Sunday, May 09, 2010

Rhetorical Analysis 101

Okay, so I'm a rhetorician who specializes in digital media. In my case, that means that I'm interested in both rhetoric in digital media and rhetoric about digital media.

The front section of today's New York Times presents an interesting case study. There are three articles concerned with the Internet: "Tell-All Generation Keeps Some Things Offline," "From Condemning Terror to Preaching Jihad," and "States Move to Allow Overseas and Military Voters to Cast Ballots by Internet."

The "Tell-All Generation" has already inspired groans from some of my colleagues. First of all, even though it is topping the list of the most e-mailed stories this morning, it's like many most e-mailed stories, old news. The article deals with a study of Berkeley students that we were talking about here on Virtualpolitik last month, just a few days after it was published online. Second, it repeats certain commonplaces about their being a "digital generation" that inspires skepticism from those who study histories of media adoption and rebuttals from researchers like Sonia Livingstone. As Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it on his Twitter stream: "Another profoundly stupid @nytimes trend story about the 'digital generation.' This time, it CARES about privacy."

The "Preaching Jihad" story is one of a number of stories that have appeared recently about Anwar al-Awlaki a charismatic US-born preacher, explicator of Islam, and advocate of jihad who has used the Internet to disseminate his message to the English-speaking public worldwide and has been linked to inspiring attacks planned for Fort Hood, Detroit, and Times Square. He is described as a creator of "prolific online lectures" who brings radical Islam to the disaffected through a perverse form of distance learning. Anwar al-Awlaki has also been featured in a number of other news stories in recent months about the possibility that he might be assassinated for his views in items from Al Jazeera, The Christian Science Monitor, and Newsweek. Having opened the Virtualpolitik book with an account of a misguided congressional intelligence hearing on "Terrorist Use of the Internet," I tend to be wary of the ways that new technologies get associated with criminality in our popular culture, and I wonder if the Times is pandering to that stereotype with lines about how this man has supposedly "harnessed the Internet for the goals of Al Qaeda" while not presenting any counterarguments to regulating his religious and political speech. For example, it discusses al-Awlaki's "now-defunct Web site" without any exploration of what might be an interesting story about why his Free Web Hosting account might have been pulled down last November. I'm certainly not arguing that there are no limits to online speech, particularly when it incites violence, but it might be interesting to have at least some discussion of how hosting services decide about what constitutes banned "hate speech" on the site.

Finally, there was the story about Internet voting that was buried on page seventeen. It doesn't have a prurient interest in teen sexuality or an telegenic Osama Bin Laden replacement boogie man to make it worth more attention. It also is typical in framing the issue of Internet voting primarily in terms of protecting the security of the polling place rather than imagining politics differently with some new algorithmic possibilities and more opportunities for political participation, as Chris Kelty has argued.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home