At a rally in Tennessee in late May, President Donald Trump reiterated a rallying cry about the dangerous MS-13 gang. “They’re not human beings. They’re not human beings,” Trump said to an approving crowd. “And this is why we call the bloodthirsty MS-13 gang members exactly the name that I used last week. What was the name?”
And the audience yelled out, “Animals!”
Trump’s use of the term split his supporters and opponents along familiar, ideological lines. In the original statement, Trump called MS-13 members animals during a White House roundtable on immigration. Democrats read it as a thinly veiled attempt to dehumanize all illegal immigrants and decried its use. Republicans—and Trump himself—quickly pointed out the left’s dishonesty in twisting Trump’s quote to include all illegal immigrants, and doubled down on the original equation.
The response to Trump’s comments exemplifies not just an ideological split between the conservative right and the secular left, but an epistemological one as well, says Francesca Tripodi. A researcher at Data & Society, Tripodi authored a report on the ways in which conservatives interrogate the news, after spending eight months embedded in Republican spaces in two Virginia cities.
Tripodi found that the conservative Republicans used practices rooted in Bible study to analyze statements made by the media. She calls this “scriptural inference,” an approach which relies on primary texts as a baseline for truth. For instance, unpacking a Bible verse to apply it to modern life, or relying on the Constitution when it comes to the right to bear arms. In the case of MS-13, the primary text was a statement from Trump, and the crux of the right’s argument revolved around whether he had literally said what the left claimed he did.
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The text-based approach is also used by right-wing pundits, who understand how it resonates with its audience. They consistently refer back to original secular sources, like the Constitution or a Trump tweet, in order to “fact check” how the media interprets them. “Drawing from a conservative Christian worldview, these groups critically interrogate media messages in the same way they approach the Bible,” Tripodi explains in the report.
“Scriptural inference” is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to right-wing interpretive strategies. But Tripodi’s work makes the case that it’s impossible to divorce media literacy from the epistemological and cultural context in which it’s practiced. For Christian conservatives, and for conservatives in general, faith-based notions of what constitutes truth and how to find it deeply influence political discourse, she argues.
The ethnographic work is based on interviews, observations, and hours of time spent in rallies, fundraisers, meetings of the Republican party of Virginia, and Bible study groups. Tripodi says she defines the people she encountered as conservatives because that’s how they chose to identify themselves, and lays out how deeply intertwined politics and religion were to their definition of conservatism.
Faith-based notions of what constitutes truth and how to find it deeply influence political discourse, Tripodi argues.
Tripodi did not initially seek out faith-based or religious people, but quickly began to observe the religious underpinnings to their engagement with media. “By going to Bible study with them, I realized that the practices I was seeing in a secular way were very much derived from a biblical reading of text and a very Protestant, I would argue, way of engaging with the Bible,” she says.
This practice of fact-checking the media and “doing their own research,” even when well-intentioned, can have negative consequences. On the extreme end, it may lead well-intentioned searchers to sources that confirm their existing beliefs, or even to further-right content. That’s because most media consumers begin their search for the truth on Google, and may not have the tools to interpret what they find.
Googling the truth
Of the college students, pastors, and soccer moms Tripodi interviewed, the vast majority first tried to figure out if a statement was true by using Google. They expected to find objective results.” “I believe basically it works as a fact checker,” a college student and Trump supporter told Tripodi. “I more click on the top ones because I know how Google works. It takes stuff that’s really new and relevant, and tries to put it on the top thing.”
Indeed, for most people, Google is the front page of the world, and is the first step in looking for information, particularly if one is looking to step outside a filter bubble. Users have an objective perception of Google to a degree (as opposed to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube), because search is not connected to a social network and not driven by recommendation algorithms. In fact, Google is the most trusted source for news, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.
But search may contribute to the filter bubble in a different way. Google serves up a menu of results that match a query, and if the search term is ideologically slanted, the results will be as well.
“That’s not how Google is designed, to present you with a range of results,” says Justin Hendrix, the director of the NYC Media Lab and an outspoken proponent for more accountability from tech platforms. “It’s designed to present you with as specific a result as possible.” A search could contribute to a closed circle, where a query leads users to the sources that align with its sentiment.
Conservative media outlets use this fact-checking process to their advantage. “Fox News and other conservative media sources are actually very much exploiting this process of scriptural inference in order to galvanize an audience that’s already disenfranchised with mainstream media,” Tripodi said. “They will just draw on the text, or draw on the full quote, in a way that I think resonates with people who make meaning in the same way.”
However, Google’s role in the filter bubble is not well researched, and it remains an open question to what degree our keyword choices and search patterns influence what content we’re exposed to.
Some Google search features have come under scrutiny in recent months. These features include autocomplete, which is tailored to users based on prior search patterns; prominently featured Twitter results, which are dynamic and appear to be related to popularity rather than reliability; and the knowledge boxes, many of which do not link back to a particular source.
But while tools like autocomplete are personalized, the main search results are not, according to research from Christo Wilson, an assistant professor and computer scientist at Northwestern University. He and his colleagues studied the personalization of Google results and found that results are generally not personalized (in the same language and country), except for certain local queries. Wilson and his co-authors tested whether political content was personalized by searching names of national and local politicians from browsers geolocated across the country, and the results remained the same.
But Wilson also found that search engines can be persuasive because of people’s trust in them. “It opens you up to persuasion,” he says. In a study, Wilson and his colleagues presented users with biased search results for political candidates, and found that they could shift voter preferences of undecided voters.
“Now, that’s not to say Google is showing things that are hyper-partisan,” says Wilson. “It’s saying if you were to go on Google and see something was hyper-partisan, you wouldn’t immediately think, Wow, that’s biased, or, That’s hyperpartisan, you actually sort of take it as given.”
Unlike social media algorithms, which purposely direct you to similar content, this is a more unintentional filter bubble, says Tripodi. It could potentially be counteracted, “if more people understood how these very simple syntax changes dramatically returns the ideological positions of what you search for.”
Unite the right
It’s one thing for Google searches to reinforce existing beliefs. It’s much worse if searching for news leads you to Alex Jones, the manosphere, or the far-right networks. But Tripodi claims that could be the case.
That’s because center-right content from the likes of Fox News and PragerU are often closely linked to the network of information from conspiracy theorists and white supremacists—algorithmically through recommendation engines and social networks, and in message.
Such is the case with YouTube, according to two researchers also from Data & Society. Jonas Kaiser and Adrian Rauchfleisch started with a diverse list of channels representing the political spectrum and non-political content, then built a network map of the 13,500 channels the recommendation algorithm led them to. They found that the far-right networks were much more closely connected to each other, and that YouTube lumped GOP accounts and Fox News into the same community as Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who claimed that Sandy Hook parents were crisis actors.
“Being a conservative on YouTube means that you’re only one or two clicks away from extreme far-right channels.”
“Being a conservative on YouTube means that you’re only one or two clicks away from extreme far-right channels, conspiracy theories, and radicalizing content,” the researchers wrote.
For example, searching “Rod Rosenstein” brings up news reports, a Wikipedia page, and Fox News videos in the top three results. Searching “Rod Rosenstein MSM,” brings up a video by conspiracy theorist QAnon in the top results. (MSM is often used by the right to mean “mainstream media.”)
Tripodi’s study bites off some big issues: media literacy, Google’s role in perpetuating filter bubbles, and the apparent overlap between center-right and far-right media networks. The important thing, she says, is to understand these approaches rather than dismiss them.
“We can’t call people who are conservative ‘non media literate,’” says Tripodi, “because they are actually extraordinarily media literate. They’re just approaching that form of literacy in a very different, but actually not so different, way.”