Searching for Alternative Facts

January 23, 2020 3:30 pm
Manning Hall 01

The UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) and Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) will host a talk, titled "Searching for Alternative Facts," by James Madison University Assistant Professor Francesca Tripodi at 3:30 pm on Thursday, Jan. 23, in Manning Hall 01.

While many have studied the problem of political polarization, algorithms, filter bubbles, and media manipulation, few have considered how epistemological frameworks shape information silos. My talk addresses this gap, providing an ethnographic account of how two Republican groups validate truth in the contemporary news environment. Drawing from a Christian conservative worldview, these groups interrogate media messages in the same way they approach the Bible, comparing what they read and hear in the news to the words of authoritative documents (e.g. a presidential speech or the Constitution). This practice of scriptural inference reinforces the idea that the mainstream media cannot be trusted, and a desire to “fact check” the news. While this quest for truth may start in good faith, my research considers the risks of this hermeneutical method of inquiry: 1) queries via search engines meant to question political reality can reinforce existing ideological beliefs; 2) scriptural inference is being exploited to legitimize conspiracies; 3) search engine results are gameable through keyword signaling. By capturing conservative media consumption practices in detail, alongside the production strategies designed to capitalize on them, this talk provides a new foundation for understanding the relationship between search engines, Wikipedia, social media, and conservative ideology.


Francesca Tripodi is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University and an Affiliate at Data & Society Research Institute. Her current research examines the relationship between social media, political partisanship, and democratic participation, revealing how Google and Wikipedia are manipulated for political gains. Earlier this year, Dr. Tripodi testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on her research, explaining how search processes are gamed to maximize exposure and drive ideologically based queries. This research is the basis of her book under contract with Yale University Press and articles in Medium and Wired. Her research has been covered by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian and The Neiman Journalism Lab. Dr. Tripodi also studies patterns of gender inequality on Wikipedia, shedding light on how knowledge is contested in the twenty-first century.