Soundbites

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Soundbites – brief and succinctly phrased key messages crafted for use in media coverage – serve a rhetorical function similar to the synecdoche – a small fragment used to represent, summarize or characterize a whole, in the case of soundbites: the whole of a political statement. Soundbites first emerged with television’s growing role in political reporting, saw its heyday in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and with digital medias’ demand for short, and preferably snappy, headlines and quotes, they have now become an integral and expected part of political communication. The term ‘soundbite’ is occasionally used pejoratively and to characterize over-simplified, effect-seeking, and manipulative political discourse more generally.

As political life’s counterpart to advertising’s slogans soundbites are interesting to study for their stylistic features in the widest sense. They are also interesting in virtue of the changing role they have played in public political life. Whereas soundbites formerly were considered part of the political speech writer’s toolbox and used deliberately and skillfully by politicians in the hope of being quoted for just those words in the news and thus keeping control of the message as it was disseminated, we now see soundbites used and circulated in more diverse and subversive ways.

The advent of digital, online communication and social media, Twitter and Facebook in particular, has meant vastly expanded circulation of elite political messages, but also new opportunities for ‘ordinary’ people to enter and participate in the information stream; their former role as ‘mere’ recipients of political messages has changed, and anyone with access to the internet can now in principle easily circulate and comment on elites’ utterances. This change means diminished control for politicians; from being a strategically used, deliberately designed persuasive tool, what is now considered a soundbite is often a matter of social media uptake and circulation. Moreover, such recontextualization means that the power of interpretation of the soundbite has effectively shifted to the media users with the result that political actors increasingly see their words turned against them in the form of ridicule or public shaming – just think of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” or Mitch McConnell’s “Nevertheless, she persisted”. This kind of rhetorical fallout we may think of as ‘accidental’ and at times even ‘backfiring’ soundbites.

In this contribution I provide a brief survey of the term’s history and highlight themes in contemporary academic discussions of the role of soundbites in public discourse. I provide examples of elite, deliberate use of soundbites. This provides the basis for the main part of the chapter which is a critical analysis and theoretical discussion of the contemporary soundbite as a site of struggle over interpretative authority and rhetorical agency. I use an example from Danish politics to illustrate how a politician’s statement inadvertently became a soundbite, turned against her and circulated on social media, only to be re-appropriated by her in the end.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Language and Persuasion
EditorsRandy Harris
Publication statusIn preparation - 2021

ID: 245373419