In a post-truth era, how do you know what to trust? As a way to combat a political climate devoid of expert opinions and facts, many have championed media literacy as a solution. Others have asked how filter bubbles, either through our own making or by algorithmic design, contribute to the fog of misinformation. While concerted disinformation campaigns by another country are indeed worrisome, we should give equal pause to brushing off President Donald Trump’s win as the result of siloed thinking or media illiteracy. Implying that Trump supporters were tricked into voting for him because they don’t know what truth looks like sets them up as cultural dopes instead of conceptualizing conservatives as an active audience.
It was with this theoretical framework in mind that I set out to observe two Republican groups in Virginia — a women’s group and a college group — during the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election. What I quickly learned was that the people I interviewed drew on the same language as our vice president to describe their political affiliation: describing themselves as Christians first, conservatives second, Republicans third. In addition to their self-identification as “conservative,” the rituals I observed were intimately tied to a faith in God — and country.
In my research, I noted what others have before me: that many conservatives are deeply skeptical of the mainstream media. While the people in my study consumed news from a wide variety of sources, including mainstream outlets, they took the information with a grain of salt. But it didn’t stop there. Instead of dismissing (or absorbing) what they’d read, they relied on one particular tool to vet the trustworthiness of the media. It’s something I call scriptural inference, and I first witnessed it in action at a Bible study group on a rain-soaked Virginia day in February 2018.
For an hour, a group of 40 gathered to discuss what constituted about two dozen lines of biblical text. Sipping on coffee that percolated on the back table next to homemade egg and sausage muffins, the pastor called on us to “unpack” the text and apply the lessons to our own life. Studying scripture is not particularly surprising in a Protestant church group; the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century celebrated the centrality of scripture as the word of God. But I was very much taken aback when the pastor used that same tool to drill into the new tax-reform bill.
Before the room, he was adamant that everyone “do your own research,” by which he meant everyone ought to read the bill themselves rather than trust mainstream media’s analysis of it. He described how the act’s provisions might help the local businessman but hurt the small-scale farmer, and that we had a responsibility to understand how the changes would affect our lives. In this world, individual textual interpretation is better than the “elite” explanation of priests (or journalists).
While not all Christians are conservative nor all conservatives religious, there is a clear connection between how the process of scriptural inference trickles down into conservative methods of inquiry. Favoring the original text of the Constitution is closely tied to the practices of “constitutional conservatism,” and currently members in all three branches of the U.S. government rely on practices of scriptural inference to make important political decisions (for example, Senator Ted Cruz, Vice President Mike Pence, Justice Neil Gorsuch).
My research shows that highly educated and economically comfortable conservatives regularly fact-check news stories. I first noticed this in June 2017, during Virginia’s tightly contested primary for the governor’s race. On the day of the election, I spoke to hundreds of voters as they exited the polls and asked them a simple question: Where do you go for news that you trust?
Often this phrase was met by laughter and shaking heads; most people told me there were few sources they “trusted.” I followed up by asking how they had learned about the candidate they just voted for. A few people mentioned that Facebook had reminded them to vote and provided a link to help them find out where their polling station was. But when it came to learning about the candidates, voters repeatedly told me they trusted Google more than newspapers for “unbiased” and “accurate” information on their candidate of choice.
It’s easy to understand why — most people think Google’s raison d’être is to provide unbiased information based on perceived relevance to the search terms. If you’re looking for a nearby burger joint or when Kanye and Kim got married, Google is a great starting point. At the same time, Google is a platform built to complement scriptural inference: It requires users to go back to “the word” and even helps us predict what those words might be. Nonetheless, our keywords are driven by our own biases.
During the governor’s race, opponents of Democratic candidate Ralph Northam repeatedly aired an ad claiming he was incompetent because he had “approved the spending of $1.4 million in taxpayer money to a fake Chinese company with a false address and a phony website.”
When I Googled “Northam fake Chinese company,” I was provided an article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Washington Post, plus a link to FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan organization that monitors factual accuracy in journalism and scholarship (figure 1, below).
However, when I relied on scriptural inference and focused on the monetary figure that Northam’s Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, used during rallies, I received dramatically different information (figure 2, below).
The top result in figure 2 — what people I interviewed described as the most credible — was an opinion piece by the Republican Governors Association, followed by a link to the organization that paid for the ad (Americans for Prosperity) and Fairfax Underground, a forum that regularly espouses far-right positions on immigration.
The ideological discrepancies reflected in Google search results were also present during the NFL anthem protests. After President Trump tweeted that ratings were “WAY DOWN,” if you Googled “NFL ratings down” on January 25, 2018, the top headlines indicated that NFL viewership had declined this season. The Fox News headline and teaser insinuated a connection between a decline in NFL ratings and the anthem protests (figure 3, below).
However, Googling “NFL ratings up” on that same day returned dramatically different (that is, more liberal) results. These links claimed that despite Trump’s remarks, fans were still supporting the NFL (figure 4, below).
Few people I spoke with understood that the keywords they use to find information online can actually shift the ideological slant of their search results. Even after doing research, I’ve seen how voters walk away from Google armed with alternative news and alternative facts. One woman discussed the phenomenon directly, telling me, “I’ll Google the keyword, key phrase, a name, event, whatever, to try to see if there’s anything out there. Sometimes all I get is the same things I read on Twitter.” She didn’t realize the extent to which her search results were tied to the keywords she entered or how Google algorithmically orders information. Rather, she used her results to validate her beliefs, as though Google failing to return an alternative perspective meant that one did not exist.
While end users might not understand the way Google works, conservative media producers clearly get how their audiences query. They can maximize search engine optimization by exploiting the process of scriptural inference and driving certain keywords (for example, “Russian collusion delusion”). Algorithmic inequality helped the Council of Conservative Citizens reach people, including Dylann Roof, who were searching “black on white crime.” It is also how 4chan was able to exploit the data void directly following the Las Vegas massacre — and spread information leading people to believe ISIS was behind the attack.
This is why Google’s monopoly on search matters. While conservatives have been taught to dig in and “unpack” the meaning in original sources, many of them are unaware that the sources Google provides are a product of what they search — and how they search, and sometimes Google results are inaccurate. In a time where everyone is taught to be critical of the media, people searching for truth see Google as weighting facts, not just ranking results. This is true on both sides of the aisle.
So rather than calling on conservatives to read differently, perhaps it is on us to understand how our own search practices keep us from seeing the inconvenient truths surrounding us. The practices of conservatives, and the election of Trump, make a lot more sense once you realize that alternative facts are hiding in plain sight. Those who didn’t see it were simply Googling different keywords.