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Panel RSA 2022 The Charge for Change:

The Erosion of Ethos


Jean Goodwin, North Carolina State University

Johanna Hartelius, University of Texas at Austin

Aaron Hess, Arizona State University

*Jens E. Kjeldsen, University of Bergen, Norway (

Panel introduction

Distrust in institutions, officials, and experts, already on the rise before the pandemic, has now emerged as the most challenging trend in our contemporary rhetorical ecology. Among all approaches to communication, rhetoric is perhaps the best equipped to address this challenge. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson noted in a recent NCA Podcast, rhetoric can be foundational to countering the massive circulation of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theory, since rhetorical scholarship is uniquely positioned to investigate how messages impact audiences. In this panel, organized by participants in the International Network for the Study of Credibility Ethos, and Trust (INCET, see:, we look to the ways that we can “recharge” scholarship regarding the artistic proof of ethos. In other words, if we at RSA are looking to “Charge for Change,” a fundamental accounting of the status of ethos is necessary. To that end, this panel probes conceptions of ethos that will work to meet contemporary exigencies of politics, technology, and pandemic.

Our presentations address different areas of research regarding ethos; however, crosscurrents in our research reveal coalescing themes and research questions. First, in the COVID-19 world ethos is playing a key role in the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, but also presenting experts in new ways on social media. Goodwin and Hess explore the functioning of ethos within debates about prevention measures and vaccines, examining how ethos is differently constructed in disinformation and information campaigns. Second, disinformation and conspiracy are often fueled by technology, with social media algorithms propping up dubious claims even as tech companies struggle to contain the contagion. Hartelius and Hess offer new perspectives on trust in digital contexts, providing insights into how ethos claims are maintained through peer-to-peer interactions and like-minded communities. Finally, both pandemic and social networks lead us back to audiences, who need to make sense of the ethos claims that bombard them. Kjeldsen and Goodwin examine how audiences attribute, negotiate and make sense of ethos in such a troubled environment, and how scholars might find ways to speak with audiences to learn of their perspectives on credibility.

Overall, this panel raises questions about the role of ethos in a world of political polarization, distrust and disinformation, and the technologizing of communication through social media, algorithms, digital records, and processing systems. How does one gain trust under such circumstances? What, exactly, constitutes ethos in such times? Our papers will diagnose the current status of ethos and offer paths forward, both theoretically and methodologically, to assist research in public rhetoric to better understand and inform the populace. We will close the panel by inviting attendees to contribute their own perspectives on the questions raised.

Motivational interviewing as invitational rhetoric

Jean Goodwin,

North Carolina State University

Scientific, media, and governmental elites have been calling on the communication disciplines to assist with vaccine messaging, including help with projecting a trusted ethos for the messenger. But rhetoricians have known since Plato's Gorgias that techniques for compelling trust can backfire: audiences are likely to push back against attempts to change them, even when the persuasion is in their best interests. In this paper, I examine the rhetorical underpinnings of motivational interviewing (Gagneur et al., 2018), an emerging approach to vaccine communication that renounces persuasion. Adopting what Foss & Griffin (1995) would term an invitational approach, the motivational interviewer justifies the risk that the interlocutor undertakes in trusting them by undertaking equivalent risks themselves. While motivational interviewing will not satisfy the elite's desire for top-down, one-way messaging strategies, it does enact a central rhetorical virtue, creating a relationship of respect between speaker and audience.

The Ethos of Blockchain as Digital Epistemology

Johanna Hartelius

University of Texas at Austin

Made famous in the form of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, blockchain is principally a ledger, an expansive set of digital records and processing systems. It is, in short, a digital epistemology, a way of ordering what may be known. This has myriad implications for the study of the relationship between digital technologies, ethos, trust, and prospectively social change. The purpose of this essay is to discern the ethos of blockchain as rhetorically constituted through the language of “peer-to-peer,” “information security,” and “decentralized governance.” From the perspective of a rhetorical scholar rather than, for example, a programmer or information scientist, I ask: If blockchain may be understood as a digital epistemology, what are the aspects of its ethos? Further, what ideological investments might such an ethos be grounded in, and what are its political ambitions.

“Do your own research!”: Constructions of ethos within the “disinformation dozen”

Aaron Hess

Arizona State University

Within the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy plagued public health efforts to promote safe behaviors, mask wearing, and vaccines. Notably, the “disinformation dozen,” as identified by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, have been identified as the originating source of some 73% of the anti-vaccine content found in social media. Although social media tracking of such content provides a glimpse into its spread, the specific claims offered by the disinformation dozen have only begun to be analyzed. In this paper, I look to the types of ethos cues offered by members of the disinformation dozen, paying close attention to the ways in which proponents of anti-vaccine conspiracies look to contrast their own character with pharmaceutical companies or the government. Furthermore, I look to the ways that individual members craft personal narratives of rugged individualism as anchors of their moralizing advocacy against vaccines and other health issues.

Ethos and expertise in Facebook fan sites for health experts

Jens E. Kjeldsen

University of Bergen, Norway

In the COVID-19 crisis, social media has become increasingly important for public health authorities to communicate information and to establish and negotiate trust. This paper focus on how experts representing national health authorities are represented in social media during the crisis. I focus on Scandinavia as a particularly interesting case, since the three countries of the region have high levels of trust in authorities, but different types of health authorities, different relations between health representatives and political systems, and different strategies to combat the virus. More specifically, I research Facebook fan sites that have been established for some of the most salient health authority experts in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The research question concerns how trust in expertise and health measures is established, negotiated, and challenged in these fan sites during the pandemic in Scandinavia. While an expert is traditionally characterized by an “objective” and impersonal ethos, communication on social media is dominated by subjective and personal communication. This is particularly the case for the online fan sites. Thus, I examine how the disparity between new media logics and the traditional ethos of expertise may influence the credibility and trust of the health representatives.



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