Graduate Research and Discovery Symposium (GRADS)


Official and Viral Apologia: Participatory Culture and the Penn State Scandal


Dr. Travers Scott

Document Type




Publication Date

Spring 2013


Tremendous scholarly attention has been devoted to image repair techniques and the role the rhetor plays in its own defense. However, little has been done to address how this ancient genre translates into more modern contexts, particularly social media. This thesis bridges the gap between the traditional rhetorical genre of apologia and the participatory culture characteristic of virtual communities. Using The Pennsylvania State University sexual abuse scandal as a case study, the current research employs a multi-methodological approach to more fully understand the process by which organizational apologia reaches, spreads between, and influences meaning-making within online communities. This research addresses five events of the scandal across three levels: (1) rhetorical analysis, (2) textual analysis, and (3) virtual ethnography. Results indicate that the Penn State apologia functions as self-deception – that is, rhetoric that Downey (1993) calls “contradictory, self-serving motives [that] masks moral responsibility, exploits audience ignorance and emotions while championing the same values breached by the apologist” (p. 58). This self-deception leads to confusion among Penn State’s various audiences. More specifically, this provokes the Penn State memes community to debate the group’s ignorance, morality, and identity. Major implications and suggestions for future research are discussed as well.

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