Atheists often criticize conservative Christians for quoting Bible verses out of context. Sure, the Bible may say those words, but the context may be very different and other verses may contradict them. The same goes for topics like homosexuality. Conservatives will point to verses that refer to it as a sin worthy of the ultimate punishment, but they neglect the broader context of those verses and how Jesus didn’t say anything about it.
Similarly, one of the common reactions you’ll hear from conservatives condemning the separation of church and state is that “those words don’t appear in the Constitution.”
They’re so damn literal about it.
It leads to an interesting question: Is there a connection between the way conservative Christians read the Bible and how they interpret the news?
That’s what Francesca Tripodi, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Virginia, set to find out. She just released a report documenting her initial findings, and the results are incredibly intriguing.
Tripodi studied two groups of Republicans in depth — a college group and a women’s group — to see how they “fact-checked” the news. And it turns out they’re not very good at it. (Surprise.) For example, one person she spoke to talked about how she researched candidates for upcoming elections: She Googled them.
“I literally type it in Google, and read the first three to five articles that pop up, because those are the ones that are obviously the most clicked and the most read, if they’re at the top of the list, or the most popular news outlets. So, I want to get a good sense of what other people are reading. So, that’s pretty much my go-to.”
That completely ignores how certain articles rise to the top of Google search results because people are searching for or talking about them. If we did a search for “Ted Cruz,” because of something newsworthy he said, the top results may include sites that routinely put out misinformation or spin the comment in a particular direction. Facebook faces a different problem, which is that our news feeds all look very different based on our preferences, likes, friends, and what we typically click on. I tend to see a lot of generally accurate and fact-based news sources in mine… but that’s exactly what the people who see Infowars would say.
But these people didn’t know that or get that. They just assumed the top results for them were automatically reliable.
It’s not a far cry from people who look for Bible verses condemning abortion… and voila, when they do a search for it, they find so many websites supporting that position, therefore it must be the right one!
As Tripodi also points out, what you Google makes a difference. When the conservatives she spoke to wanted to verify what Donald Trump said about how NFL ratings were down due to the protests, they did a Google search for “NFL Ratings Down.” In quotation marks. Not surprisingly, they found plenty of sources quoting Trump which, in their minds, solidified how that was a fact.
If you do a search for “NFL Ratings Up,” however, you get very different results that confirm Trump was just making it all up.
The same thing happens if you do a search for a number. In one case, there was a conspiracy theory about a politician who approved the spending of “$1.4 million in taxpayer money” on a “fake Chinese company with a false address and a phony website.” The inclusion of the “1.4 million” would lead you, mostly, to conservative websites perpetuating that myth.
In an effort to find information they can trust, they are turning to a search engine with the belief that it is a neutral purveyor of information. As I demonstrate, the very process of using exact quotes from original texts ultimately ends up reaffirming conservatives’ existing ideological positions.
This isn’t new information, but if liberals want to fight back, one way to do it is by “hijacking” those search terms on their own news or commentary sites and making sure people are exposed to facts instead of right-wing echo chambers.
When it comes down to it, liberals often accuse conservatives of spreading lies, but conservatives like the ones in this report would tell you they do fact-check! They’re spreading information they’ve personally verified. It just turns out they have no clue how to fact-check the right way.
Tripodi said in an interview with Laura Hazard Owen of NiemanLab how this connects back to the Bible:
These searches are just going to be very different depending on whose words you trust. Epistemologically, [liberals and conservatives] are very different — and the way in which Christian conservatives approach the Bible is very different from the way Christian progressives approach the Bible. And you can drill into the Bible and the Bible can say very different things, depending on where you drill in.
This isn’t completed research and Tripodi hopes to expand on some of these ideas in a future book, but it certainly explains a way of thinking that could result in a lot of false information getting misconstrued as fact.
(Image via Shutterstock. This post has been edited to correctly describe how Google displays top searches. Apologies for earlier confusion.)