Teaching Social Media Ethics Using Visual Rhetoric - National Council of Teachers of English
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Teaching Social Media Ethics Using Visual Rhetoric

This post was written by member Anne Mooney.

Walking down the halls, sitting in my room before the bell, and speaking with students at my school, I’m struck not only by how much my students are using Instagram and Snapchat, but also by how integral they have become in their lives. As these image-based apps increase in social and cultural importance, it’s imperative that we teach our students how to responsibly and ethically engage with them. When trying to teach something more abstract like ethics, it can be helpful to approach it through a more concrete route. Teaching visual rhetoric, we enable our students to read these image-based posts, allowing them to more effectively assess the ethicality of certain posts.

Visual rhetoric provides students with a concrete way to read image-based posts, both others’ and their own, enabling them to more clearly see the potential repercussions of their social media usage. Examining the rhetorical decisions in Instagram and Snapchat posts, students can make more educated decisions about what they should and shouldn’t post online in order to be ethical and responsible members of our online community.

Teaching Visual Rhetoric

Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers define visual rhetoric as the relationship between images and persuasion. Breaking that down for my students, I define visual rhetoric as the study of images and their ability to communicate a specific purpose to a specific audience. Visual rhetoric asks students to analyze components of the image-based post including author, subject, audience, purpose, and context. By assessing these components, students clearly understand how to read an image as well as the rhetorical situation of the post. Additionally, teachers should urge students to examine these components in relation to the caption, determining how the caption potentially alters the reading of the image.

How Does Visual Rhetoric Teach Ethics of Image-Based Social Media?

Once students are effectively able to read the image-based post as a whole, they will be better equipped to analyze the ethics of the post. Exploring the same components of the post, students can be guided to take their analysis further with the following questions:

  1. Who is the creator?
    • In what way does the author insert their self and their identity into this post and how does that impact the audience’s experience?
  2. Who is the subject (if there is one)?
    • If there is someone in the image, what is their relationship to the author? Do they seem aware that their image is being taken or that it was posted online?
  3. Who is the audience?
    • Who is the author posting for? Is the image only available to a specific audience or is it public? Do they use any specific hashtags? If so, what kind of expectations would this audience have? How has the audience responded to the post?
  4. What is the purpose?
    • Could this post be considered negative towards a particular person or group of people? Does it aim to hurt, undermine, or attack anyone or any group?
  5. What is the context?
    • Is there any backstory, drama, or underlying issues involved?

By providing these questions, we encourage a more thorough rhetorical analysis, thereby enabling students to authentically and effectively assess the impact on the digital community.

Teaching visual rhetoric provides students with the skills necessary to critically engage with our increasingly visual world. With these skills, students will be better equipped to determine the ethicality of both their own and their peers’ image-based social media posts; they will be able to more clearly understand the effects of their online actions. Teaching these skills may not be easy, and, at times, it may seem as though it’s outside our scope as teachers, but if we fail to teach our students digital citizenship, we risk them never understanding the power of their compositions through these apps.


Anne Mooney teaches eleventh- and twelfth-grade English at Malden High School in Malden, MA. Her academic interests of digital literacies and trauma theory have inspired both her classroom and her scholarship. Follow her on Twitter at @ammoons or on her blog, www.habitsofela.wordpress.com


For more information, please read A Pedagogy of Rhetorical Looking: Atrocity Images at the Intersection of Vision and Violence  by Kristie S. Fleckenstein, Scott Gage, and Katherine Bridgman.