Digital rhetoric

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      Digital rhetoric is a way of informing, persuading, and inspiring action in an audience through digital media that is composed and distributed via multimedia platforms.[1] Due to the increasingly mediated nature of our contemporary society, there are no longer clear distinctions between digital and non-digital environments. This has led to an expansion of the scope of digital rhetoric as there is a need to account for the increased fluidity with which humans interact with technology.[2] Contrary to past conceptions, the definition of rhetoric can no longer be confined to simply the sending and receiving of messages to persuade or impart knowledge. While this represents a primarily ancient Western view of rhetoric, Arthur Smith of UCLA explains that the ancient rhetoric of many cultures, such as African rhetoric, existed independent of Western influence.[3] Today, rhetoric encompasses all forms of discourse that serve any given purpose within specific contexts, while also simultaneously being shaped by those contexts.[4]

      Existing scholarship in the field suggests that rhetoric and digital rhetoric hold various meanings according to different scholars.[5] Based on the individual values a scholar holds, digital rhetoric can be analyzed through many lenses that reflect different social movements.[citation needed] Approaching this area of study through different the lens of varying social issues allows the reach of digital rhetoric to expand far beyond the individualistic encounters one has with technology.


      The term digital rhetoric was coined by rhetorician Richard A. Lanham in a lecture he delivered in 1989 [6] and first formally put into words in his 1993 essay collection, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts.[7]

      In 2009, rhetorician Elizabeth Losh[8] offered this four-part definition of digital rhetoric in her book, Virtualpolitik:[9]

      1. The conventions of new digital genres that are used for everyday discourse, as well as for special occasions, in average people’s lives.
      2. Public rhetoric, often in the form of political messages from government institutions, that is represented or recorded through digital technology and disseminated via electronically distributed networks.
      3. The emerging scholarly discipline concerned with the rhetorical interpretation of computer-generated media as objects of study.
      4. Mathematical theories of communication from the field of information science, many of which attempt to quantify the amount of uncertainty in a given linguistic exchange or the likely paths through which messages travel.[10]

      Losh’s definition demonstrates that digital rhetoric is a field that relies on different methods to study various types of information, such as code, text, visuals, videos, and so on.[8]

      Drawing influence from Lanham and Losh, Douglas Eyman offered his own definition of digital rhetoric in his 2015 book Digital Rhetoric: Theory, Method, Practice. Eyman said digital rhetoric is “…the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances”.[11]: 44

      Eyman’s definition demonstrates that digital rhetoric can be applied as an analytic method for digital texts and as a heuristic for production offering rhetorical questions that a composer can use to create digital texts.[citation needed][11] Eyman categorized the emerging field of digital rhetoric as interdisciplinary in nature, enriched by related fields such as, but not limited to: digital literacyvisual rhetoricnew mediahuman-computer interaction and critical code studies.[11]

      In 2018, rhetorician Angela Haas offered her own definition of digital rhetoric, defining it as “the digital negotiation of information – and its historical, social, economic, and political contexts and influences – to affect change”.[12]

      Some scholars interpret this concept with greater focus on the digital aspect. Casey Boyle, James Brown Jr., and Steph Ceraso claim that “the digital” is no longer just one of the many different tools that can be used to enhance traditional rhetoric, but an “ambient condition” that encompasses our everyday lives. In other words, as technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, the lines between traditional and digital rhetoric will start to blur. In addition, Boyle et al. emphasize the idea that both technology and rhetoric can influence and transform each other.[2]

      Additionally, digital rhetoric is a tool by which different cultures can continue to facilitate their longstanding cultural traditions. In his book, Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, Adam Banks states that modern day storytellers, like stand-up comics and spoken word poets, give African American rhetoric a flexible approach that is still true to tradition.[13]

      While digital rhetoric can be used to facilitate traditions, select cultures face several practical application issues. Radhika Gajjala, professor at the University of Pittsburgh, writes that South Asian cyber feminists face issues with regards to building their web presence.[14]

      Forms and Objects of Study[edit]

      Social media[edit]

      Social media allows for the weaving of “offline and online communities into integrated movements”.[15] Digital activism serves an agenda-setting function as it can influence mainstream media and news outlets. Hashtags, which curate posts with similar themes and ideas into a central location on a digital platform, bring exposure to social and political issues. They put pressure on private institutions and governments to address these issues, as can be seen with movements like #CripTheVote,[16] #BringBackOurGirls,[15] or #MeToo. Many recent social movements have originated on Twitter, as Twitter Topic Networks provide a framework for online community organizing.[15]

      Mobile applications[edit]

      Mobile applications are computer programs designed specifically for mobile devices, such as phones or tablets. Mobile applications cater to a wide range of audiences and needs. There are apps for social media, employment, education, etc. Mobile apps allow for a “cultural hybridity of habit” which allows anyone to stay connected with anyone, anywhere.[17] Due to this, there is always access to changing cultures and lifestyles, since there are so many different apps available to research or publish work.[17] Furthermore, mobile apps allow individual users to manage many aspects of their lives while allowing the apps themselves to be able to continue to largely change and upgrade socially.[18]

      Online communities[edit]

      Online communities are groups of people with a common interest that interact and engage over the Internet. Many online communities are found within social networking sites, online forums, and chat rooms, such as FacebookTwitterReddit4chan, etc., where members can share and discuss information and inquiries.[19] These online spaces often establish their own rules, norms, and culture, and in some cases, users will adopt community-specific terminology or phrases.

      Scholars have noted that online communities have especially gained prominence among users like e-patients and victim-survivors of abuse.[20] Within online health and support groups respectively, members have been able to find others who share similar experiences, receive advice and emotional support, and record their own narrative.[21] However, online communities also face issues with online harassment in the form of trollingcyberbullying, and hate speech.[citation needed] According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans have experienced some form of online harassment with 75% of these experiences occurring over social media.[22]

      Another area of concern is the influence of algorithms on delineating the online communities a user can come in contact with. Personalizing algorithms can tailor a user’s experience to their analytically-determined preference, creating a “filter bubble“. The user loses agency in content accessibility and information dissemination.[23][24]

      Video games[edit]

      An Xbox 360 Pro used to play video games

      The procedural and interactive nature of video games leads them to be rich examples of procedural rhetoric.[25] This rhetoric can range from games designed to bolster children’s learning to challenging one’s assumptions of the world around them.[26] Each game has its own set of language which help shape the way information is transferred between players in the community.[27] With the popularization of online gaming, games such as Call of DutyLeague of Legends, and many more, players have gained to communicate with one another to create their own rhetoric within the established world of the game which allows players to influence and be influenced by the other gamers around them.[28]

      An educational video game developed for students at the University of Texas at Austin, titled Rhetorical Peaks, was made with the goal of examining rhetoric’s procedural nature and to capture the constantly changing contexts of rhetoric.[29][25] The open-ended nature of the game as well as the developer’s intent on playing the game within a classroom setting encouraged collaboration among students and for them to develop their own interpretations on the game’s plot based on vague clues, ultimately helping them to realize that there must be a willingness to change between lines of thought and to work within and past limits in understanding rhetoric.[25]


      A woman, who is sitting in a chair, gazes at a computer screen. She is surrounded by tens of books.

      Computers and other forms of technology have been influencing our rhetoric and education for decades, as this photo of a woman working at an early computer shows.

      In U.S. universities, courses on digital rhetoric are taught at the graduate and undergraduate level in EnglishCommunication, and Media Studies departments. Courses in digital rhetoric study the intersectionality between users and digital texts, as well as how different backgrounds such as age, ethnicity, gender and more can affect these interactions.[30]

      Some scholars actively support the inclusion of digital rhetoric in the classroom. Jeff Grabill,[31] a scholar with a background in English, education, and technology, encourages his contemporaries to find a bridge between the scholarly field of digital rhetoric and its implementation. Cheryl Ball[32] specializes in areas that consist of multimodal composition and editing practices, digital media scholarship, digital publishing, and university writing pedagogy. Ball teaches people to write and compose multimodal texts by analyzing rhetorical options and choosing the most appropriate genres, technologies, media, and modes for a particular situation. During her own education, Ball made significant advances in the digital rhetoric field by completing her school’s first electronic and interactive thesis. She also received tenure at another university using the first all-digital tenure portfolio. In another approach, Douglas Eyman recommends a course in web authoring and design that provides undergraduates more practical instruction in the production and rhetorical understanding of digital texts. Moreover, he explains that web authoring and design for digital rhetoric instruction provides opportunities for students to learn fundamentals of web writing and design conventions, rules and procedures.[33] Attention to multimodality has also influenced Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing by Elizabeth Losh et al., which emphasized engaging the comic form of literacy.[34]

      Digital rhetoric is also important in teaching composition online. While many studies of online writing instruction (OWI) foreground issues of usability, Collin Bjork argues that “integrating digital rhetoric with usability testing can help researchers cultivate a more complex understanding of how students, instructors, and interfaces interact in OWI.”[35]


      The increase in digitalization of media has amplified the importance of digital rhetoric in politics as it has introduced a new relationship between politicians and the citizenry. Digital communication platforms and social networking sites (SNS) are means of allowing citizens to share information and engage in debate with other people of similar or distinct political ideologies. The topics and ideas communicated through digital rhetoric have been shown to influence and predict the political behavior of individuals outside the digital world.[36] Politicians have been known to use digital rhetoric as a tool to communicate information to the citizens. Reciprocally, digital rhetoric has enabled increasing political participation among citizens. In 2008, the first wide scale political campaign through Twitter was conducted by presidential then-candidate Barack Obama. Social media has become a significant asset for political candidates and is currently used by many. Accordingly, the 2016 United States elections brought social media to the forefront, and all presidential candidates utilized different forms of persuasion in their 140 character tweets. During the election cycle, candidates would post 5-7 times and would tweet 11-12 times a day.[37]

      Theoretical research on digital rhetoric in politics has attributed the increase of political participation to three models: the motivation model, the learning model, and the attitude model.

      • The motivation model proposes that digital rhetoric has decreased the opportunity costs of participating in politics since it makes information readily available to the people.
      • The learning model established the increase in political participation to the vast amount of political information available on the internet which increases the inclusion of the citizens in the political process.
      • The attitude model extended from the previous two by suggesting that digital rhetoric has changed the perception of citizens towards politics, particularly by providing interactive tools that allow people to engage in the political process.[38]

      President Barack Obama’s Facebook post on Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. The text was later reposted to Twitter.

      Social media incorporates numerous characteristics of interactions between people in the public sphere. Social media is not characterized as an ideal public sphere because it fails to provide equitable access to information and participation for women and minority groups.[39] Nevertheless, social media has been shown useful for the propagation of digital rhetoric for political campaigns as shown in Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns in which digital rhetoric made its first successful appearance at a U.S presidential election — which marked a guideline for future elections.[40] The presence of digital media companies such as Facebook, MicrosoftGoogle, and Twitter has been well established in the promotion of digital rhetoric for political purposes. These firms have influenced the political process by providing strategic information about people’s demographics, behaviors, attitudes, and interests, all of which have increased the efficiency of political discourse — especially for political campaigns. In 2013, Twitter released a manual targeted towards politicians that outlined the main features of their platform and how they can be used to increase political communications.[41] In 2018, Facebook devoted $62,500 dollars to create a space for politicians to learn ways in which they can use digital rhetoric in Facebook to increase the impact of their campaigns.[42] Steir conducted a study to analyze the different types of rhetoric that took place in social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter; during the 2013 election campaign for the German Bundestag, he found that the types of information that politicians share on both platforms varied — Facebook was found to be the preferred medium for campaign rhetoric, while Twitter was mostly utilized for rhetoric regarding political debates, infrastructure discussions, and law and order.[43]

      Digital media has increasingly dominated the political sphere, especially with social media. FacebookTwitter, and Instagram have become a significant part of the political engagement process with regard to elections, campaigns, or elected officials trying to connect with their constituencies.[44] Social media globalizes communication – especially that of political nature – fostering discussions and connecting communities as it reaches a significant number of people.[45] Amidst all of these outlets, Twitter is the form of social media primarily used by candidates running for public office, elected officials, and government agencies.[45]

      Members of the United States Congress use Twitter and other forms of social media to connect with their constituencies. Members use social media to convey their stances on important issues and bills they have sponsored or have positions on. They use it to post about events they are hosting and the work they do in Congress. This includes meetings with constituents in Washington and back in their districts. According to former Representative George Miller, Twitter is a mechanism for him to answer questions from people in his district.[46] Conversely, Representative John Culberson said he uses Twitter to assist people in engaging themselves in their government.[46] Many of these sites provide features for people to connect with their elected officials. For example, on Facebook the “Town Hall” feature connects users with their federal and state officials. According to PEW Research center, 20% of people who use social media have taken advantage of the fact that they can connect very easily with their officials via a simple “like” or “follow”.[47]

      For candidates, social media brings publicity and enables them to communicate effectively to the voters,[46] providing them with a platform to highlight their ideas and curate what they would like voters to see.[37] According to the PEW research center, 35% of users of social media have taken advantage of sites like Facebook in getting out to vote, making it a valuable tool for candidates.[48] In the 2012 reelection campaign for incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama, the campaign used over 15 different social media methods to reach out to a broader audience.[37] As the prominence of social media has increased, candidates have found it increasingly appealing to take advantage of the political benefits of its platforms. In the mayoral elections for Bacau, Romania, only 3/10 candidates used Facebook in 2012. In 2016, all of the candidates engaged in the use of social media and Facebook.[46]

      Social media also provides candidates with insight into predicting the outcome of votes, which are more accurate than normal polling methods.[48] Social media is a tool for campaigns as it provides an analysis as to the political climate, as well as the levels of engagement.[48]

      For potential voters, social media is a way to get information. According to the PEW research center, 44% of the surveyed voting population used social media as a way to get information about the 2016 United States presidential election.[49] This was significantly more than print newspapers at the local and national level. Furthermore, 24% of those surveyed claimed that they directly got information about the election at the national level from the two candidates; Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.[49]


      Image depicting prose with Hypertext

      Rhetoric to digital rhetoric[edit]

      Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the art (techne) of finding out the available means of persuasion”.[1] The project of rhetorical study was to identify what made successful, persuasive oration so moving. Classical rhetoric was focused on legal, political and ceremonial speeches, and designated three modes of expression: logos (logical argument), pathos (emotional appeals), and ethos (establishing the authority of the speaker). A speech was divided into 5 parts, which form the canon of classical rhetoric.[1]

      Just as technology and its availability have changed over time, digital rhetoric has shifted from being only concerned with persuasion to also being concerned with self expression and collaboration with the purpose of building communities of people with shared interest.[50] While the five canons of rhetoric[51] developed for oratory print still apply, they are reconfigured to work in new contextual forms like the database, the hypertext, the cybertext, and other born-digital texts that restructure the current rhetorical situation. Invention,[52] arrangement,[53] and style[54] take on new meanings while delivery[55] is elevated to new importance, and memory comes to refer to textual forms like search engines,[56] archives,[57] and tags.[58] Although the rhetorical canon of delivery once referred to the oral/aural and bodily aspects of delivery, in the age of digital rhetoric, it refers to “Internet-based communication” and the media that are used.[55] While the study of digital rhetoric is not specific to any one technology or era of technology, ideas in digital rhetoric have evolved alongside new technologies such as smartphones, new and easy to use composing platforms like StorifyPixorial, and WeVideo, and techniques such as Ajax. One way of studying digital rhetoric is to trace the ways that the affordances and constraints of technology “support and enable the transformation of the old rhetoric of persuasion into a new digital rhetoric that encourages self-expression, participation, and creative collaboration”.[59] More recently, digital rhetoricians have transduced the information through the digital that we regularly interact with and ultimately form our consciousness, knowledge, and habits of mind.[2]

      Shift from print to digital[edit]

      wampum belts

      Native American wampum belts

      Dennis Baron states, “The first writing technology was writing itself.”[60] While previous writing technologies involved pencils and hieroglyphics, the evolution of communication technology now allows for online and immediate rhetorical conversations, and it also varies by culture.[61] Angela Haas discusses the technology and communicative methods of Native Americans extensively in her work  denouncing Western discovery claims to hypertexts and multimedia as she describes how Native Americans used wampum belts as hypertext technologies.[62] The origins of modern computing can be found in the techno-military context of World War II.[63] Just as the pencil was originally intended as a marking utensil for builders and is now used for writing, the computer was originally intended to compute advanced math problems, but is now used for word-processing and a myriad of other tasks. Technology continues to modify itself to meet the needs of people; in the case of digital rhetoric, technology has become more prevalent to match people’s usage of the Internet and computers, which creates a technoculture.

      Another scholar who highlights the changing landscape from print to digital is Jay Bolter. He argues that the computer is the most significant development since the start of the alphabetic/print tradition and that digital texts will continue to move print to the “margins of literate culture”.[64] However, while computers may be one of the most prominent means of producing digital rhetoric, Sean Morey notes that many other devices, including smartphones, tablets, digital cameraselectronic pensgraphic design programs, presentation software, and more can be utilized for the same purpose.[65] Adam Banks delves into the rhetorical nature of the conception of the idea of these technologies, from the physical designs of these interfaces to the sociocultural backgrounds that either promote usage or dissuade people from these artifacts and the skills to produce or work with them, as a central part of digital rhetoric.[66] Digital rhetoric has moved beyond interactions with computer screens and has seamlessly been integrated into everything we do to the extent that it has become a multi-sensory. It informs knowledge beyond what can be visually seen on a computer screen, using other senses such as the oral and touch.[2]

      Move to post-digital[edit]

      Paul Daughtery states “a post-digital world doesn’t mean that digital is over” but rather suggests that it can only stem from a place where the digital age has spread and advanced to a point that new questions surrounding digital competency and differentiation.[67] Spheres of commerce and communication have reached a point of prevalence where the descriptor “digital” is dropped from things such as businesses.[68] Justin Hodgson discusses that the quotidian experience and presence of the digital world and digital technologies has birthed post-digital rhetoric.[69] In this post-digital rhetorical landscape, the issue of who technology is designed for is troubled further with algorithms meant to tailor the experience and content to the individual. Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell bring up the point that, while the digital world offers people with disabilities the possibility to “pass” as able-bodied in communication, there remain problems of website accessibility and functionality of platforms like email that create marginalization and friction in practice.[70]

      Building off the technology and the growth of the digital population, post-digital rhetoric understands the boundaries of digital and that which is labelled non-digital to be connected. Print texts and oral performances are digitalized. Likewise, digital artifacts are printed or made present outside their sphere.

      Rhetorical velocity[edit]

      Rhetorical velocity is the concept of authors writing in a way in which they are able to predict how their work might be recomposed. Digital rhetoric is often labelled using tags, for example, which are keywords that readers can type into search engines in order to help them find, view, and share relevant texts and information. These tags can be found on blog posts, news articles, scholarly journals, and more. Tagging allows writers, scholars, and content creators to organize their work and make it more accessible and understandable to readers.[65] Therefore, it is important for them to be able to predict how their audience will recompose their works. Jim Ridolfo and Danielle DeVoss first coined this idea in 2009 when they describe rhetorical velocity as “a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party”.[71]

      Appropriation carries both positive and negative connotations for rhetorical velocity. In some ways appropriation is a tool that can be used for the reapplication of outdated ideas to make them better. In other ways appropriation is seen as a threat to creative and cultural identities. Social media receives the bulk of this scrutiny due to the lack of education of its users. Most “contributors are often unaware of what they are contributing”,[72] which perpetuates the negative connotation. Many scholars in digital rhetoric explore this topic and its effects on society such as Jessica Reyman, Amy Hea, and Johndan Johnson-Eilola.

      Critical Approaches[edit]

      Procedural rhetoric[edit]

      Procedural rhetoric is rhetoric formed through processes or practices.[73] Some scholars view video games as one of these processes through which rhetoric can be formed.[73][74] For example, Ludology scholar and game designer Gonzalo Frasca poses that the simulation-nature of computers and video games offers a “natural medium for modeling reality and fiction”.[74] Therefore, according to Frasca, video games can take on a new form of digital rhetoric in which reality is mimicked but also created for the future.[74] Similarly, scholar Ian Bogost argues that video games can serve as models for how ‘real-world’ cultural and social systems operate.[73] They also argue for the necessity of literacy in playing video games as this allows players to challenge (and ultimately accept or reject) the rhetorical standpoints of these games.[73]


      Digital rhetoric gives a platform to technofeminism, a concept that brings together the intersections of gendercapitalism, and technology.[75] Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw that recognizes the societal injustices based on our identities.[75] It is often challenging for women to navigate finding and interacting in digital spaces without harassment or gender biases.[76] There is an importance of digital activism for unrepresented communities, such as gender non-conforming and transgender folx of all races, disabled folx, and people of color.[76] In the journal Computers and Composition only five articles explicitly use the term intersectionality or technofeminism.[75] Technofeminism advocates for equality for women in technology-heavy fields and researches the relationship between women and their devices. In addition, technofeminism and intersectionality are not as prevalent in upcoming technologies and research.[75]

      Digital cultural rhetoric[edit]

      The expansion of the internet has increased, digital media or rhetoric can be used to represent or identify a culture.[1] Scholars have studied how digital rhetoric is affected by one’s personal factors, such as racereligion and sexuality. Due to these factors, people utiltize different tools and absorb information differently, which has created the need for specialized communities on the web. Some examples are computer-mediated communities, such as online blogs and forums, like Reddit, which would gives a voice to these communities unlike real-life. One can experience and converse with other like-minded people on the web via comment sections and shared online migration.[77] The creation of digital cultural rhetoric has yield the use of online slang that other communities may not be aware of. These online communities that share a digital cultural rhetoric can use their social identify to confront stereotypes they were once confronted with.[78]

      Pedagogical Approaches[edit]

      With digital rhetoric becoming increasingly present, pedagogical approaches have been proposed by scholars to teach, particularly school children, digital rhetoric. Scholar Ian Bogost suggests that video games can be utilized in a multitude of subjects to be studied as models of our non-digital world.[73] Specifically, they note that video games could be used as an “entry point” for students that may not have been interested in computer science to enter that field.[73] Additionally, they note that video games can be taught as rhetorical and expressive in nature, allowing children to model their experiences through programming.[73] Scholar Melanie Kill extends the possibility of teaching digital rhetoric to college-age students, specifically arguing the importance of editing Wikipedia and capitalizing on their privilege of education and access to materials.[79] And scholar Collin Bjork makes a series of recommendations for integrating digital rhetoric with usability testing in online writing instruction.[80]



      Wikipedia's globe logo with a red banner across the bottom that says, "6,000,000 articles," and below that Wikipedia's motto, "The free encyclopedia."

      Wikipedia, as an online encyclopedia that relies on collaborative writing, and therefore collaborative rhetorical contribution, provides examples of the concepts of circulation in action.

      Circulation theorizes the ways that text and discourse moves through time and space, and any kind of media can be circulated. A new form of communication is composed, created, and distributed through digital technologies. Media scholar Henry Jenkins explains there is a shift from distribution to circulation, which signals a move toward an increasingly participatory model of culture in which people shape, share, re-frame and remix media content in ways not previously possible within the traditional rhetorical formats like print. The various concepts of circulation include:

      • Collaboration – Digital rhetoric has taken on a very collaborative nature through the use of digital platforms. Sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia involve opportunity for “new forms of collaborative production”.[81] Digital platforms have created opportunities for more people to enact and create, as digital platforms open doors for collaborative communication that can be occur synchronously, asynchronously, over far distances, and across multiple disciplines and professions.[81][82]
      • Crowdsourcing – Daren Brabham describes the concept of crowdsourcing as the use of modern technology to collaborate, create, and solve problems collectively.[83] However, ethical concerns have been raised as well while engaging in crowdsourcing without a clear set of compensation practices or protections in place to secure information.
      • Delivery – Whereas rhetoric once relied largely on oral methods, the rise of digital technologies allows rhetoric to be delivered in new “electronic forms of discourse”.[84] Acts and modes of communication can be represented digitally by combining multiple different forms of media into a composite helping to create an easy user experience .[85] The growing popularity of the internet meme is an example of combining, circulating, and delivering media in a collaborative effort through file sharing. Although memes are sent through micro transactions – they often can have a macro large scale impact.[86] Another form of unique rhetorical delivery is the online encyclopedia which traditionally have been print form based primarily on text and images. However, modern technological developments now enable encyclopedias to integrate sound, animation, video, algorithmic search functions, and high-level productions into a cohesive multimedia experience as part of their new forms of digital rhetoric.[85]

      Critical literacy[edit]

      Critical literacy is a line of thought that assumes all texts are biased.[87] For example, a study conducted at the Indiana University in Bloomington used algorithms to assess 14 million Twitter messages containing statements about the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and election. They found that from May 2016 to March 2017, social bots were responsible for causing approximately 389,000 unsupported political claims to go viral.[88]


      In regards to digital rhetoric, interactivity can be defined as the ways in which readers connect to and communicate with digital texts. For example, readers have the ability to like, share, repost, comment on, and remix online content. These simple interactions allow writers, scholars, and content creators to get a better idea of how their work is affecting their audience.[65]

      Ways communicators promote interactivity consist of the following:

      • Mind sharing is a way to get collective intelligence—crowd wisdom that is comparable to expert wisdom. The methodology consists of taking a consensus from the crowd—the answer that most minds are suggesting is the best answer. If it’s a numeric question (like guessing the weight of an ox), it’s a calculated average or median. If it’s an open question (like “what car should I buy?”), it’s the most common answer.
      • Multimodality is a form of communication that uses multiple methods (or modes) to inform audiences of an idea. It can involve a mix of written text, pictures, audio, or videos. Online journals often embrace multimodality in their issues and articles by publishing works that use more than just written text to communicate the message. While the digital turn in rhetoric and composition has encouraged more discussion, theorization, and pedagogical application of multimodality and multimodal texts, the history of the field demonstrates a continuous concern with multimodal communication beginning with classical rhetoric’s concern with delivery, gesture, and memory. All writing and all communication is, theoretically, multimodal.
      • Remix is a method of digital rhetoric that manipulates and transforms an original work to convey a new message. The use of remix can help the creator make an argument by connecting seemingly unrelated ideas into a convincing whole. As modern technology develops, self-publication sites such as: YouTube, SoundCloud, and WordPress have stimulated remix culture, allowing for easier creation and dissemination of reworked content. Unlike appropriation, which is the use and potential recontextualization of existing material without significant modification, remix is defined in Kairos as “the process of taking old pieces of text, images, sounds, and video and stitching them together to form a new product”.[89] A popular example of remixing is the creation and sharing of memes.

      Visual rhetoric[edit]

      Digital rhetoric often invokes visual rhetoric due to digital rhetoric’s reliance on visuals.[1] Visual rhetoric is defined as using imagery to represent rhetoric, which can be difficult to differentiate online, requiring careful analysis of viewer, situational, and visual contexts.[90] Abstract ideas in rhetorical images, as Charles Hill states, are not only acceptably represented in images, but they are prominent; images “do not necessarily have to portray an object, or even a class of objects, that exists or ever did exist”.[91] Hill uses the peace signswastika, and the Confederate flags as examples of abstract ideas represented by images. Ironically the image of a peace sign, which seems to be universally accepted as a call from the 1970s ‘hippie’ movement, originated as an anti-Christian symbol. The original graphic was used to show an upside down broken cross symbolizing the despair of man and the crucifixion of the Apostle Peter.

      The concept of the avatar can also aid understanding of visual rhetoric’s impact. James E. Porter defines avatar as a “virtual body”.[55] While scholars such as Beth Kolko hoped for an online world without physical barriers, making it a “realm of ideas”, there are still social issues, such as gender discrimination and racism.[92] Beth E. Kolko believes that an idealistic online world would be a “realm of ideas”, without definitive factors such as gender, race, or age. Kolko argues that a non-gendered online world would not garner enough attention, because individuals could not relate to each other without gender identity.[92] Victoria Woolums found in a study of the video game World of Warcraft that the gender identity of the avatar affected behaviors of other characters, showing a bias even in a realm where gender identity of an avatar may not be physically accurate to its user.[93]



      Referred to as the digital divide, issues of economic access and user-level access are recurring issues in digital rhetoric.[94] These issues show up most prevalently in computers and writing circles. Access can refer to inequality in the access of information, access to a reading public, access to means of communicating, and access to opportunities. For those that teach digital rhetoric in schools and universities, student access to technologies at home and in school is an operative concern.[95] There is some debate about whether mobile computing devices like smartphones make technology access more equitable.[96] In addition, the socioeconomic divide that is created due to accessibility is a major factor of digital rhetoric. For instance, NIH researcher and a professor of education at Stanford University, Linda Darling-Hammond discusses the lack of educational resources that children of color in America face.[97] Further, Angela M. Haas, author of “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice”, describes access in a more theoretical way. Her text explains that through access one can connect a physical body with the digital space.[62] These examples preface the topic that access encompasses every aspect of ones life and must be perceived as such. If accessibility is not resolved at a foundational level then social discrimination will be further perpetuated.[97]

      Copyright issues[edit]

      Copyright controversies in online and digital texts affect the way digital rhetoric is utilized. Many of these arguments deal with the problem of cost for the publishers and consumers of scholarly text. Copyrighting materials is an expensive task, especially when the materials can be translated into many other forms of digital sources that are freely found by the public. Because of this ease of transformation, copyright laws are undermined as scholars lose predication in their online materials through maneuvers as simple as copy and paste or translating hyperlinks. In James P. Zappen’s piece “Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory”, he refers to transferring material in ways that create misapplication of a work that a scholar has written. “A media database, for example, can produce an almost infinite variety of end-user objects, which can be customized for different users, manipulated through hyperlinks, periodically updated, and scaled upon demand.” Zappen’s statement of “infinite” is in no way subjective or an over statement. Many digital pieces are infringed upon, stolen, or misused by the avoidance of copyright. These many forms of copyright avoidance lend to the controversy of digital rhetoric and media as a whole.[59]

      Paywalls are a major hindrance for education and reduce accessibility to educational tools and materials. This practice, in conjunction with copyright laws, increase barriers to scholarship that ought to be open access or at least provided at a reasonable cost.[98] This industry has gotten flack for its long history of monopolizing the publishing market and forcing universities to pay over $11 million annually for access to these works.[98]

      Open access has removed the barriers of fees associated with accessing a work and the restrictions of copyright and licensing. The matter of eliminating fees is most prevalent to digital rhetoric, because it allows for more access to works. Open access and digital rhetoric do not eliminate copyright, but they eliminate restrictions by giving authors the choice to maintain their right to copy and distribute their materials however they choose, or they may turn the rights over to a specific journal. Digital rhetoric involves works that are found online and open access is allowing more people to be able to reach these works.[99]


      Cyberbullying has steadily been on the rise since the rise of social media. As platforms meant for communicating, such as Twitter, have increased, so has the a digital rhetoric that includes an abundance of bullying.[100] Analysis linked cyberbullying-specific behaviors, including perpetration and victimization, to a number of detrimental psychosocial outcomes. The trend of people posting about the characters and their lifestyles reinforces the iconography of stereotypes (such as “hillbillies”), which is successful because of the way in which the rhetoric of difference is a naturalized component of the ethnic and racial identity.[101] These issues led the first Cyberbullying Prevention campaign, STOMP Out Bullying, to launch itself in 2005. Like the abundance of campaigns that would form in the next fifteen years, it focuses on creating cyberbullying awareness and reducing and preventing bullying.[102]

      The challenge with social media has increased since the rise of ‘cancel culture’, which aims to end the career of the culprit through any means possible, mainly the boycott of their works.[103] There is a limited number of characters to convey the message, (ex: Twitter’s 280 character limit)[104] so messages in digital rhetoric tends to be underexplained, allowing stereotypes to flourish. Erika Sparby theorized that the ability to be anonymous and use pseudonyms or avatars on social media gives users more confidence to address either someone or something in a negative light.[105]

      Misinformation and disinformation[edit]

      While digital rhetoric can often be used to persuade, in some cases, it is used to spread false and inaccurate information. The proliferation of illegitimate information over the internet has given rise to the term misinformation, which is defined false claims that may or may not be intended to mislead others. This is not to be confused with disinformation, which is illegitimate or inaccurate information that is spread with the intent to mislead others. Both misinformation and disinformation have had detrimental impacts on the knowledge, perceptions, and, in some cases, actions of many susceptible individuals. Scientific facts, such as the damaging environmental impacts of global warming, now come into question on a daily basis. Accounts such as The Watts Up With That and Global Warming Policy Forum on Facebook have gained a following through their frequent denial of climate change. These accounts use hyperlinks and cited sources to disguise their false claims as legitimate.[106] The sources used, however, often come in the form of blog posts and editorials from far-right personalities.[106]

      Social media has contributed to the proliferation of misinformation/disinformation because of its viral and largely unfiltered nature. Everyday users have the power to join together and perpetuate a narrative that is entirely false, convincing others to join their cause. The effects of misinformation were on display in both the leadup to and the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. One conspiracy theory, for example, was formed out of the false notion that Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington D.C. was the site of a child sex business run by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.[107] Widespread belief in the theory led one individual to enter the restaurant with two guns, convinced he was there to rescue the captured children.[107] The incident became known as “Pizzagate” and it showed just how detrimental digital rhetoric can be when it is deliberately used to deceive others.

      Conspiracy theories once again went rampant during the United States’ 2020 presidential election, where a record 100 million mail-in-ballots were cast in the early voting period.[108] Starting as early as April 2020, then-President Trump tweeted about the dangers of widespread mail voting fraud[109] even though studies have shown that mail voting fraud is rare and the dangers are negligible.[110] Even after losing the presidential election to Joe Biden, Trump continued to tweet about rigged elections, voter fraud, and other proven lies.[109] On January 6, 2021, Congress was set to certify the results of the 2020 election. During an organized rally of Trump supporters in D.C. protesting the election results based on Trump’s claims of fraud, Trump took stage and incited his supporters to march to the U.S. Capitol and “fight like Hell” because if they didn’t, “… you’re not gonna have a country anymore”.[111] The assembly of Trump supporters quickly turned violent as the mob stormed the Capitol with the intent to overturn the election results.[111] The insurrection, which killed five people,[112] was the end result of Trump’s long thread of disinformation. Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter two days later because his involvement in the insurrection violated Twitter’s terms and conditions regarding the “glorification of violence”.[113] Alongside being suspend from other major social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube,[114] Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives because of his incitement of the insurrection.

      In 2020, misleading rhetoric led to heightened public health concerns when false information regarding COVID-19 spread rapidly. Some theorized that the deadly virus could be cured upon the ingestion of bleach, while others believed the disease to have been intentionally started by China in an attempt to take over the world.[115] Trump also supported taking Hydroxychloroquine to prevent the contraction of COVID-19.[116] The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised on numerous occasions that the drug has no signs of preventing the spread of the virus. Despite their illegitimate nature, these conspiracy theories spread as quickly as the virus itself. As a result, the WHO declared the proliferation of misinformation regarding the virus an “infodemic“.[115] This label caused most social media sites to strengthen their policies relating to false information, but many misleading claims still slip through the cracks.


      Old books

      There is controversy regarding the innovative nature of digital rhetoric. Arguments opposed to legitimizing webtext are Platonically-based in that they reject the new form of scholarship—web text, and praise the old form—print, in the same way that oral communication was originally favored over written communication.[117] Originally some traditionalists did not regard online open-access journals with the same legitimacy as print journals for this reason; however, digital arenas have become the primary place for disseminating academic information in many areas of scholarship.[118] Modern scholars struggle to “claim academic legitimacy” in these new media forms, as the tendency of pedagogy is to write about a subject rather than actively work in it.[119] Within the past decade, more scholarly texts have been openly accessible, which provides an innovative way for students to gain access to textual materials online for free, in the way that many scholarly journals like Kairos,[120] Harlot of the Arts,[121] and Enculturation[122] are already available through open access. COVID-19 Coronavirus forced schools across the globe to switch to an “online only” approach. By March 25, 2020, all school systems in the United States closed indefinitely.[123] In search of a platform to host online learning, many schools incorporated popular video chat service Zoom as their method of providing socially distant instruction. In April 2020, Zoom was hosting over 300 million daily meetings, as opposed to 10 million in December 2019.[124] While some may view online learning as a drop in education quality,[125] the shift to online learning demonstrated the current state of accessibility to digital information while promoting the use of digital learning through Zoom meetings, YouTube videos, and broadcasting systems such as Open Broadcaster Software.[126]

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