[Multimodality Talks Series] Arguing with numbers in digital multimodal dialogue

Date:  9 December 2022

Time: 12.00 -1.30 pm GMT

Place: online via Zoom

Speaker: Sumin Zhao & Chris Cummins, University of Edinburgh

To attend the talk please register here: 

To watch the recorded talk, please see here


Statistical data—death tolls, hospitalisation rates, vaccination rates, R-numbers—have played a prominent role in Covid-19 discourses. Numbers are foregrounded in government briefings and news reporting, shaping public debates on pandemic measures such as lockdowns and vaccinations. While statistics and numbers are often seen as “objective” and “factual”, they can nevertheless be exploited for rhetorical and argumentative effects (Cummins & Franke 2021). Presenting numbers in a particular way can potentially advance different and mutually irreconcilable narratives about a situation, in that a speaker/writer can select among the many truthful ways of describing reality with numerical data to produce a specific discursive effect. For instance, if the case rate increases from 1% to 2%, this can be described as either a ‘doubling’ or a ‘1% increase’. Our project sets out to understand how numbers have been used to promote and justify policy decisions and personal choices on social media during the global pandemic.

In this talk, we focus on numeric information presented in multimodal forms, including scientific graphs produced by researchers and those generated through visualisation applications such as Our World in Data and used by non-expert posters. Drawing on pragmatic theories of number meaning (Cummins & Franke 2021) and multimodal theories of social media (Zhao & Zappavigna, 2018) we will show that quantity information is selectively presented (even by objective and cooperative interlocutors) in Twitter debates on Covid. The selective nature of the visual data presentation is facilitated and enabled by the design of the visualization application. We argue that to protect ourselves from drawing erroneous conclusions, we need to understand the argumentative stance of the speaker. This applies to graphs as well as utterances. There are good reasons to think that typical hearers are highly skilled at inferring a speaker’s argumentative stances based on very little information (e.g. how they package a graph in a tweet). We will close the talk by revisiting classic multimodal works on scientific and mathematical discourses (e.g. Bezemer & Kress, 2008, O’Halloran, 2008) and discuss how changing digital visualization technology and social media cultures will shape how we approach multimodal literacy in the age of big data.


Bezemer, J., & Kress, G. (2008). Writing in multimodal texts: A social semiotic account of designs for learning. Written communication, 25(2), 166-195.

Cummins, C., & Franke, M. (2021). Rational Interpretation of numerical quantity in argumentative contexts. Frontiers in Communication, 6, 662027.

O’Halloran, K. (2008). Mathematical discourse: Language, symbolism and visual images. London: Continuum/Bloomsbury

Zhao, S., & Zappavigna, M. (2018). The interplay of (semiotic) technologies and genre: The case of the selfie. Social Semiotics, 28(5), 665-682.


Sumin Zhao is a Lecturer in Discourse Analysis at the University of Edinburgh. Her research explores the digital literacies of young (multilingual) children and social media through the lens of multimodality. You can find more about Sumin’s research here (https://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/sumin-zhao) or here (https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=OWSe9m4AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao) .

Chris Cummins is a Reader in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on meaning in context, particularly involving expressions of quantity, with an interest in how this applies to challenges in medical communication.


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