Searching for alternative facts

Analyzing scriptural inference in conservative news practices
Mass media News media Journalism Fake news United States of America
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This report is an ethnographic account of how two Republican groups search for truth in the contemporary news environment. Drawing from a conservative Christian worldview, these groups critically interrogate media messages in the same way they approach the Bible. This practice of scriptural inference bolsters their mistrust of mainstream media and supports their need to “fact check” the news. Since Google is seen as a neutral purveyor of information, it becomes a conduit for accessing “unbiased” information. And while this quest for truth may start in good faith, significant risks follow:

  • First, searches meant to question political reality can reinforce existing ideological beliefs;
  • Second, services like Google and YouTube can unintentionally expose individuals who consider themselves “mainline conservatives” to “far-right” and “alt-right” content through algorithmic recommendations; and
  • Third, bad actors looking to exploit an audience disillusioned with mainstream media can take advantage of such intellectual exploration.

The phrase “conservatism” in this report is linked to the three most common tenets observed:

  • An emphasized connection between faith and patriotism through repeated rituals: a Christian prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and reciting the Virginia Republican Creed,
  • A faith-first interpretation of the separation of church and state espoused by prominent politicians like Senator Ted Cruz and Vice President Mike Pence,
  • A need to protect racial and religious identity with subsidized defense strategies (i.e., “Build the Wall”).

Given the importance of Christian faith in these central tenets, it became clear that conservatives in this study apply the same type of close reading that they were taught in Bible study to mainstream media. They consume many news sources but then juxtapose what they read, see, and hear with documents including presidential speeches and the Constitution. I call this compare and contrasting focus on “the Word” scriptural inference. Because this process prioritizes direct analysis of primary sources, respondents relied on Google to “do their own research.” However, few if any members expressed an accurate understanding of the algorithms Google uses to serve search results. Using sample search queries taken from interviews, I document the way in which simple syntax differences can create and reinforce ideological biases in newsgathering.

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