digital rhetoric

changing your mind in social media

Have you ever persuaded someone to change their mind about something? Not just convinced someone to take your advice on a matter about which they were undecided, but actually shifted someone’s view from one strongly held view to another? It’s not that easy. It’s even harder to build a consensus within a community, even when many in the community might not have strong feelings about the subject at hand.  In social media though it’s nearly impossible. Or at least I imagine it’s nearly impossible; I don’t think I’ve every actually witnessed it. For example, have you ever seen someone change their views on our current presidential candidates during the course of a social media exchange? Of course, I don’t think we expect that to happen. The kinds of arguments that take place in social media are not really about persuasion, or at least not about persuading one’s opponents. They are some different kind of rhetorical performance.

When one thinks about how views are changed or consensus is built in a discourse community, one realizes that the rhetorical features of the texts involved are only a minor element in the process. For example, when a widely-held scientific theory is challenged and replaced, texts are certainly involved: journal articles, grant applications, laboratory records, and so on. But those texts are only part of a larger apparatus that lends strength to the claims made in the text and gives durability to the conclusions. Eventually grant programs shift their criteria, researchers and labs change their agendas, and curriculum and textbooks alter their content. Over time, the people involved change their views but not without all of these other non-textual structures in place. Without them, a journal article reporting on research and challenging an accepted theory is easily ignored.

Similar processes happen in other disciplines, in business, government, religion, law, and so on. In academic life the most familiar example of this occurs with first-year students. It’s the cliché of how the student returns home for Thanksgiving break only discover that s/he no longer quite fits in with his/her parents or hometown friends who have not gone off to college. Families pass along values and some will have duration, but once one is separated from the apparatus that gives those views duration, they can start to weaken. The student finds herself in a new apparatus on the campus and comes to share the values of that new community. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the same student might return to her hometown after graduation and slowly revert to those old values once the campus is no longer a part of her life.)

Social media provides none of the mechanisms that would allow for arguments to be persuasive or to have any durability. They can become part of other apparatuses and do. Integrated into a disciplinary community social media can obviously be a place for extending and shaping an existing conversation. It might shape that conversation as well by the way it impacts the dissemination of scholarship. Similar things might happen in other discourse communities where the members share enough genres, values, and objectives. However, one conversation moves beyond those fairly narrowly shared elements or one moves into more loosely-bound communities (e.g. networks of friends or participants in a hashtagged conversation) there’s not enough strength in the bonds and even the most elegantly worded and carefully argued text will have little strength.

Here’s what Latour writes in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence on politics.

According to the principles of this inquiry, every time we manage to isolate a mode of existence, a type of hiatus (here, the curve, the exception), a trajectory (here, autonomy, freedom), we also have to be able to define an explicit form of veridiction. We saw earlier how such a demand appeared incongruous in the case of political discourse: either speakers rationalize too much, or they overestimate irrationality. Might it be necessary to give up speaking truths on the pretext of speaking politically? Must one change oneself into a ghoul, as Socrates demands at the end of Gorgias, in order to be right, but only after the fact, emerging from Limbo, a shade judging other shades, a phantom judging other phantoms? No, of course not, since, dispersed in institutions, buried in practices, captive in our imaginations and in our judgments, there is a whole know-how concerning speaking well and speaking badly, acting well and acting badly in the political realm, which should make it possible to define the felicity and infelicity conditions of the Circle. Let us recall that to make this competence explicit is not to formalize it according to a different enunciative key but, on the contrary, to follow it in its own language.

Latour’s point rests on our notion that politics bears little resemblance to facts. Our current presidential cycle, to say nothing of the Brexit matter, has been rife with fact-checking and assertions that we now live in a “post-fact” society. Latour has long approached this matter in relation to climate change, which offers an excellent example of how hard it is for science to speak to politics or visa versa.  We cannot expect Science or Reason or some other mode to do the work of politics.

I think Latour might be overly optimistic in his assessment that we have the know-how to speak well in political realms. I suppose it depends on who the “we” is in that sentence. There’s a line. I think it’s in Virilio’s Art of the Motor but I may be misremembering about how in Europe the arrival of trains led many people to believe there would be increased understanding among the peoples of different nations as they would now be able to travel and interact more easily, but what the Germans realized was that trains improved troop movement and logistics. It would be nice to think that social media would similarly increase understanding but that has hardly proven to be the case. If anything social media makes us more divisive and more entrenched in our views. We can try to imagine some better, more civil way of talking, but in my mind the challenges are more object-oriented. How do we build structures that support felicity conditions, giving strength and durability to a way of speaking politically that might lead us beyond the shambles of political discourse we currently “enjoy”?

2 replies on “changing your mind in social media”

“How do we build structures that support felicity conditions, giving strength and durability to a way of speaking politically that might lead us beyond the shambles of political discourse we currently “enjoy”?”

I would describe this as framing the question wrong. Intentionally “building structures” is essentially the command-economy approach to discourse, and likely to meet with failure for similar reasons. To ask the same question in a capitalistic way, how do we align motivations and incentives to produce the kind of discourse and analysis we desire. Do that right and watch the structures build themselves.

Politics ends up being about either personalities or parties because the metrics that ought to matter aren’t the focus. This is a self-feeding loop. If the public doesn’t study the outcome of policies, then the details don’t matter beyond the soundbite. This is how you get a reality show circus of vapid and meaningless pronouncements, which have little more substance to them than the name. It devolves into identity politics and tribes which is inherently stupid. So how do you generate interest in studying the impact of the proposed policies of politicians?

The chief problem with political discourse is the majority of the voting public do not have a significant and immediate personal stake in the outcome of their personal choice. It sounds counter-intuitive, since politics affect us all, but this is the crux of the problem. There’s no personal cost to being wrong that doesn’t also affect everyone else in the same direction. Equal losses are viewed as a wash. If the wrong politician gets elected and tanks the economy, “everybody” is worse off, so it doesn’t really matter. If they were personally penalized differently than the rest of the public, they would care far more. Rewards and punishments could be financial, or involve voting clout for example. (Remember that experiment where people are paired up and given money, but only if they can agree on a split. Person A offers 60/40 and Person B tells them to go to hell and they both lose it all. Politics is like that, it doesn’t matter if you both lose as long as the other guy doesn’t win more than you.) Throw in the lack of apparent value to a single vote, and it just multiplies the apathy towards studying policies.

I’ll give an example of voting clout rewards. You could alter voting requirements. In addition to voting for a candidate, you vote for expected metric outcomes (gdp growth, debt change, unemployment, etc etc) on both candidates. At the end of each cycle (which could be annually or an election cycle) the actual performance of the elected candidate is compared to your expected outcomes, and the strength of your vote is adjusted. Voter A has unrealistic expectations compared to average, so next election his vote is only worth 0.80 votes. Voter B has very accurate estimations, his vote next election is worth 1.2 votes. The same outcome for the same voters a second election in a row widens the gap. Perhaps now voter A is reduced to 0.7 votes, while Voter B has 1.35 votes. A real model would have a bit more to it, but you get the idea. This is essentially how the stock market works, by removing votes from people who prove themselves to be incompetent judges and passing them to people that are. The key is that you aren’t punished for the candidate you choose, only for being out to lunch on the performance of the candidate that is chosen. If the anti-democratic nature bothers you, you could reward/punish people financially instead.

Now imagine how the discourse around politics changes in the system above. It’s no longer about how the President ate a burger at fast food joint today, or how good their golf swing is. Suddenly, it’s about how an amendment to the budgetary bill to aid a special interest group in a certain politicians riding will affect gdp and potentially screw everyone who bet on it. Or about how a new jobs program will affect unemployment in one direction, and debt in another. Voters vote on, and are judged on, the outcomes of policies, so that’s what the discourse revolves around.

Discourse and rhetoric follow substance, not the other way around.


I’m not sure what you’re describing would work, but voting clout rewards would be an example of a structure designed to give strength and durability to a way of speaking politically. It would be interesting to see how it worked within the context of Congress where there is a lot of voting on which to base the values and voting records are public. I should point out that in terms of Congress there is an established structure giving strength and durability to political speech. You or I or others may not believe it benefits us either individually or collectively; we might say it doesn’t share our values; we might even think it is unethical or destructive. Honestly I can’t say I have any novel ideas for making it better. Reforming the role that money plays in elections and restricting the potential personal financial gain of those who would take office for some period following their term might help, but one could easily say that’s just covering up bigger problems. I could certainly point to more systemic problems: the powerful drive to achieve short-term political or financial gains, the ongoing clash between pre-modern religious/social values and an increasingly global, cosmopolitan community, and the inability to listen to science and technology in a political forum.

However, in saying that, I would be entering into the kind of political discourse I was addressing in my post. Perhaps you or another reader would already be inclined to agree with me. Certainly other possible readers on the web would not. If this was happening among my Facebook friends, some of my academic friends would “like” what I wrote. Others have different political-theoretical commitments that are generally more activist and would find this insufficient. Then, when you add in family, high school friends, former students, and other random folks, one would find something closer to the general spectrum of American politics. What would be the point of trying to have a conversation about such matters with such a community? I would say none, except possibly entertainment, if one could imagine finding such a thing entertaining. And while I’m not sure many people would describe such online battles as fun, I do think that our commitment to them is affective.

In order to make such conversations productive, we would require solutions that went far beyond social media itself. When one side of an argument says “I know I’m right because it says so right here in the Bible,” and the other side says “I know I’m right because the evidence is here in this scientific study,” there’s no mechanism for persuasion or agreement. Latour’s point, in part, is that politics needs it’s own mode, it’s own way of establishing truth, separate from the modes of science, religion, and so on. It would have to be based upon a commitment to form a group despite differences in other modes.

In such cases I think one could find a recursive relationship among discourse, rhetoric, and other substances. (I would say discourse and rhetoric are substantive.) A common example of this is a lecture hall. It is built to make certain rhetorical-discursive practices strong. The lecture hall follows the demand for lectures. In turn, we are inclined to inhabit the lecture hall as members of an audience or as a lecturer. Discourse and rhetoric follow the substance of the lecture hall. Turning to the matter at hand, one might think of the Capitol Building with its chamber for formal meetings and votes but also many offices and meeting rooms as a space that both fosters certain kinds of political discourse but was also clearly designed (and then expanded) to reflect ideas about how political discourse should function. We don’t have that in social media. Instead, on Facebook, I think we adopt the rhetorical practices of arguments over the Thanksgiving meal with your uncle or with the locals at a bar or some such. In such instances I don’t think we’re really looking to resolve political differences. I think we’re simply looking for group identification, to affirm that there are people who are like us and that we are part of a group with them. That’s fine and perhaps even necessary, but it is not a means to address differences.

So I suppose the root observation that drove my writing this post in the first place is to that while one may have many reasons/feelings that drive one to get into political arguments in social media, let’s not imagine that this is a way to persuade people to think differently or come to some agreement. The mechanisms for doing so really don’t exist in social media. Maybe we’d like to build them. I don’t know.


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