Searching for Alternative Facts

Searching for Alternative Facts (Data & Society)

New Data & Society ethnographic study illuminates conservative methods of fact-checking media; warns that search engines may facilitate disinformation

Searching for Alternative Facts is an ethnographic account drawn directly from Francesca Tripodi’s research within upper-middle class conservative Christian communities in Virginia in 2017. Tripodi uses Christian practices of Biblical interpretation as a lens for understanding the relationship between so-called “alternative” or “fake news” sources and contemporary conservative political thought.

“They critically interrogate media messages in the same way they approach the Bible, focusing on specific passages and comparing what they read, see, and hear to their lived experiences.

I term this media interrogation process scriptural inference.”

Key findings include:

On media consumption and interpretation:

  • The author finds that self-identified conservatives in this study consume a wide variety of news sources–but then juxtapose what they read, see, and hear with other documents, including presidential speeches and the Constitution.
  • The author calls this compare-and-contrasting focus on “the Word” scriptural inference; a practice rooted in Biblical study that prioritizes direct analysis of primary sources.
  • Since these communities rely on non-neutral search engines like Google to “fact check” the news, algorithms that are used to serve up information may help create or reinforce ideological biases in newsgathering.

On “fake news” and ideological bias:

  • Services like Google and YouTube can unintentionally expose individuals who consider themselves “mainline conservatives” to more radical content, as the author finds that “simple syntax differences” in search terms yield different algorithmic recommendations.
  • Nonprofit media company PragerU, for example, is identified as a purveyor of bite-size content formats and sophisticated marketing strategies that aim to reinforce distrust of mainstream media.

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