A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Introduction: Approaches to Rhetoric in a Post-Truth Age: Pedagogies, Activism, and Platforms

Cindy Tekobbe, University of Alabama

Amber Buck, University of Alabama

(Published March 24, 2022)

As we enter our third academic year of the COVID-19 pandemic, university administrators, under the direction of Republican-led state legislatures, are issuing policies that instructors cannot mandate mask usage in their classrooms or their own offices. Under this same direction, our administrations are not able to mandate vaccines for returning students. In the face of a historic public vaccination campaign sponsored by the Biden Administration, many of our fellow citizens and politicians are actively working to block COVID-19 public safety protocols. Public health is now at the mercy of the intense polarization of our time. This moment of stark division of belief around the pandemic strikes us as an exemplar of the post-truth project of disinformation. The overt efforts of Trump and his acolytes to loudly center “alternative facts” and “fake news” has many in the mass media focusing largely on pathos—opinions shared on social media follow trends in public discourse and tend to be abrasive, with some posters even taking delight in cruelty. But focusing only on Trump and pathos glosses over too many examples of power, privilege, white supremacy, political consolidation, and deliberate intent. In these next few paragraphs, we unpack some of these indicators and definitions, while we attend to the articles we offer here as case studies and pedagogical approaches that interrogate post-truth rhetorics and offer praxis to undermine or disrupt it.

Post-truth is a loosely defined term or set of concepts that has been used to refer to everything from a disregard for facts (Levitin) and the rise of “bullshit culture” (Ball) to a crisis of Western democracy (Farkas and Schou). Post-truth was Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, indicating the cultural shift that had occurred after Brexit in the U.K. and the U.S. Presidential election of Donald Trump. The OED defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” McComiskey defines “post-truth rhetoric” as an “unethical rhetoric” (6) that combines bullshit, fake news, and appeals to ethos and emotion without logos. Like fake news, post-truth has come to be used as a catch-all term to describe an orientation toward information that is based more in identity than evidence.

While the term has become common in both academic and mass media contexts since 2016, post-truth approaches are not a new problem. Dominant cultural narratives embedded with white supremacist ideologies have always created their own truths that privilege white hegemonic power structures and the status quo. In one of the articles in this special issue, Carmen Kynard reminds us that the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation against Black activists was, in fact, a type of post-truth project. Mejia, Beckermann, and Sullivan criticize scholars who use the term “post-truth” to emphasize epistemological explanations of contemporary issues rather than materialist analyses of social conditions. They argue that post-truth claims have long been leveraged against people of color who have been historically excluded from dominant discourses. As Mejia et al. note, “current scholarship and reporting often reproduces the myth that we once lived in an era of unproblematic truth, and, consequently, intersects with a neoconservative nostalgia for a post-racial past that never existed” (111). These scholars also point out that the academic and mass media impulse to create media literacy guides as a proposed solution suggests that information literacy is the problem, when ideologically charged narratives of power and privilege are leveraged against excluded groups for political and cultural gain. We must therefore echo Mejia, et al. when they ask: “post-truth for whom?” (113).

Post-truth rhetorics are also defined as having an ambivalent orientation toward facts that is weaponized against historically excluded people to perpetuate that exclusion and maintain the power of the status quo. While Mejia, et al. note that there has never been a time before post-truth, Donald Trump made the actual project of post-truth rhetoric plainly visible instead of hiding it behind the political arguments of fiscal austerity, personal responsibility, and decorum historically employed by many in his party. By embracing neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and by encouraging armed insurrectionists to attack the U.S. Capitol, Trump put the post-truth project in neon lights, prompting crises of epistemology for (mostly white) scholars across disciplines. The rhetorical weaponization of false narratives is a project older than the United States itself, but the spectacle of Donald Trump and his supporters has prompted many scholars to look more closely at post-truth tactics. It is easier to ignore voter ID laws enacted under the guise of fraud and security than armed insurrectionists with Confederate flags, metal poles, and pepper spray, to cite one recent example.

Since 2016, the field of rhetoric and composition has begun to study and account for the project of post-truth rhetoric in its various forms, from Bruce McComiskey’s Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition and Trish Roberts-Miller’s Demagoguery and Democracy to Ryan Skinnell’s Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald Trump. Digital rhetoric scholarship has also identified some of the mechanisms through which disinformation associated with post-truth perspectives have spread through digital networks. Some of these works include the edited collection Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric (Gries and Brooke) and Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson’s Rhet/Ops, which both consider patterns of circulation and tactics that continue to allow for the circulation of fake news and other material. John Jones and Michael Trice’s edited collection Platforms, Protests, and the Challenge of Networked Democracy more directly examines interactions between non-state actors, technology companies, and institutions, while Jessica Reyman and Erika Sparby’s Digital Ethics: Rhetoric and Responsibility in Online Aggression considers the consequences for rhetoric when loosely moderated digital platforms allow harassment and propaganda to flourish. While post-truth rhetoric is not a new phenomenon, we believe that its general orientation toward facts intersects with digital platforms, affordances, and modes of circulation in ways that require additional examination. Recent events, including the January 6 insurrection and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, demonstrate the high stakes of these inquiries for everyone’s health and safety.

In 2019, we hosted the Department of English’s biennial symposium at the University of Alabama, which we titled “Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Era” and themed around questions of post-truth rhetorics: defining post-truth, examining post-truth rhetorical strategies, and considering how to do our work as rhetoricians, teachers, and scholars in the face of the approaches we were encountering in our teaching and research. We invited seventeen speakers to campus who gave talks that considered the role of digital rhetoric in a post-truth context, with an emphasis on the consequences and responsibilities of rhetoricians to affect change in the world, from revising our methodologies and critical lenses to broadening our scope of approaches to activism and pedagogy. We also heard from five local activists who worked on progressive issues in West Alabama, including reproductive and immigrant rights and political organizing within Tuscaloosa and in rural areas, creating a dialogue between scholars and those working on the ground to enact change.

This special issue of enculturation continues the work of the Symposium, but with the field of rhetoric and composition as its audience. Due to constraints of space and logistics, we were unable to include all of the articles from the presentations. We wish this had not been the case; however, the examples here are representative of the larger focus of our event. In addition to the symposium talks, Rory Lee, Matthew Davis, and Stephen McElroy conducted interviews with symposium speakers about digital rhetoric, digital rhetorical pedagogies, and the intersection between digital rhetoric and politics. A video compilation of portions of these interviews is included in this issue. With these articles and through the video, we captured discussions held in the rhetorical moment as the country was preparing for the coming 2020 election. Our primary questions that arose were: what can we do as a field to address post-truth in public and political discourse? How can we provide tools for challenging post-truth and shoring up the ideals (if not always the practices of) democracy? During the preparation of this special issue, our authors took on the challenge of updating their pieces to reflect the changes and observations that 2020 and 2021 brought us. Those updated pieces are presented here. The first section of this issue emphasizes pedagogical approaches, considering how instructors can respond to post-truth contexts and prepare students to address them. The second section provides activist case studies that examine how advocates and their movements counter post-truth rhetorical strategies using digital tools. The third section offers analyses of different structures through which post-truth tactics are enacted, including social media platforms, websites, and digital genres. Along with the speakers’ contributions, our issue also includes short video interviews of some of the Symposium participants describing their own rhetorical practices and interventions in scholarship, pedagogy, and activism.

Pedagogical Approaches

Pedagogical approaches are often offered as an afterthought to theoretical conversations in rhetoric. The place where rhetoric and writing scholars can most directly intervene in discussions of post-truth rhetoric are in our own classrooms, and we therefore begin our issue with these concerns. In her article, Carmen Kynard centers what she describes as “Black visuality” in teaching visual and digital rhetoric within the context of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). She describes students’ work as a type of “activism and political resurgence.” In customizing the CSS of bland institutional workspaces and portfolios, Kynard’s students not only display their interests and personalities, but also “actively craft… Black visual landscapes” through “Black cultural-spatial contouring, multimedia Blackscapes, Black navigational messaging, and countervisual narrativization in a Post-Truth white supremacist world.” Kynard reminds us that the racism of the post-truth era is not new, but only the most recent iteration of long histories of colonialism and racial violence, which are embedded within our technological systems. Centering Black visuality in visual and digital rhetoric moves beyond an inclusion model of “diversity” and current calls in the field for racial justice to emphasize alternative Black futures.

The second article takes on the issue of “fake news.” Framing and organizing their work as a conversation both between themselves and their teaching contexts, Abigail Bakke, an associate professor in Technical Communication and First Year Composition, and Jenny Turner, Department Chair and Instructional Services Librarian at Minnesota State University, describe a joint project aimed at developing and teaching critical information literacy. They first discuss their graduate and undergraduate teaching, then they work through some of the deficits in current information literacy practices recommended to students when they encounter fake news online. They develop a more nuanced definition of fake news and describe their projects— graduate students creating fake news critical literacy tutorials and undergraduate students working through those tutorials. Finally, they discuss their outcomes and offer their client-based project model as one approach to improving student critical literacies.

Activist Case Studies

In “‘Seizing’ Kairos: Never Again MSD’s Enactment of (Digital) Rhetoric,” Kathleen Yancey leads the reader through student activism emerging from the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) in Parkland, Florida. She describes the circulation of rhetorics through multiple ecologies and discusses the kairotic moment in which MSD students generated activism and resistance to gun violence, which spread quickly as a student movement across the country. Yancey argues that “the Parkland Survivors/March for Our Lives/Never Again MSD activists have been accretive, inviting new communities into that collective action […]. As these ‘various entities' have assembled, the Parkland Survivors have in their thinking drawn on earlier models of collective action and on a philosophy grounded in social justice, Kairotically inventing and reinventing both themselves and an evolving consequential movement.” Finally, Yancey poses important questions about researchers working with these emergent and rhizomatic movements, focusing on what is included, what boundaries are drawn, and how empathy and identification operate in these research paradigms.

Chen Chen and Xiaobo Wang turn to activism in China to argue that due to the power matrix of internet surveillance, along with the patriarchal logics of feudalism, Confucianism, neoliberalism, globalism, and a non-democratic society, Chinese feminist rhetorics have always been situated within a context of post-truth. By closely examining #MeToo through Chinese feminist social media strategies, Chen and Wang answer the following questions: “What are the activist rhetorical strategies manifested in the Chinese #MeToo movement? How do Chinese feminist discourse and activism circulate? Finally, what can we learn from Chinese #MeToo about transnational activism against intersectional oppressions on women?” By exploring these questions through the lens of Chinese feminist rhetoricians, Chen and Wang find that, anchored firmly in hope, activist interventions disrupt these power logics while attending to historically excluded audiences, first person experiences, vernaculars and local contexts, and emotions. They argue that their project speaks to the need for further research and explication of Chinese feminist activism that is careful to not be subsumed into globalist generalizations.

In “‘Who Are Your People?’: Black Lives Matter Activists’ Use of Relational Knowledge to Counter Misinformation Campaigns,” Elliot Tetreault considers how activists interact and counter specific disinformation propaganda operations. He investigates the manipulation of information spread across social media by bad actors within the context of “post-truth.” Tetreault argues that issues of race and racism are central to the understanding of these misinformation campaigns because bad actors manipulate messages to press on the American delusions that racism and white supremacy are not the center of American democracy and institutions. Tetreault also argues that in order to disrupt these racist narratives, it is necessary and urgent to engage the “relational, embodied, experiential knowledges” of multi-marginalized groups. Tetreault calls for rhetoricians to challenge entrenched white supremacy and racism in the field, and to look to the voices that have been historically excluded due to the white supremacist configurations of the field.

Post-Truth Structures

Margaret Fernandes, Matthew Homer, and Jennifer Sano-Franchini consider the structures through which post-truth rhetorics operate by examining Facebook’s interface and inherent “stickiness.” They argue that “any attempt to study what it means to ‘do rhetoric in the post-truth age’ requires attention to the critical relationship between emotion, affect, and social media.” The distrust and discomfort many of us feel with social media, a concept the authors call “sneaky rhetorics,” is the very mechanism through which everyday behaviors perpetuate the spread of misinformation and disinformation online. Fernandes, Homer, and Sano-Franchini examine the concept of lurking on Facebook through an “affective time use study” of their own Facebook use. “Sneaky rhetorics,” the authors find, contribute to increased information consumption as well as mistrust through “anxiety-fueled doomscrolling” that contributes to the spread of mis/disinformation. More research into the affective dimensions of social media use and information consumption can give researchers greater understanding of its power overall.

The 2016 election and the Trump presidency demonstrated the power of memes to spread political content and propaganda. In “Meming Misogyny at the Party Divide,” Erika Sparby examines visual political memes of Hilary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kim Davis, and Kellyanne Conway to consider the ways that these memes not only work through propaganda, but also rely on misogynistic tropes. Sparby notes that memes serve a large role in online political discourse in determining the “likability” of female candidates, a concern that plays an outsized role in conversations about women in politics. Sparby argues that the larger problem with political memes is their power to polarize; by increasing in-group identifications and alienating out-group ties, political memes work to drive us apart rather than together. Sparby calls for greater pedagogical engagement with memes and their mechanisms of circulation as part of digital and information literacy, as well as a stronger awareness of the online content we bring into our own classrooms.

Zachary Lundgren turns his analysis to the federal government itself by examining public facing government websites. In 2017, the incoming Trump administration made large changes and deletions to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website, specifically the sections on climate change. In this chapter, Lundgren analyzes both the Obama and Trump era EPA sites as actor networks, arguing that rather than communicating scientific information to the public, the websites serve instead as political and rhetorical networks that articulate specific beliefs and values. While the Trump Administration’s changes to EPA.gov were drastic, they were also reversible. Lundgren reminds us that actor-networks are not linear, but rather are “capable of flux, deterioration, or new alliances.” This finding is important to consider how institutional statements on websites reflect and shape official policy and how they change over time.

Finally, Rory Lee, Matthew Davis, and Stephen McElroy provide a video compilation of interviews that took place at the original symposium at the University of Alabama, emphasizing the connection between digital rhetoric and politics. Lee, Davis, and McElroy note the importance of continuing to pay attention to activist movements, platform design, and algorithms in research and pedagogy within the field.

The articles in this issue offer recommendations for how we might prepare students beyond “information literacy,” focusing instead on the ideological identities that work to distort facts and information toward a political end on these digital platforms. Whether or not “post-truth” is the right term or concept under which to frame these articles, this discussion continues to be important given that, for example, public health is still threatened by COVID-19 and its variants while bad actors and right-wing media outlets continue to spread disinformation about vaccines and strategies to prevent and reduce infection rates. Put together, we think this work represents important contributions to our understanding of the shifts in how mis/disinformation and fake news are deployed in today’s public discourse.


We offer our thanks to the University of Alabama College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of English for providing funding and support for this symposium. We are especially grateful to Sarah Sides, Administrative Specialist, for her assistance with travel arrangements and schedule coordination. For their dynamic presentations and conversations, we thank the speaker-participants of the symposium: Abigail Bakke, Estee Beck, Chen Chen, Jeremy David Johnson, Carmen Kynard, Zachary Lundgren, Jennifer Sano-Franchini, LaToya Sawyer, Ryan Shepherd, Erika Sparby, Elliot Tetreault, Michael Trice, Jenny Turner, Douglas Walls, Xiaobo Wang, Bill Wolff, Kathleen Yancey, and our keynote speaker, Alice Marwick. We express our appreciation to Matthew Davis, Stephen McElroy, and Rory Lee who filmed and edited the included video of interviews with symposium speakers. We thank the editors and editorial board of enculturation for reviewing and publishing this issue. And finally, our sincere gratitude to Donnie Sackey, Editor of Special Issues and Responses for guiding us and this issue.

Works Cited

Ball, James. Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World. Biteback Publishing, 2017.

Farkas, Johan, and Jannick Schou. “Fake News as a Floating Signifier: Hegemony, Antagonism and the Politics of Falsehood.” Javnost-the Public, vol. 25, no. 3, 2018, pp. 298–314.

Gries, Laurie, and Collin Gifford Brooke, editors. Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric. Utah State UP, 2018.

Levitin, Daniel. Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era. Dutton, 2017.

Jones, John, and Michael Trice, editors. Platforms, Protests, and the Challenge of Networked Democracy, Rhetoric, Politics, and Society. Palgrave, 2020.

McComiskey, Bruce. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition. Utah State UP, 2017.

Mejia, R., et al. “White Lies: A Racial History of the (Post)Truth.” Communication and Critical/ Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 109–126.

Oxford Languages. "Word of the Year 2016." 2016. Oxford Language. web. 17 December 2021. https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016

Reyman, Jessica, and Erika M. Sparby, editors. Digital Ethics: Rhetoric and Responsibility in Online Aggression. Routledge, 2019.

Ridolfo, Jim, and William Hart-Davidson, editors. Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare. U of Pittsburgh P, 2019.

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy, The Experiment, 2017.

Skinnell, Ryan. Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump. United Kingdom, Imprint Academic Limited, 2018.

Trice, Michael, and John Jones, “The Challenge of Networked Democracy.” Platforms, Protests, and the Challenge of Networked Democracy, Rhetoric, Politics, and Society, edited by Michael Trice and John Jones, Palgrave, 2020, pp.1-13.