we have to do this. The work of the past lives in the folds of the present. At a certain point, though, a precise thinking person will wonder where “remediation” begins properly and ends and something else begins, like just having one thought or project connect to another because we are chronological creatures and things of the past are therefore connected to the present. Definition is related to remediation, too–to define a new term, like digital rhetoric, we must first consider rhetoric’s foundation and development.

So it is with media in general. Bolter and Grusin cover this well in their book. In the film Strange Days, Lenny has to explain to his customer what “the wire” is, and he has to compare it to something known, TV. When personal computers began flooding the consumer market back in the 1980s, they really caught on when they started looking like small TV sets. The screen was familiar, and therefore a level of understanding was achieved from the consumer–who at that time may have had no knowledge of how the computer operated but familiarity brought a level of comfort. Personal computers remediated television. The Commodore 64 did not look like a TV but actually had to be connected to the family television to display. The Apple computers came looking like small TVs out of the box.
As soon as a new form of media emerges, it is generally used to adapt previous media. When film became available to artists in the early 1900s, they used it to adapt the stories they knew from books and the plays that they saw on the stage. They also brought in knowledge and techniques from the newer medium of photography. A fantastic example for a timeline of remediation can be found in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one that continues robustly to 2023 as we await the movie version of Wicked.
From the L. Frank Baum series of books to early stage adaptations to early film projects in the 1900s, to the landmark MGM musical film starring Judy Garland, back again to various film sequels (Return to Oz) and stage projects (The Wiz) and the movie version of The Wiz, the various restagings of the plays, and then the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire, followed by the off-Broadway and Broadway hit adaptations, which brings us to…the awaited movie musical directed by John M. Chu. This leaves out Patchwork Girl, by Shelley Jackson, which is more of a feminist remediation of Frankenstein (another fascinating and complicated timeline of remediation/adaptation) but also has some callbacks to the Wizard of Oz.

From a rhetorical and cultural analyst perspective, rather than simply a historical perspective, it is useful to consider what changes when a project is remediated and why. Sometimes changes are simply out of necessity due to limitations of technology or exist for the simple availability of new forms of expression (think the shift from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz (1939) that occurred in the film itself), but often they reflect deeper needs of a rhetorical situation or clear intentions on the part of the writers/creators. Sometimes changes that come out of chance or necessity have long lasting cultural impact, as well. Think of the “melting” of the Wicked Witch of the West in that film. It was described in the book, but this was the first time that children and their parents actually got to see this magical act visualized for them as if it were real. While today’s children may view this as nothing of consequence due to oversaturation with special effects in their media, it had a profound effect on many children who saw this for the first time.

Remediation is not as widely discussed in rhetoric circles today as it was in the early 2000s, probably because it has become muscle memory of a sort. It’s just generally accepted that this is “a thing” that is a part of media studies. It is probably more interesting to discuss what one can do rhetorically with remediation than that it exists and there are many examples of it. That is a fair point. I think that culturally discussions of remediation and adaptation in 2023 are worth a deeper look because we’re in the throes of constant remix and adaptation. Sequels and prequels are everywhere, and it’s useful to ask why. From a business perspective, you will get answers related to engagement and recognition, but it is more than that. Social media and the internet play an important role in the current trends with familiarity, adaptation, and extension of various “universes” related to franchises like Marvel or Doctor Who or The Wizard of Oz. The internet has popularized and made possible the easy sharing of fandom creations, like fan fiction or fan art. Each emerging generation of creators gets to discover and rewrite familiar works for their own peers or to teach others about the way they see the world.

I just wanted to add:
Universe building is so commonplace today in creative circles that it really does bear examination when talking about multimodality. I welcome to hear your thoughts and investigations about this. I don’t think it’s a fluke that some of the most popular books series of the past became multimodal franchises that go well past the books (think Harry Potter and again the Wizard of Oz, which was an early attempt at universe building by a children’s author). Often these attempts to build media universes are very multimodal and hybrid across live action, video, text, social media of all kinds, very interactive at certain points (there is a Wizard of Oz theme park).

Introductions and Beginnings

This semester marks a fresh start for this course, including a gentle renaming from Digital Rhetoric to Multimodal Rhetoric. When I first taught the class, the idea of digital rhetoric was distinct in some ways from traditional rhetoric, although (as we will see while reading the course textbook on digital rhetoric by Douglas Eyman) it grew directly out of traditional and modern rhetorical scholarship. However, in the first years of the 2020s, something happened to shift the paradigm forward and faster and I no longer feel comfortable drawing a distinction between “rhetoric” and “digital rhetoric.” All rhetoric today is digital or liable to become digital at any moment!

a TikTok logo is displayed on an iPhone

One element of the course remains and is very basic. Most of us are or will become teachers at some point in our lives. We know that almost all if not all of our students will become digitally adept and that using digital tools will come as easily to them, almost, as breathing. However, it is also possible that they will never consider the use of these tools as rhetorical unless we point it out to them. That doesn’t mean they do not employ rhetoric daily: your average TikTok user is more aware of audience than most of us who did not grow up on TikTok could ever be aware of. Getting Instagram likes is a rhetorical act, after all. I am very interested in drawing a line, historically, between older forms of rhetorical communication and those of the present day, which I would consider hybrid and fluid, easily flowing between the digital and the analog. The current state of digital technology has made this easy flow a reality for most people in first world countries, and is even opening up in third world countries–although contestability and control depend a great deal on the conditions of the material world including politics and economics, and even climate change that affects the digital infrastructure.

Many of the modules in this class were begun years ago, but the AI module is brand new, for obvious reasons. AI is not new, but 2022 was a watershed year for AI, and it is all over the news, and in our conversations, and perhaps in your workplace already. There is some doubt as to whether AI belongs in a course on multimodal rhetoric, but I am including it because it certainly impacts any language-centric topic and makes the issue of hybrid rhetoric a lot noisier than it was. While I was finishing the last touches of the course, this article came up discussing a ruling that AI art cannot be copyrighted–a huge victory for writers and artists who are in danger of having their jobs outsourced to ChatGPT.  I am interested to find out what Lawrence Lessig, the author of Remix and founder of Creative Commons, might have to say about AI and copyright.

To complete this post, I’m including a photo from 1977. This is my high school newspaper staff. Bunch of cuties. But look at the machine to the far left on the table. When I saw this a few years ago, I thought, what is a computer printer doing there? Of course, it wasn’t a computer printer. It was an old “ditto maker” machine. Just a reminder of how quickly our present becomes a slice of history and needs to be archived or is in danger of being misunderstood.


How do we define literacy–our own and others’–in a world that is infused with multimodal (defined as multiple modalities including the visual, aural, and interactive) rhetoric? This is a survey course and a workshop; we will explore a very broad range of issues related to the rhetoric of productions in all kinds of media, blog about these, hold weekly discussions in which students will take turns leading on various assigned texts, and then draw from readings and discussion to produce a final project.. We will explore online networked reading and writing practices, and examine the social, cultural, educational, and ethical dimensions of digital and hybrid texts. We will also examine identity and representation, including class, race, and gender, in media spaces.