The Selfish Rhetoric: Reddit memes and polarized identity during COVID-19

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2022-08
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Riddell, Molly Claire
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Rood, Craig
Peterson, David
Brown, Laura
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English
Abstract
During the pandemic, people have spent a lot of time online negotiating their responses to rapidly changing conditions during COVID-19. Reactions to the pandemic varied wildly, and while the issue might have seemed bipartisan, responses were often split along political lines. Online polarization is not a new phenomenon, but the pandemic provided scholars with new material to better understand the ways that arguments about policy ultimately filter down into polarized discussions of identity. This project argues that polarization online, particularly on the website Reddit.com, is exacerbated by features that hierarchically rank user submissions based on popularity, lending a populist slant to users’ experience of content. Using two case studies from the Reddit website, this thesis project uses rhetorical analysis to demonstrate that the use of memes as artifacts of identity aids in the polarization of online discourse by allowing modes of engagement based on judgment and tribalism. The introductory chapter describes the stakes of the project, summarizing the existing literature on polarization, memes, and identity. Next, Chapter 1 provides a rhetorical analysis of the Reddit platform, using medium theory to explicate the ways that fixed features of the website contribute to polarization. Then, Chapter 2 uses modal rhetorical analysis of memes to present a case study based on a group identity unified positively around a shared culture. The next chapter (3) uses modal rhetorical analysis to demonstrate the opposite – that is, memes in a group unified by their shared opposition to and disdain for a particular out-group. The concluding chapter uses the rhetorical analysis of Reddit as well as the findings from the case studies to theorize a Selfish Rhetoric that describes the conditions under which the success of a message is defined by its mass reach, its recognizability, and its replicability in ways that produce ideological profit.
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