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Beyond Post-Communication

Challenging Disinformation, Deception, and Manipulation

Jim Macnamara

While many analyses have examined disinformation in recent election campaigns, misuse of ‘big data’ such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and manipulation by bots and algorithms, most have blamed a few bad actors. This incisive analysis presents evidence of deeper and broader corruption of the public sphere, which the author refers to as post-communication. With extensive evidence, Jim Macnamara argues that we are all responsible for the slide towards a post-truth society. This analysis looks beyond high profile individuals such as Donald Trump, Russian trolls, and even ‘Big Tech’ to argue that the professionalized communication industries of advertising, PR, political and government communication, and journalism, driven by clickbait and aided by a lack of critical media literacy, have systematically contributed to disinformation, deception, and manipulation. When combined with powerful new communication technologies, artificial intelligence, and lack of regulation, this has led to a ‘perfect data storm’. Accordingly, Macnamara proposes that there is no single solution. Rather, he identifies a range of strategies for communication professionals, industry associations, media organizations and platforms, educators, legislators, regulators, and citizens to challenge post-communication and post-truth.
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3. Post-Communication

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As noted in the Introduction, Robert Cathcart coined the term post-communication in 1966 as the title of a study of rhetoric and rhetorical criticism.1 In this Cathcart described rhetoric as “a communicator’s intentional use of language and other symbols to influence or persuade selected receivers to act, believe, or feel the way the communicator desires in problematic situations.”2 Cathcart’s use of the term post-communication referred to critical reflection, analysis, and evaluation undertaken after communicative acts such as speaking in order to identify strengths, weaknesses, and ways in which rhetoric could be improved. Hence, it was used in a temporal sense in one respect. However, in his discussion of analysis and evaluation, Cathcart conflated rhetoric and communication with one-way persuasion to achieve “the communicator’s desires”—by which he clearly meant the desires and objectives of a particular actor. ‘Communicator’ is a singular subject in his definition and discussion, while others are described as “receivers.” No doubt Cathcart was influenced by information processing models circulating at the time such as Shannon and Weaver’s one-way transmissional model3 and David Berlo’s one-way source-message-channel-receiver (SMCR) model of information processing that were applied to communication.4

Influence and persuasion are recognized as legitimate and ethical objectives of communication in some circumstances and, as such, they are sought and practiced ←93 | 94→in interpersonal communication and in public communication, such as road safety and health campaigns. However, Cathcart’s definition of rhetoric and his generalized conflation of communication with one-way persuasion are problematic in several respects....

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