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Technology> Internet Updated: 01 Jul 2019

What would Cicero have to say about social media?

If Cicero or Quintilianus had known about TED Talks, they probably would have included them in their repertoire of rhetorical devices. Quite possible because, just like the Romans recommended, Ted Talk orators persuade with eloquence.

The classic definition of rhetoric is the art of public speaking, although it can be extended to other types of speech. Its tools and treatises are related to – and can be used in – the present day, specifically in social media.

In today's world there are many opportunities to write and speak in public, as the writer, Joshua Cohen, pointed out in a recent interview. Communicating using digital devices, from any distance and on a massive scale, has brought a new dimension to rhetoric. The current world is full of persuasive statements that can be equally useful or harmful if we don't know how to properly sift through the content.

A few years ago Sam Leith published the book 'You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.' In this text, The Spectator journalist gives an overview of rhetorical concepts describing how they fit in popular culture and how they've been used by the great communicators of our age.

New platforms for rhetoric include podcasts, journalistic videos, blogs, and the traditional social media platforms.

According to Plato, the art of persuasion was one of the skills of a responsible citizen. in which he claimed that it had to be accompanied by knowledge. The misuse of persuasion creates hoaxes and ignorance; our world is not immune to these ills. Maybe for this very reason rhetoric in the digital age is more topical than ever.

In this context, YouTubers of today are the quintessential specialists in rhetoric. Some YouTubers, like Spain’s AuronPlay have great “exordia.” In the theory of rhetoric, the exordium is the beginning of the discourse used to capture the attention of the audience. Another YouTuber who stands out thanks to his “captatio benevolentiae” – Latin for the technique to “win the goodwill” from the onset – is Shane Dawson from the United States.

In order to communicate effectively, one must develop the power of persuasion, among other motivational skills. Classical rhetoric suggests that merely attracting an audience is not enough; rather the surface discourse must be accompanied by true knowledge and an appropriate style. New platforms for rhetoric include podcasts, journalistic videos, blogs, and the traditional social media platforms.

“Narratio” is another of the key elements of a discourse – where the orator provides a narrative account of the case. The YouTuber Safiya Nygaard knows very well how to describe what happens, as does the television presenter, Ellen Degeneres, whose motivational capability is also apparent in her Twitter account.

In both the exordium and the narratio, the audience has to be kept in mind, his or her level of interest and even attention span. In this sense, the digital world is very demanding. The best social media channels are minimalists. Not wasting the audience’s attention is an ability that many podcasters, YouTubers, and digital writers have. They are able to condense a maximum amount of information in a short space of time (or text). The late-night television host, Jimmy Fallon, is a good example of this ability to synthesize. This is where social media managers should direct their talents.

The careful arrangement of a discourse's arguments is also evident in many channels dedicated to technological criticism. The Canadian, Dave Lee, analyzes a multitude of devices on his YouTube channel and always in an orderly, almost harmonious, way. The American, Austin Evans, is another YouTuber whose scripts are well-organized and fun.

Arguments have to be substantiated after they have been given a suitable arrangement. The copyeditor Mary Norris was featured among The New Yorker videos where she addressed questions about English grammar. Her lectures, each no longer than ten minutes, provide excellent examples of argumentative methods.

The best social media channels are minimalists. Not wasting the audience’s attention is an ability that many podcasters, YouTubers, and digital writers have

The dialectic is something else the classic masters of rhetoric set forth. It uses logic to substantiate what we have to say. YouTubers Casey Neistat from North America and the British Charlie McDonnell both have impressive argumentative skills.

Among the bloggers who stand out are Harsh Agrawal who writes about digital advertising and John Lee Dumas with, a podcaster who describes new ways to be an entrepreneur. Maria Popova and her web page, Brain Pickings, exemplifies written rhetoric, which tries to communicate values.

These digital orators are also adept at concluding their rhetorical works with mechanisms that nurture hype, to such a degree that they amass numerous subscribers to their channels. Their modern-day "lectures” generate likes, comments, and rankings. Mexico's Luis Arturo Villar is a traveler who at the end of his videos really manages to create expectations for more.

A new program at the executive education program at MIT is entitled 'Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age' and it applies theories of persuasion to social media, data analysis, and the ability to lead projects. Another degree, this time a diploma in rhetoric from the University of the Andes attests to academic interest in these matters. Curiously, the best authorities on rhetoric are those that are in the cloud. And they are creating a network of knowledge that broadens our horizons.

The famous debate between Socrates and the Sophists is an interesting side note in our post-truth environment. Plato, his first disciple, warns that the art of persuasion involves risks such as the gift of deceit. Rhetoric that squares off with tall tales and urban myth should have a certain scientific foundation and be accompanied by the constant reflection of values.