America watched Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testify before Congress today. The country listened as they relayed their accounts of what happened 35 years ago, when she says he sexually assaulted her at a house party and he says neither the party nor the assault occurred. But while viewers may have watched the same hearing, they did not interpret it through a neutral conduit. Whether you followed along with a news outlet’s livestream or liveblog, watched the event on cable news, or relied on Twitter to curate a highlight reel, your experience was mediated and shaped by the filter bubbles that dictate whose opinions you see when you read things on the web. Where some see sober, science-backed credibility, other see a circus. It’s a story that’s all-too typical in this period of political polarization.
If you are liberal—and in this political climate, we’re calling readers of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN liberals—you went on the internet this morning and saw a flood of #BelieveWomen tweets and women talking about how Blasey Ford’s testimony moved them to tears. Or maybe you saw the New York Times’, CNN’s, or BuzzFeed’s coverage of the tearful morning. As the day went on, that constellation of publications trumpeted Blasey Ford’s credibility—both The Atlantic and The New York Times pointed to Blasey Ford’s scientific background as being a particular asset to her testimony—and highlighted how painful the account was for Ford as well. You may have also read that the Republican’s prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, is known for her even handed treatment of sex crimes cases, and that the (all white male Republican side’s reliance on an outside investigator reflects poorly on them.
Another key liberal theme of the day is the behavior of conservatives. CNN emphasized that one-time Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that Blasey Ford is “not lying,” and The Washington Post devoted an entire article to Fox News’ Chris Wallace talking about how Blasey Ford’s testimony prompted his own daughters to speak out and why it would be “a big mistake” to disregard her story. You may have also read about more disturbing behavior: Senator Orrin Hatch calling Blasey Ford “a good, attractive witness,” former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo having a “meltdown” on CNN, and Senator Lindsay Graham’s “meltdown” about feeling “ambushed” and telling Democrats to “watch out for your nominees.” If you lean further left, words like “embarrassment” and “cruel” came to characterize the proceedings, and the machinations of ultra-conservative commentators became stories in their own right. In this bubble, truth and progressive politics won the day.
But if you are conservative, you went on the internet today and saw a deluge of #BackBrett tweets, a great deal about flying, and a lot of lamenting. Fox News’ Stuart Varney and Chris Wallace both pointed a finger at Rachel Mitchell for doing a poor job as a GOP intermediary—Wallace called the testimony as directed by Mitchell “a disaster for Republicans” and Varney wondered why Blasey Ford was being treated with “absolute maximum caution” in the first place. The other conservative talking points have come from the small discrepancies Mitchell was able to find in Blasey Ford’s testimony: her confusion over who paid for her polygraph test, her equivocation about how many people were at the party, her confusion about whether the Washington Post had reviewed notes from her therapist, and most of all, her fear of flying to Washington for this testimony when she has been able to fly before. (The flying controversy has become the lynchpin of Breitbart’s coverage in particular.) The conservative narrative forming around this is that Blasey Ford simply isn’t trustworthy, and that the foggy, 35-year-old he-said-she-said routine undermines the authority of Congress and unduly smears Kavanaugh.
The dynamic shifted once Kavanaugh took the stand, where he gave a 45-minute impassioned speech and had testy exchanges with the Democratic Senators questioning him. The liberal internet again zeroed in on conservative comportment. Kavanaugh’s opening read to that filter bubble as unduly “angry” and “political” for a Supreme Court nominee. The aggression he displayed when being questioned by Senator Amy Klobuchar about his drinking (and his apology for it became its own tale. Lindsay Graham’s send up of what he perceives as Democratic foot-dragging came off as hypocritical given Republican’s efforts to block Obama’s Supreme Court nominees) at best, and an irresponsible “temper tantrum” at worst. Much was made over Kavanaugh’s supposed evasive behavior when asked about FBI investigations or Mark Judge, who Blasey-Ford claims was with him on the night of the assault. Thumbnail images show Kavanaugh’s face pinched in an angry frown.
To conservatives, Kavanaugh and Graham’s ire were worth celebrating. In some cases, he was instantly, implicitly believed: “Kavanaugh Clears His Name,” says Breitbart. Over on Fox News, Lindsey Graham “tears into” Democrats while Trump “blasts” them. Kavanaugh appears far more sympathetic in coverage that highlights his testimony about his young daughter praying for Blasey Ford
These stances are wildly, maybe disastrously, different. Each side casts the other as inappropriate, and lionizes their own entrants into the fray. And as these narratives grow, change, and refract their way across the internet—being discussed and rehashed by people in their own corners of the political spectrum as they go—the gap between them is likely to widen. Partisan narrative has come to trump attempted objectivity. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where that’s less appropriate than when trying to determine whether a man is fit to be an objective arbiter of truth and justice for an entire nation.