Use Social Media to Teach Ethos, Pathos and Logos

Social Media Helps Students Discover Their Inner Aristotle

Use social media to help students better understand the 3 principles of rhetoric in debate: ethos, logos, and pathos. Jamtoons/GETTY Images

The speeches in a debate will identify the different positions on a topic, but what makes the speech for one side more persuasive and memorable? That same question was asked thousands of years ago when the Greek philosopher Aristotle in 305 BCE wondered what could make the ideas expressed in debate be so persuasive that they would be passed from person to person.

Today, teachers may ask students that same question about the many different forms of speech contained in today's social media. For example, what makes a Facebook post so persuasive and memorable that it receives a comment or is "liked"? What techniques drives Twitter users to retweet one idea from person to person? What images and text make Instagram followers add posts to their social media feeds?

In the cultural debate of ideas on social media, what makes the ideas expressed persuasive and memorable?

Aristotle proposed there were three principles used in making an argument: ethos, pathos, and logos. His proposal was based on three types of appeal: an ethical appeal or ​ethos, an emotional appeal, or pathos, and a logical appeal or logos.  For Aristotle, a good argument would contain all three.

These three principles are at the base of rhetoric which is defined at Vocabulary.com as:

"Rhetoric is speaking or writing that is intended to persuade." 

Some 2300 years later, Aristotle's three principals are present in social media's online content where posts compete for attention by being credible (ethos) sensible (logos) or emotional (pathos). From politics to natural disasters, from celebrity opinions to direct merchandise, the links on social media have been designed as persuasive pieces to convince users through their claims of reason or virtue or empathy. 

The book Engaging 21st Century Writers with Social Media  by Kendra N. Bryant suggests that students will think critically about the different argument strategies through platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.

"Social media can be used as an academic tool to guide students in critical thinking especially since many students are already expert at using social media. By using the tools students already have in their tool belt, we are setting them up for greater success" (p48).

Teaching students how to analyze their social media feeds for ethos, logos, and pathos will help them better understand the effectiveness of each strategy in making an argument. Bryant noted that posts on social media are constructed in the language of the student, and "that construction can provide an entryway into academic thought that many students may struggle finding." In the links that students share on their social media platforms, there will be links that they can identify as falling into one or more of the rhetorical strategies.

In her book, Bryant suggests that the results of engaging students in this study is not new. The use of rhetoric by social network users is an example in the way that rhetoric has always been used through out history: as a social tool. 

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Ethos on Social Media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Ethos or ethical appeal is used to establish the writer or speaker as fair, open-minded, community minded, moral, honest. 

An argument using ethos will use only credible, reliable sources to build an argument, and and the writer or speaker will cite those sources correctly. An argument using ethos will also state an opposing position accurately, a measure of respect for the intended audience.

Finally, an argument using ethos may include the personal experience of a writer or speaker as part  of an appeal to an audience.

Teachers can use the following examples of posts that demonstrate ethos:

A Facebook post from @Grow Food, Not Lawns shows the photo of a dandelion in a green lawn with the text: 

"Please do not pull the spring dandelions, they are one of the first sources of food for bees."

Similarly on the official Twitter account for the American Red Cross, there is this post that explains their dedication to prevent injuries and deaths from fires in the home:

"This weekend #RedCross plans to install more than 15,000 smoke alarms as part of #MLKDay activities."

Finally, there is this post on the official Instagram account for the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP):

"Learn more about how WWP is serving wounded veterans and their families at http://bit.ly/WWPServes. By 2017, the WWP will serve 100,000 of our nation's veterans with an additional 15,000 family support member/caregivers."

Teachers can use the examples above to illustrate Aristotle's principle of ethos. Students can then find posts on social media where the written information, pictures or links reveals the writer's values and preferences (ethos).

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Logos on Social Media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Logos is used when the user relies on an audience’s intelligence in offering a credible evidence to support an argument. That evidence usually includes:

  • Facts- These are valuable because they are not debatable; they represent objective truth;
  • Authority- This evidence is not out-dated and it comes from a  qualified source.

Teachers can use the following examples of logos:

A post on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration  NASA Facebook page details what is happening on the International Space Station:

"Now’s the time for science in space! It’s easier than ever for researchers to get their experiments on the International Space Station, and scientists from nearly 100 countries around the world have been able to to take advantage of the orbiting laboratory to do research." 

Similarly on the official Twitter account for the Bangor Police ‏@BANGORPOLICE  in Bangor, Maine, posted this public service informational tweet after an ice storm:

"Clearing the GOYR (glacier on your roof) allows you to avoid saying, 'hindsight is always 20/20' after the collision. #noonewilllaugh"

Finally, on Instagram, the Recording Academy, which has been celebrating music through the GRAMMY Awards for more than 50 years, posted the following information for fans to hear their favorite musicians:

recordingacademy"Some artists use their #GRAMMYs acceptance speeches as an opportunity to thank their friends and family, while others reflect on their journey. Either way, there’s no wrong way to deliver an acceptance speech. Click the link in our bio watch your favorite GRAMMY-winning artist’s acceptance speech."

Teachers can use the examples above to illustrate Aristotle's principle of logos.Students should be aware that logos as rhetorical strategy is less frequent as a solo principal in a post on social media platforms. Logos is often combined, as these examples show, with ethos and pathos.

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Pathos on Social Media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Pathos is most evident in emotional communication, from heart-tugging quotes to infuriating pictures. Writers or speakers who incorporate pathos in their arguments will focus on telling a story to gain the audiences's sympathy. Pathos will use visuals, humor, and figurative language (metaphors, hyperbole, etc)

Facebook is ideal for expressions of pathos as the language of the social media platform is language filled with "friends" and "likes". Emoticons also abound on social media platforms: congratulations, hearts, smiley faces.

Teachers can use the following examples of pathos:

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ASPCA promotes their page with ASPCA Videos and posts with links to stories like this:

"After responding to a call of animal cruelty, NYPD Officer Sailor met Maryann, a young pit bull in need of rescuing."

Similarly on the official Twitter account for the The New York Times ‏@nytimes  there is a disturbing photo and a link to the story promoted on Twitter:

"Migrants are stuck in freezing conditions behind a train station in Belgrade, Serbia, where they eat 1 meal a day."

Finally, an Instagram post for Breast Cancer Awareness shows a young girl at a rally holding a sign,"I'm inspired by Mom". The post explains:

breastcancer_awareness"Thank you to all those who are fighting. We all believe in you and will support you forever! Keep being strong and inspiring those around you."

Teachers can use the examples above to illustrate Aristotle's principle of pathos. These kinds of appeals are particularly effective as persuasive arguments in a debate because any audience has emotions as well as intellect. However, as these examples show, using emotional appeal alone is not as effective as when it is used in conjunction with logical and/or ethical appeals.