Megan L. Zahay

Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture




6164 Vilas Hall

Megan Zahay

Expertise and Activities

Megan is a scholar of rhetoric and digitality studying trust and belief in online communities. Her research investigates how the identity construction affordances of platforms enable online communities to mainstream outsider political messages and build trust with one another as well as the broader public. Megan has worked across a range of vernacular communities and institutional actors seeking to strengthen relationships online, including influencer and content creator communities, professional journalists, religious groups, and conspiracy theory communities. She takes a digital ethnographic approach while attending to the way economic conditions, and particularly the context of platformization, shape and constrain the discursive resources of online communities. Her work has shown that while institutional actors often attempt to increase trust by doubling down on professional norms, everyday users employ the expression of identity and its perceived authenticity as a marker of trustworthiness, belonging, and credibility.

Megan’s dissertation, titled “The Authenticity Economy: Rhetorics of Platformization and Social Change in Online Communities,” develops a theoretical framework of platform rhetorics which foregrounds the affective circulation of monetization logics. It investigates in three case studies – Booktubers, knitters, and homesteaders – how the communities that form around YouTube influencers negotiate tensions that arise between the imperatives of content monetization and the ideal of community values. I argue that users employ authenticity discourse to establish shared community values outside the system of valuation defined by platform content monetization.

Her work appears in Media and Communication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism Practice, and two edited collections. She has presented her research at the National Communication Association, Association of Internet Researchers, Rhetoric Society of America, International Communication Association, and International Society for the Study of Media, Religion, and Culture.

She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison – In Progress

M.A., University of Wisconsin-Madison

M.Ed., King’s College, Pennsylvania

B.A., Arcadia University


Zahay, M. L. (Forthcoming, available online). What “real” women want: Alt-right femininity vlogs as an anti-feminist populist aesthetic. Media and Communication. (Special Issue: Online Communities and Populism)

Howard, R. G., & M. L. Zahay. (Forthcoming). The Digital Age. In Oxford Handbook of Christian Fundamentalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones. Oxford University Press.

Zahay, M. L. (Forthcoming). God’s warriors: Gunlore and identity in the vernacular discourse of a survivalist community. In Gunlore: American Traditions About Firearms, edited by Robert Glenn Howard and Eric Eliason. University of Mississippi Press.

Zahay, M. L., K. Jensen, Y. Xia, & S. Robinson. (2020). The labor of building trust: Traditional and engagement discourses for practicing journalism in a digital age. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. doi: 10.1177/1077699020954854

Xia, Y., S. Robinson, M. L. Zahay, & D. Freelon. (2020). The evolving journalistic roles on social media: Exploring “engagement” as relationship-building between journalists and citizens. Journalism Practice, 14(5), 556-573. doi: 10.1080/17512786.2020.1722729

Public Scholarship, Reviews, and Media Mentions

Zahay, M. L. (2022). Book review of Rebirthing a Nation: White Women, Identity Politics, and the Internet by Wendy K. Z. Anderson. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 108(2), 227-230. doi:

The Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford. (February 11, 2021). A selection of readings on journalism – for journalists. Included Zahay et al., The labor of building trust (2020) on their updated list. URL:

Zahay, M. L. (August 31, 2020). Conspiracy theories in the age of social media. Digital Doxa Blog. URL:

Coddington, M., & S. Lewis. (October 8, 2020). Journalism faces a crisis in trust. Journalists fall into two very different camps for how to fix it. Nieman Lab. URL:

Robinson, S., Y. Xia, & M. Zahay. (2019). Public political talk on Twitter and Facebook: The view from journalists. Knight Foundation Report. URL:

Selected Presentations

Zahay, M. L. (2022, May). Alt-wives: Polysemic politics and gendered populism among trad wife influencers. Rhetoric Society of America, Baltimore, MD.

Zahay, M. L. (2022, May). Chronos and kairos on the digital homestead: Performing ‘the past’ with and against new media. UW-Madison Rhetoric Society of America Student Chapter 2022 Spring Symposium, Madison, WI.

Zahay, M. L. (2021, November). Constructing digital whiteness: The linking rhetoric of white femininity on The Better Mom and White Date. National Communication Association, Seattle, WA.

Zahay, M. L. (2021, November). Becoming Q’s digital patriots: How QAnon participants learned to theorize conspiracy theories. National Communication Association, Seattle, WA.

Zahay, M. L. (2021, April). White supremacy, white memory: Gender and the nation on UW-Madison Rhetoric Society of America Student Chapter 2021 Spring Symposium, Madison, WI.

Zahay, M. L. (2020, November). Making dough: Negotiating evangelical motherhood and neoliberalism in National Communication Association, Online (Due to COVID-19).

Musgrave, K., M. L. Zahay, R. W. Greene, J. Hanan, C. Chaput, & C. Colombini. (2019, November). Rhetoric and economic theology: Communication for survival under neoliberalism. Panel, National Communication Association, Baltimore, MD.

Zahay, M. L. (2019, November) Church and (deep) state: Imagining religious citizenship through online conspiracy discourse. National Communication Association, Baltimore, MD.

Zahay, M. L., & K. Jensen (formerly Nelson), Y. Xia, & S. Robinson. (2019, May). The labor of journalistic trust in a digital age: Rhetorical transformations in doing journalism. International Communication Association, Washington, D.C.

Zahay, M. L. (2019, May). Forbidden fruit: “Sophistry” and the irreconcilable contingent. UW-Madison Rhetoric Society of America Student Chapter 2019 Spring Symposium, Madison, WI.

Zahay, M. L. (2018, November). The neoliberal apocalyptic: Rhetoric of theodicy and salvation in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. National Communication Association, Salt Lake City, UT.

Zahay M. L. (2018, August). “Make America Great Again, in Jesus’ name”: Apocalyptic deliberation on YouTube in the 2016 election. International Society for Media, Religion, and Culture, Boulder, CO.

Selected Awards and Honors

Weaver Excellence Award (2022)

Graduate School Fellow (2021)

William E. Elliot Dissertation Scholarship (2020)

Charles Chester Peace Scholarship (2020)

Helen K. Herman Memorial Fund Scholarship (2019)

Courses Taught

CA374 The Rhetoric of Religion (Cross-listed with Religious Studies)

CA200 Introduction to Digital Communication

CA155 Introduction to Digital Media Production

CA260 Communication and Human Behavior

CA310 Environmental Communication

CA100 Introduction to Public Speaking

RS102 Religion in Sickness and Health