From Aristotle to the Metaverse: Understanding Disinformation and Social Media

Dr. Dan Lawrence

Cover image of Digital Writing

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the United States Congress in April, 2018, it was clear that many lawmakers didn’t understand how Facebook makes its money. Zuckerberg clarified: the platform sells advertisements. Now as we roll along into 2022 and beyond, Facebook is transforming into Meta and is attempting to reshape the virtual and augmented reality landscape. But at least one thing has not changed. It’s almost certain that selling ads will remain Meta’s highest goal, at the expense of all else.

What most people probably don’t realize is the extraordinary and almost incomprehensible scale of these massive social media advertising platforms. The global digital advertising spend is now larger than the global television advertising spend, signaling an enormous media paradigm shift. Companies are focusing their advertising dollars on hyper-targeted advertising through social media platforms. Facebook has billions of users, and North American citizens are spending huge amounts of time on their smartphones (over three hours a day on average). We have shifted from a television society to a smartphone society. And people are reading the majority of their news and information from targeted propaganda, advertisements, and opinion-editorials in disguise more than ever before.

You have probably seen thousands of targeted advertisements just in the last week or two. Most of us seem to have caught on to the creepy strangeness of it. Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar to you: You were thinking about buying a new pair of running shoes, and talking to your partner or friends about the various options and weighing your choices. Then, eerily, you suddenly start to see advertisements for running shoes across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. How did it know that you wanted to buy running shoes?

Platforms like Facebook allow businesses to target their advertisements to highly specific sets of users. Advertisers can choose from a laundry list of parameters such as age, income level, education, geographic area, interests, gender, and beyond to send advertisements to very specific groups of people. In short, if you use social media, you have already been targeted.

In Digital Writing, I bring my experience as a professional digital marketer (the kind of person who used to design advertisements like these) with a rhetorical and ethical framework from the ancient Greeks, the philosophy of technology, and digital media theory to help us better understand how these advertisements persuade us not only to buy certain products, but also to vote certain ways and think certain thoughts. I also offer guidance for the aspiring advertising and communications professional who would like to wield these technologies ethically and effectively.

“we must start asking: how did this information find me, and why was I targeted? And to accomplish this, we can be helped by rhetorical theory and an analysis of the tools, technologies, and actors involved in these complex processes”

As someone who teaches college composition and other undergraduate writing classes, I know writers and teachers of writing will also find the book useful. For years we have taught students how to evaluate the sources that they find when they are conducting research. But are our students prepared to evaluate the credibility of sources that have sought them out like a guided weapon? We now need to assist our students in understanding the complex, algorithmic methods of distribution that information travels along.

In short, we must start asking: how did this information find me, and why was I targeted? And to accomplish this, we can be helped by rhetorical theory and an analysis of the tools, technologies, and actors involved in these complex processes.

Complex digital propaganda, advertising, and disinformation on our mobile phones took us unawares and completely by surprise. We were not ready for the ingenuity and overwhelming persuasiveness. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit still while it continues to work us over completely. We can arm ourselves to be better prepared for a world where we are constantly targeted by information.

Dr. Dan Lawrence is the author of the new Broadview Press guide to the rhetorical and ethical use of social and digital media, Digital Writing. Dr. Lawrence is a faculty member of the Department of Writing, Language, and Literature at the University of Wisconsin – Superior. His peer-reviewed work on digital media, rhetoric, and disinformation has been published in Digital Ethos: Evaluating Computer-Mediated Communication and Teaching Reading and Writing in the Era of “Fake News,” among other places.

Posted on February 22, 2022