As we all should know The Onion is a satirical online newspaper. Just like many other news sites, the Onion allows visitors to share links to articles directly to Facebook. Sometimes Facebook citizens are perhaps caught off guard and confuse the satirical news for real news. A man (who goes) by the name of Hudson Hongo has begun curating a Tumblr called Literally Unbelievable to document when this happens. While the intention of the site is probably to be funny, I think we can learn a lot about rhetoric and consider some of Burke’s questions about audience by looking at one of the entries.
Much of the humor of this entry comes from the dramatic irony, so to speak, of us know the rhetorical situation of the Onion while this person doesn’t, but also we see that the person fails to acknowledge that the “Massive Star in the Center of Our Solar System” from the article is just our own sun that we see everyday. In defense of the person that wrote the Facebook post here, I’ll point out first that links to articles from the Onion and links to articles from “actual” newspapers look very much alike. The Onion borrows much of its ethos from visually aligning itself with reliable news sources. A person sees the bolded letters of the article title, which also omits articles (a common practice in newspaper headlines), followed by the dateline and assumes that the news source is just as reliable as any other. Secondly, when a person sees a headline like this, they assume that the information comes from a news source and that is precisely that, new. The headline here points out something so obvious, so tightly woven into our quotidian lives that it is almost unnoticeable. She (I am guessing it is a girl from the blurry picture, I could be wrong) assumes that a massive star causing problems talked about in a news source would be a new development as a real news source would have no reason to report on the sun. The Onion article is funny because it exploits our expectations of what is new and what is newsworthy. It is also poking fun at anyway searching for an answer to why the weather has been so hot recently. The readers are left to judge the credibility of the source almost entirely on the content. A problem then arises because we live in a world where we take visually and circumstantially established ethos just as if not more seriously than an ethos based on quality of information presented. Because of this, we laugh at how stupid these people must be for not understanding the satire, but without fully seeing how complex a rhetorical situation we are dealing with.
Burke argues on page 64 that “new mediums of communication” are rhetorically “‘carving out’ … new audiences” but that “there is nothing here essentially outside the traditional concerns of rhetoric.” While we might be justified in calling the people who show up on Literally Unbelievable as dim-witted idiots, we must also realize that the limits, constraints, and style of the Facebook interface, and the very specific particular audience of the Onion clashing with the very general audience of Facebook, also play a role in these misunderstandings.
When presenting the article, the facebook citizen takes care to position herself as an open-minded, rational thinker. She watched a show that didn’t agree with her world view and beliefs because it featured Stephen Hawking, a known astrophysicist, and how he theorizes the universe was made without a creator. She “followed it” but “disagreed.” She even questions whether she has spelled Stephen Hawkings’ name correctly, which shows concern for correctness. But, even still, the information from the Onion article took her by surprise. There’s no way of knowing in what format she came across the article, it could have been the full article at the Onion’s site, a link like the one above, or other formats. But regardless, she took the information as truthful reporting of actual scientific findings. She assigns herself a role in the audience. She sees herself as a selective consumer of information and she imposes that role on the information she encounters from the satirical news. She goes on to point out the connection of these grand scientific principles to very base things. She connects this massive star, which the article has presented to her as a new phenomenon, to a sunburn she got on her “butt” while on a “floaty” in the “lazy river.” She is taken aback that this new scientific phenomenon has effected a personal, intimate, and common part of her life and she is at a loss for “what to think anymore.” In this entry we are witnessing her struggle with cognitive dissonance, her beliefs about the creation of that world that were recently questioned by Stephen Hawkings, and her own personal connection to what the Onion has led her to believe is scientific discovery. In other words, the recent situations of her life, the television shows she has recently watched, her religious worldview, a recent sunburn on a vacation trip, the identity she has constructed for herself as a rational consumer of information, and countless other factors went into how she saw and understood the article.
It is easy for us to see that she failed to connect the “Massive Star” in the article to our sun and see her as a dim-witted christian girl with little to no experience parsing information. However, when we consider the massive amount of information that really goes into processing any information, we can start to understand why a misunderstanding like this can happen. Burke says, “an act of persuasion is affected by the character of the scene in which it takes place and of the agents by whom it is addressed. The same rhetorical act could vary in its effectiveness, according to shifts in the situation or in the attitudes of the audience.” More than his facebook citizen’s intelligence played a role in whether or not she understood the purpose and intent of the Onion article, her attitude and “scene” in which she received the message were just as influential.
But what can we learn from this as rhetors ourselves? I think we must realize that if our audience doesn’t understand or isn’t persuaded by our message, it is not entirely our fault. If we assume it is, then we grossly misunderstand the entire rhetorical process. We can’t get down on ourselves for our own “failure to communicate” but we must work harder to understand all the myriad aspects of our rhetorical situations.