It’s hard for me to remember the time before the internet became such a pervasive part of daily life. I work online to earn money, watch Netflix to relax, scroll YouTube for advice on anything from personal finance to cooking, and read push notifications from my favorite news outlets to keep up-to-date. I’m part of the generation in which proper computer use was taught in school. Our digital literacy began with typing classes in grade school, then turned to learning about the dangers of Wikipedia in high school, and, by the time I was in college, people used the internet to write class papers more often than physical books in the library.
But one area where I think our digital education was lacking is in determining how to spot a ‘credible’ source.
Sure, people have always known that anyone can say whatever they want on the internet, and we’ve all heard that it’s important to question what you read before accepting it as fact. But very little was actually said about how to determine if something is credible, or what to do if you come across websites with suspect information. If anything, this was further confused in college, where only peer-reviewed academic articles were considered credible—a wealth of information that, by and large, you lose access to after graduation.
We know that people use emotion to make quick judgements, can be strategically influenced by arguments which appeal to emotion, in particular, fear, and are more likely to share articles which elicit emotion. These are all strong evidence that emotion is an integral part of how humans perceive and interact with the world. The problem with pathos is that if used without logos and ethos, the proposed solution to a problem may not be very effective, and there’s no guarantee that the problem being addressed is even real. For example, in 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield purported to have found a link between autism and vaccines. There is no such link, but the report garnered enough fear to spark the anti-vax movement which is now responsible for the reemergence of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough. Fearmongering about marijuana in the 1930s lead to the drug being outlawed in 1937 and classified under the strictest designation by the Controlled Substances Act in 1971, despite contemporaneous recommendations from within the U.S. government to decriminalize its use. What’s more, there’s evidence that decisions made during stressful situations are less logically sound than decisions made in calm situations. The lesson? People suffer when pathos alone prevails.
Having ethos is vital to a sound argument. In fact, Aristotle grants only three reasons for unsound arguments to exist: either the speaker is wrong due to lack of good sense, the speaker is lying due to lack of moral character, or the speaker is silent, because they don’t care if the audience hears good advice. The problem is, it’s difficult for readers to judge the ethos of a speaker, particularly over the internet. Unlike pathos and logos, the root of ethos comes from outside the argument itself: the audience must know the speaker’s experience (good sense) and moral character to avoid falling for unsound advice. To make matters worse, if a speaker wants to persuade an audience, they will go through the trouble of appearing credible whether they are offering sound advice or not, they. Today, that can mean anything from verbally assuring the audience of their credibility and good intentions, to selecting appropriate clothing for a given situation, or even hiring a web-designer to make sure content looks clean and professional: all things which index competence in the modern world. But the appearance of credibility alone isn’t enough to judge a speaker as credible.
And when in doubt, err on the side of caution: given that Rhetoric was written in the 4th century B.C., speakers have had a loooooong time to develop ways to manipulate audiences, whether intentions are pure or not!
Alvergne (2016). “Do women’s periods really synch when they spend time together?” The Conversation: Academic rigour, journalistic flair.
Aristotle, Rhetoric: Book II. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts.
Berger and Milkman (2012). “What Makes Online Content Viral?” Journal of Marketing Research. 49(3): 192-205. For a summary, see: Tierney (2010). “Will You be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” The New York Times.
Burnett and Reiman (2014). “How did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place?” Drug Policy Alliance.
Calhoun (2013). “Human Minds Vs. Large Numbers” The Sieve: finding science stories in the vast expanse.
Madhavan (2017). “Correlation vs Causation: Understand the Difference for your Business.” Amplitude.com
Moritz et. al. (2015). “Stress is a bad advisor. Stress primes poor decision making in deluded psychotic patients.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 265(6), pp 461-469; Simonovic et. Al (2016). “Stress and Risky Decision Making: Cognitive Reflection, Emotional Learning, or Both.” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 30(2): pp. 658-665.
“The Science Facts about Autism and Vaccines” Healthcare Management Degree.net.