Alternative Facts, Alternative Truths
Calls for “media literacy” ignore the diligent reading practices of Evangelical Conservatives in the US
There is a narrative out there, floating around the executive offices at Google and Facebook, lurking in the halls of prominent publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post, and emerging from the mouths of most cable news pundits that “fake news” has ruined democracy. Tied up in this narrative is an accusation that supporters of President Trump were “tricked” into voting for him because Russian bots fed them a steady stream of misinformation.
If only, the story goes, there was some way to reach Trump supporters — who, according to a study by the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Project, more frequently like and share “fake news.” Why don’t they do their research? some bemoan. Don’t they check the facts? The assumption: If only they could learn to think critically, accessing, analyzing, and evaluating a variety of sources, then they would be informed voters.
During 2017, I began regularly attending Republican events associated with two upper-middle class communities in the Southeastern United States: a women’s group and a college group.
The thing is — they do, and they are. During 2017, I began regularly attending Republican events associated with two upper-middle class communities in the Southeastern United States: a women’s group and a college group. After encountering individuals at group meetings, I conducted a series of in-depth interviews and began accompanying them to other places: barbecues, conferences, fundraising events, Bible study, and church.
I also connected with them on social media, following the news stories they shared or commented on. Through these on- and offline interactions, a common theme emerged. Those I observed consumed a wide variety of news sources and applied their critical interrogation of the Bible to what they were reading, watching, and listening to.
I experienced this process firsthand by accompanying a young woman named Emily to her weekly Bible study. On a rain-soaked Virginia day, a group of forty individuals gathered to discuss what constituted about 20 lines of biblical text. Sipping on coffee from a percolator on the back table next to a crock-pot full of homemade egg and sausage muffins, the group “unpacked” the text for an hour, applying the lessons learned to their own life. Using scripture this way is not particularly surprising: the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was centered on the idea that sacramental rituals and the teachings of Catholic authorities were obscuring the centrality of scripture as the word of God. However, it was not until observing a “direct reading” of the Bible that I saw how literal translations of the Bible are used as a mechanism for other critical assessment.
This observation is relevant to more than what happens inside Bible studies. At one point during the meeting, the Pastor turned from the Bible to the new tax reform bill, where he encouraged the group to apply the same “deep reading.” The group poured over the text together, helping each other decide what it really meant rather than relying on mainstream media coverage of the bill. In that moment, I realized that this community of Evangelical Christians were engaged in media literacy, but used a set of reading practices secular thinkers might be unfamiliar with. I’ve seen hundreds of Conservative Evangelicals apply the same critique they use for the Bible, arguably a postmodern method of unpacking a text, to mainstream media — favoring their own research on topics rather than trusting media authorities.
I’ve seen hundreds of Conservative Evangelicals apply the same critique they use for the Bible, arguably a postmodern method of unpacking a text, to mainstream media — favoring their own research on topics rather than trusting media authorities.
Similar to not needing a media interpretation of the tax code, Conservatives like these do not turn to media to be told what to think about Trump. They know what he stands for because they listen to or read his speeches directly, relying on their own interpretation and application of his ideas. When I spoke to Andrew, a Congressional staffer for a Republican Congressional representative, he described the phenomenon thus: “I just stream it live online or if I happen to not be able to catch it, I’ll find somewhere that has an original transcript without any commentary and read it before I start digesting what everyone else thinks about it.”
Favoring Trump’s rhetoric over media coverage also explains why so many people I spoke to became Trump supporters after watching the presidential debates. Nearly everyone I interviewed favored other candidates in the primary (Cruz and Rubio), but despite their reluctance ended up stumping for Trump, volunteering their time to make phone calls and knock on doors. They repeatedly described how their support for Trump shifted after watching the presidential debates.
His use of the phrase “rip a baby out of the womb” resonated with pro-life Conservatives who believe that life begins at conception and describe abortion as infanticide. Distrust in translation of text also explains why the debate-watching parties I attended favored television stations without pundits, like C-SPAN. They did not need CNN to tell them who had won; they relied on Trump’s words to signify that the values they described to me as “faith, family, the constitution, and national security” would be protected.
The style of media literacy that I witnessed among Conservative groups helps explain the strategy of several prominent Conservative media organizations.These organizations stress that liberal ideology is formed by disputable claims and emotional appeals instead of fact-based evidence. This is the base of Ben Shapiro’s widely popular video Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings, which has nearly 2 million views on YouTube and over 5.6 million views via PragerU’s website. Shapiro’s central argument is that the “left” is run by feelings instead of intellect, and that liberal concerns like white privilege, patriarchy, and homophobia are not real. To counter each of these emotional missteps, Shapiro lists what he identifies as facts.
For example, Shapiro asserts that patriarchy isn’t real because women make up the majority of college graduates and “young, single women without kids already earn more than their male counterparts,” reiterating that “these are the facts, and facts don’t care about your feelings.” While this statistic might be true, it hardly proves that patriarchy no longer exists. Especially considering some facts Shapiro does not mention, such as the fact that having children disproportionately hurt women’s earnings but not men’s. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s use of selective facts constructs a message similar to that of many other videos that stream on PragerU, The Daily Standard, or FoxNews — meritocracy, free-market capitalism, and faith are more powerful than any perceived systemic biases. In videos like Shapiro’s, the facts don’t lie, but by meticulously avoiding scientific evidence that counters their claims, they also don’t tell the whole truth.
Herein lies the problem with media literacy approaches. Based on my data, upper-middle class Conservatives did not vote for Trump because they were “fooled” into doing so by watching, reading, or listening to “fake news.” Rather, they consumed a great deal of information and found inconsistencies, not within the words of Trump himself, but rather within the way mainstream media “twisted his words” to fit a narrative they did not agree with. Not unlike their Protestant ancestors, doing so gave them authority over the text rather than relying on the priests’ (i.e. “the elites’”) potentially corrupt interpretation.
Combine this critical perspective of mainstream media with a steady stream of facts carefully selected to contradict liberal ideology, and you get the prevailing narratives floating around alternative media landscapes. Among the most common is the idea that the “hysterical left” is the one with the wool over their eyes, in desperate need of media re-education. Not unlike the Amazing Grace hymn that regularly accompanied the services I attended, many Conservatives hope that one day they too shall see.
Dr. Francesca Tripodi is a sociologist and postdoctoral scholar at Data & Society Research Institute who takes an ethnographic approach to studying how partisan groups interact with media, and the role that community plays in legitimating what constitutes news and information.
For more on media literacy as an approach to the problem of “fake news,” read the new Data & Society report The Promises, Challenges, and Futures of Media Literacy by Monica Bulger and Patrick Davison. — Ed.