Social Media Role in Promoting Social Change


Communication through social media has the power to construct ideas, beliefs, and opinion. Rhetoric through social media such as newspaper, magazine, television, social networking website, blog, etc. can paint the desired picture of a social issue and navigate the change to a chosen direction. Human interaction and communication through social media has shaped how people think, understand, and perceive issues. Digital age has heralded a new form of communication that is real time and continuous. This communication media has been exploited fully by politicians and social change agents who believe in communicating their ideas to the masses. Creation of an opinion forum regarding a burning social issue is easy and simple through the new digital social media and thus, it has carved a significant position in changing social and political process. Thus, creation of a specific idea is based more on the representation of the idea through rhetoric in social media (Cox & Foust, 2009, p. 611).

The desire to bring forth a change in the society is paramount and often a discursive method is adopted to convert as many people possible to believe in individual/group beliefs. Michel Foucault argues that public discourse becomes the tool to formulate sex and sexual activity in accordance to the evolving Christian morals (1976, p. 13). Ronald Barthes points out that rhetoric that demonstrates the crux of news is the basis of the rhetoric that frames the play (1972, p. 62). Social psychologists believe that language is the “signpost to some other state of affair” (Durrheim, 2012, p. 456). Hence, the language or rhetoric used in social media to orient some other issue is a conscious discourse that many undertake to influence public opinion. Whether it is the war on terror or the Arab uprising, social media has been deliberately used to spread and garner support for the cause. Digital social media and networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc. are strong forums where ideas of social change can be discussed and propagated globally. Rhetoric used in social media, thus, are becoming a powerful tool to usher in social change.

In this essay, I propose to study the impact of rhetoric used social media in bringing about social change. For this purpose, the essay will first discusses the effectiveness of rhetoric as a tool for discursive propagation through social media to bring about social change. The essay will also try to answer the question why rhetoric is such an alluring means to be used in social media to administer social change.

Rhetoric and Change

Social media and rhetoric are intermingled throughout the ages. With the advent of print media, social media had become a vibrant means to communicate discourse on social issues. Rhetoric is the art of using language to create an impact on the masses. Usually when we read an editorial or opinion page in the newspaper on legality or ethicality of abortion, it creates profound impact on our point of view regarding the issue. Strong, rhetorical argument in propagation can create lasting impact on the mind of the listener. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates, were first ponder upon the concept of rhetoric, believed that rhetoric gives the power to explore either side of an argument. Rhetoric, according to the classics is an “irresistible force” and “a good man skilled at speaking” (Fish, 1990, p. 89). Rhetoric is believed to be a tool that man uses to manipulate “reality” in order to establish “through his words … he manipulates or fabricates himself, … and occupying the roles that become first possible and then mandatory given the social structure his rhetoric has put in place” (Fish, 1990, p. 96). Academic debate on the effectiveness and ethical intention of using rhetoric in public discourse is still present, thus, bringing us to this essay, where we try to understand the effectiveness of usage of rhetoric in order to gauge the lure of the art as a discursive tool to propagate social change.

Post-structuralist philosophers like Nietzsche points out that there is no language used by man is “natural” or “unrhetorical” (Fish, 1990, p. 104). According to the modern view of rhetoric as a discursive force, it is believed that it helps in deconstructing a particular issue, and begins a projection of the reality that first negates the present life and constructs a “new present life” through rhetoric (Fish, 1990, p. 107). In this process of deconstruction of the past and creation of the new present, the rhetorician ends up ‘reinventing’ the new.

Jürgen Habermas points out that if there were a situation, unanimously agreed upon, there would be no need to debate or use rhetoric. However, such utopian situation, today, is simply fictive imagination, and hence, any communication is “distorted” and carries a “basic impulse” behind all expression (Fish, 1990, p. 108). Noam Chomsky points out that any text regarding a particular topic of communication would always hold predisposed assumptions and an intention to bring about change (Fish, 1990, p. 108).

This section on the historical evolution of the idea of rhetoric clearly points out to one thing – rhetoric is a means of communication with intent to bring about change. Over the years, with all the debate on rhetoric and its usage, whether positive or negative, agrees on one thing, i.e. all rhetoric intend to set in a predetermined change through the communication text. Hence, rhetoric can be considered as a vehicle that tries to bring about change through communicative text.

Rhetoric and Social Media

Social media as a means of dialogue is the prime channel to communicate any form of social, cultural, or political discourse. Thus, any agent of political or social change uses the social media, i.e. television, newspaper, digital media, etc. to communicate his or her point of view and set in motion the discursive process. Many believe that media is the prime vehicle for propagation of social discourse (Binder, 1993, p. 753). Media is used to create a discourse. Binder argues that such media discourse is done through “frame and frameworks” (1993, p.754). Frames help in creation of the social occurrence thus creating a clear picture as to how an individual can perceive the creation of a social event. It is the producer of discourse on social movement or activities through the texts created by social writers describing a social phenomenon (Binder, 1993, p. 755). Creating a frame in social media, discourse essentially implies selective revelation of the complete truth, thus, creating a partial picture of the reality. Why framing of the reality is important in case of social discourse? Therefore, social discourse must skilfully select and deselect the specific aspects of the event, in order to present a story that would adhere to the cultural construct of the masses. Hence, creating a discourse pertaining to the cultural beliefs of the society is essential, as this would create coherence in popular belief and the new discourse.

Clearly, media is an attractive option for social and political discourse. But why is it so attractive? Why is rhetoric such an important tool in creating mass discourse through media? This is because media provides an open space for mass discourse of political or social change. Social media provides a democratic such as in form of interactive digital media or totalitarian i.e. unilateral media such as newspaper or television to propagate an idea of change. For instance, the Arab uprising in Egypt was done through an interactive social media i.e. Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, where the rhetoric of the uprising was propagated through both absorption and participation of the discourser and the discoursed. On the other hand, the media discourses of a totalitarian regime to bring start a political, social, religious, or military movement is usually done through unilateral discourse, thus creating no space for participation of the masses. This form of commination rhetoric is dogmatic and emphatic, thus, persuading the masses to follow unquestioningly. Thus, though the process of initiating the social change, the discoursed became the discourser. Social media thus becomes the medium and rhetoric the tool that is utilised to bring about this process of change.

Rhetoric and Persuasion

Rhetoric, many therefore believe, has the power to create social change with the aid of social media. The underlying assumption behind this premise is that rhetoric has a persuasive power. If it is assumed that rhetoric has the power to bring about social change then it can be intuitively assumed that rhetoric has the power to persuade. Cox and Foust (2009, p. 611) argue that rhetoric ahs been sued since 1980s to bring about new social movements through the Habermasian concept of “liberal public sphere”. The mode of persuasion of such rhetoric is to utilize the role of culture of the opposing group to create their own construct. The aim of the persuasion is to create the culture of the opposing groups in order to influence the movement to be effective, thereby, creating the “rhetoric of social movement rather than social movement rhetoric” (Cox & Foust, 2009, p. 611).

Scholars have pointed out that rhetorical arguments usually have the intent to persuade. Ian Hacking argues that Aristotle’s invention of syllogism created the persuasive status for rhetoric, which helped the latter to be used for the purpose of persuasion (Hacking, 2013). Thus, he argues that the logic behind rhetoric has become one that is used not as a means to preserve truth but as “a conception of reasoning as primarily for persuasion” (2013, p. 420).

Many feminist scholars have pointed out that the persuasive nature of social and political rhetoric creates patriarchal bias in the initiated social change (Foss & Griffin, 1995; Condit, 1997; Gearhart, 1979). The feminist scholars believe that patriarchy uses rhetoric as a tool to manipulate women, were the first, among others, to identify the idea that rhetoric is a coercive practice. Communication through a social media has the essential aim to persuade, influence, and exert power (Foss & Griffin, 1995, p. 2). Rhetorical scholars have pointed out that the essence of any communication is to bring about a change in others and the desire to persuade is so intense that at times they go unnoticed (Foss & Griffin, 1995, p. 2). Therefore, the embedded desire to persuade others through rhetoric implies a desire to control. At times, these agents of control are explicit and direct while at other times they are subtly implied to exert some form of control over the other:

In some instance, the power of the rhetor over another is overt, as it is, for examples, in laws that exert control over women’s bodies, such as those concerned with abortion. In securing the adherence of women to these laws, lawmakers have power over women and their lives, but even in cases where the strategies used are less coercive, rhetors that convince others to adopt, their viewpoints exert control over part of those others’ lives. (Foss & Griffin, 1995, p. 3)

Rhetorical scholars have argued that rhetoric are used as “language and metalanguage, with redefined function of the mind” to create change by convincing others (Gearhart, 1979, p. 195). Hence, the use of rhetoric is to persuade others through mass discourse.

Rhetoric, Social Media, and Social Change

Rhetoric is the art of the language, when spoken through the wide forum of social media, prepares the stage for action and social change. The process of social discourse is usually done through the creation of “distrust” for an object, which is to be changed (Durrheim, 2012, p. 459). Durrheim (2012, p. 459) points out that “Talk might construct the world, but it is also tied to the world in other social ways associated with speaker accountability”. Thus, any rhetoric discoursed through the social media has an agenda. Whether the agenda is good or bad is not debated in this essay, however, the fact that the agenda is loaded with the intent to usher change is important. Social change can be brought through discursive media. This has been observed in many cases.

For instance, the propaganda videos that Hitler made during the Second World War created a lasting impact on the believers of Nazi Germany, or the propaganda videos that Taliban or such Islamic outfits make to create awareness among Muslims have a dual purpose to propagate the work that the discourse has done and to create a path to change. Similar discourse can be found by heads to state who make promotional videos to create awareness of the work the government has done or to create public support and confidence for a task that the government is about to begin. Thus, the intent of the discourse is to use rhetoric to sway public opinion and support towards the propagated cause. The main intent of such propaganda is to create a sense of “social acceptability” of what is proposed and the actions that would be undertaken to create that change (Durrheim, 2012, p. 459). Thus, rhetorical propagated through mass media has a power to bring about change in social psychology of the masses.

Media in the western world plays a strong role in creating change through discursive ideology. Western rhetoric is strewn with discursive ideologies that can be inferred from any media propaganda (Myerhoff, 1988, p. 163). The aim of the propaganda through social media is to create consensus to meet an ideological end: “The corpus of media event consists of symbolic gestures presented ceremonially to enlist consensus.” (Myerhoff, 1988, p. 163)

The modern generation of discourse through social media adopts a dialogue form that introduces change by creation of popular agreement and generating consensual legitimization of the social change. The rhetoric that is discoursed through social media thus tries to create a consensus to propagate the change in future. For instance, the discourse the President George W. Bush gave before starting America’s war on terror essentially outlined the facts that would create the ‘other’ in the form of Islamic jihadis and create a consensus among the American people to support his plan to launch an attack on the Islamic nations that harbor such extremist outfits. The purpose of the rhetoric was therefore twofold: first, to create an enemy and paint self as the victim and second, to legitimize and create consensus for his future plan to launch a military attack. Thus, following Barthes’s argument, rhetoric is a series of “signifiers” that signifies a specific end, and the media is a platform through which the discourse is propagated (Barthes, 1972, p. 68). Here the signifiers are essentially ideologies that are propagated through mass media to bring about a set change. Thus, rhetoric is an essential tool that change agents use to create social change through social media.

Rhetoric and Social Change through Social Media

Rhetorical language used by politicians is used to persuade the masses (Charteris-Black, 2005). The use of such persuasive rhetoric is to create a discourse of legitimization wherein a myth of the political reality is created. Using metaphors, the different aspects of rhetoric and its persuasive power can be gauged (Charteris-Black, 2005, p. 56). An analysis of Winston Churchill’s use of rhetoric brings out the power of persuasion of a properly oriented political speech. Churchill used different forms of metaphors as rhetoric in his speeches to inculcate a different persuasion technique (Charteris-Black, 2005, p. 56).

Similarly, in case of George W. Bush, is weapons of mass destruction rhetoric have been used as a trope to garner public support for his Middle East military campaign (Hartnett & Stengrim, 2004). The aim of the speeches delivered by President Bush after 9/11 was to garner public support, through subtle persuasion, for his repeated military attacks. In order to justify his methods, his speeches aimed at vilifying Arab nations like Afghanistan and Iraq as “rogue states” and the extremist Islamic outfits as “Axis of Evil”. Use of such phrases clearly creates a picture of the enemy in the popular American imagination. Once the picture of the evil other is created, President Bush went on to propose a strike “in the name of self-defense” on these “rogue states” (Hartnett & Stengrim, 2004, p. 154). Thus, the intent was clearly to coerce public opinion and support for his Middle Eastern agenda.

Rhetoric used by pro- and anti-abortion propagator use different languages to persuade the masses in their ideology. The anti-abortion rhetoric usually uses the women’s psychological experience to propagate the agenda (Hopkins, Reicher, & Saleem, 1996). Some even use religious argument to present a case against abortion. Both these form of arguments clearly painted a negative image of abortive experience and its consequences. Similarly, the pro-choice advocates paint the picture of woman’s right to make a conscious choice and the opponents as tyrannical powerhouses who were trying to subjugate the rights of women (Condit, 1997).

A study of the evolution of the rhetoric from the seventies to the nineties shows a change in rhetoric over a decade (Darsey, 1991). The study demonstrates that the anti-gay movement used “bloodthirsty language” and “platitudinous moralizing” to justify equating “vengeance with justice” in propagating an anti-gay movement (Darsey, 1991, p. 317). Thus, the aim of the rhetoric used to induce a change in the gay movement is to establish that gay people are evil deviation of the natural and hence should be condemned. On the other hand, the gay right activists believe that the anti-gay opponents of their movement, in alliance with the powerful religious and conservative political lobby, are trying to curtail their natural inclination. Hence, the aim is always to vilify the other in other to justify the demand for social change.

The rhetoric of social change is therefore, inclined to paint the opposing forces as the malignant usurpers of right, security, and freedom. The ‘other’ is always the one that is bad and the rhetoric for social change creates the image of the evil other to create the path for the future where the evil can be eliminated. In all political or social discourse, where the aim is to bring forth some form of change – be it in military action, government policy, or social right – the aim is always to propose as the opponent as immoral and corrupt and paint the ‘self’ as the victim of the evil perpetrator.


Rhetoric is the tool that is used to propagate an ideology among the masses through social media. Politicians and social movement activists use this means to bring about change among the masses. This process inevitably consists of certain degree of manipulation that will help in demonstrating the necessity for change. Thus the rhetoric used in such social discourses are barbed with words and phrases that vilify the opposing forces, thus creating a reason to demand for change. Rhetoric has the power to persuade through discourse in social media and therefore, helps in ushering social change.


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