Persuasion, Communication, and Our Moral Obligations

What does ancient Greek rhetoric have to do with today? Perhaps we don’t recognize it with its official title, as it is more commonly referred to as the art of persuasion. Often, when we learn or reflect on history, we don’t look at it through a lens of communication. However, different forms of communication and their advancements over time have helped contribute to significant societal downfalls, which makes it worth paying attention to.

In the early democratic cultures of Athens and Rome, citizens were afforded access to information and an open system of debate to prepare them for voting. But true to human nature, deceptive propaganda soon overwhelmed both cities, contributing to their collapse. The printing press allowed for mass production of books and newspapers, leading us to the Age of Enlightenment, and the democratic revolutions of the 18th century. In the 19th century, the penny press and telegraph geographically expanded information reach and stirred political debates, instilling fear and resentment across nations, setting the stage for World War I. Cinema and radio created accessible and essential platforms for European fascists to engulf democracy and turn it into totalitarianism. Television transformed politics, as representatives now had to worry about optics, branding and sound bites. And today, we are in the age of digital communication, on the verge of an artificial intelligence takeover.

In journalism school, we are taught rhetoric to motivate, inform or persuade our audience, which means almost anything we see, hear or read has an agenda (hidden or in plain view). We are also taught to consider our sources, and the validity of information spread.

Although I am educated in journalism, I am not a journalist. I don’t have to be objective in my work. But you should consider my background in what I argue. Since my passion and expertise lies within agriculture, I will (openly or discreetly) educate my audience with facts and data that support my pro-ag beliefs. Likewise, when studies are published or reports are made public, we have to dig deeper than what we see on the surface. Who funded the study? Who funded the organizations that funded the study? What are their beliefs? Background provides context and credibility to help us determine the agenda that may not always be at the forefront of what we read, see, or hear. (They call persuasion an art for a reason.)

Rhetoric originated sometime in the fifth century B.C. For well more than 2,000 years, we have been fighting misinformation, propaganda and the art of persuasion. As a society, I personally do not believe we are any better at filtering through the B.S. now than we were then. If anything, we spend less time thinking for ourselves and more time scanning through headlines, coming up with our own conclusions based on echo chamber inducing and attention-grabbing phrases rather than concrete fact and evidence. And with the sheer volume of information coming at us on a daily basis, who has the time or energy for background research on all of it anyway?

Psychologically speaking, information overload leads to confusion, indecisiveness, stress, anxiety and mental fatigue. Overuse of social media leads to feelings of inadequacy and lower self-worth. When there is excess, people tend to yearn for structure and stability. The same thing happens in democracy. Boundless freedom can degrade a society.

We have a responsibility to uphold moral and ethical behavior. Most people do not rob department stores or punch a stranger on the sidewalk because they have a conscience. Anyone who posts something on the world wide web is an active creator of media, using the platform to spread information, whether it be fact, fiction or opinion. Our failure to take responsibility for what we say or share online has turned the internet into a modern-day Wild West where free speech runs rampant. Seemingly, all conscientious, respectful and dutiful behavior goes out the window with the shields of our screens. 

Looking forward, there are two sayings that come to mind:

  • Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.
  • It’s how you pick yourself up when you fall.

We are on the precipice of revolutionary change. Now more than ever before, normal people like you and I have been active participants in shaping our society via the numerous platforms available to exercise our First Amendment rights, and it has fundamentally transformed the landscape of our democracy. I can’t help but wonder, will we take responsibility for our contribution in the inevitable downfall? And will artificial intelligence be part of the digital age demise or the beginning of a new era of communication?

We may not be able to prevent communication advancements and anticipate their effects on our society and democracy, but we can learn from our past. If William Randolph Hearst could “furnish the war” with Cuba in 1898, then I am pretty confident media today can influence elections in 2024.

As published in Noozhawk.