A friend recently emailed me an article filled with misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. I called him and encouraged him to take a few deep breaths, and then we took a close look at the article. As we talked through the misinformation and spin threaded through the article, I realized that I was basically giving a brief lesson on how to perform a rhetorical analysis of this doomsday article. As an English teacher and AP Language and Composition instructor, I decided to bring this work into my classroom, and the impact was profound.
All too often we tend to teach rhetoric and rhetorical analysis as something that is academic and separate from the outside world. We teach students to explore the elements of persuasion in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or the elements of style in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. As important as these texts are, they tend to reinforce students’ understanding of rhetoric as a classroom assignment that does not have applicability in the real world: The texts are too dated, and students encounter them too frequently in the classroom, for the students to feel like the texts have immediate implications for their lives.
There has never been a more urgent time in human history to look at information and language critically. Students are bombarded with unregulated information through social media and media outlets labeled as news that requires critical thinking skills and close-reading skills in language and rhetoric to decipher the extent to which the material they are reading promotes a particular ideology.
Rhetorical Analysis of fake News
Rhetorical analysis and critical reading are necessary tools for students to dismantle the misinformation and disinformation that pervades our media environment. In addition to teaching the standard texts of persuasion and argument, teachers can incorporate real-world applications of these analytical skills by closely examining news and information that spreads on the internet through social media and websites.
Preparing materials: I searched for a variety of articles shared over social media on the same subject matter—in this case, vaccines. It was easy to see the wide range of information that moves across the spectrum of truth and fact to fake.
Teaching degrees of fake news: When I took these articles to the classroom, I started with an introductory lesson that conveyed that there is no clear line between “fake” and “truthful” news. Fake news, in this context, is material that moves away from language with a neutral voice that is intended to deliver unbiased information. Fake news is a catch-all term that covers writing on the spectrum of biased reporting, partisan spin, and propaganda, all the way to outright fabricated information.
Students should understand that most information has bias to some degree, and it’s the degree of that bias that should be evaluated:
- Unbiased: Generally provides information and facts in a natural tenor.
- Biased: Provides information while favoring one side or position.
- Partisan spin: Cherry-picks or card-stacks information to bolster one side.
- Propaganda: Spins information to mislead the audience.
- Fake: Made up or fabricated information.
Developing analytical skills: As students began to evaluate sources, I wanted to equip them with tools that built on the skills of rhetoric and persuasion related to class standards. I also wanted to avoid reteaching the same skills I teach for evaluating scholarly articles. Instead, I focused on the skills for evaluating the style and language of the texts. A few elements of rhetoric I had my students look at included the following:
- Author ethos: Who is the speaker of the text, and do they have the ethos to be a trustworthy source or expert on the subject?
- Use of expert testimony: What are the sources and who is quoted? Are these specific people who have the ethos to speak on this matter? Are the sources anonymous? Are there unspecific references like “We heard from many people...”?
- Hypotheticals: Are the anecdotes and examples steeped in real events, or are they hypothetical and creating a slippery slope fallacy? Does the speaker discuss what is happening or what could possibly happen? Hypotheticals create fear based on a premise of what could be rather than what is, often using things like rhetorical questions: "What if Covid is just the first phase of a mass bioweapon attack?"
- Loaded language: Does the speaker use more neutral language that is controlled and academic, or is the language loaded with emotion? Does the speaker use words and phrases that convey information, or do they tell the audience how to feel and what to think? Words like “radical,” “experimental,” and “mandatory inoculation” create a sense of fear and skepticism rather than reporting.
- Source bias: What else does the source or website publish? What other articles come from this source, and what is the purpose of the other articles? Is the same story being run in other sources we know are trustworthy or less biased?
Source bias is most often found by clicking the author’s link and looking at past articles they have published. In the vaccine articles we looked at, some sources had other articles that hyped conspiracy theories and latched on to the vaccines especially. Others may be very politically motivated and point fingers at one side or another to place blame rather than discuss all the facets of the issue.
- Clickbait and pop-ups: What is the purpose of the website? If it’s to convey information only, then it will be fairly clean and plain, but if they are trying to get people to share and grow visits to the site for ad revenue, then look for clickbait and pop-up advertisements as well as advertisements in general.
Finding real-world examples: By teaching persuasion and rhetorical analysis in this way, we not only convey key academic concepts but also make connections with how these skills can be applied in everyday life, starting the day you teach it.
Throughout the year, my students brought in articles and shared posts they found on their social media that they thought had a strong bias, misinformation, or even fake news. As a class, we evaluated these examples as a fun and engaging review of this process to further solidify rhetorical analysis and critical reading as a reflex when reading information shared on social media.
When teachers ask students to apply tools of rhetorical analysis to contemporary texts found in media, students take these skills out of the classroom. It better equips them to navigate the world of unregulated information and to become canny consumers of information.