A lot of people were talking about Facebook last week. Besides Chewbacca Woman, its Trending News platform was, well, trending. Despite the fact that, in the epoch of FoxNews and HuffPo, news like this should never be news to anyone, the ‘news’ was leaked that Facebook uses hired editors over their algorithms to select which news articles are “Trending.” Now, I know, it may seem strange to you that human editors would be behind the scenes of a news organization instead of using what editors have always used—algorithms. (What is an algorithm?) Facebook, the world’s largest news distributor, was accused of “blacklisting” conservative news stories, and of “injecting” their feed with one-sided agendas that could “mislead the public.” John Thune, a top Republican senator, is asking that Facebook be taken before a congressional inquiry. On the other end, Facebook is being called the savior of contemporary news outlets. You can just see the week’s pile of op-eds can’t you?

Facebook made all the right PR moves. They denied the allegations and all public comments have welcomed ways to “bring our global community together.” Zuckerberg apparently had a sit-down with bigwig conservatives like Glenn Beck and Arthur Brooks and the Tea Party Patriots CEO. They apparently did some chummy storyboarding. Brent Bozell said it was a “very productive” meeting.

The major (and, in my opinion, understandable) concern with these editorial decisions is the dishonesty implicit in the kind of news Facebook purports to deliver. If Facebook promises to deliver “popular” or “trending” news, it should be algorithmic. If it promises to deliver its own flavor of the news—like, let’s be honest, any news organization these days—it can editorialize however it wants. But Facebook cannot promise to be an unbiased purveyor of stories and also be…human?



We’ve gone down this road before. A few years ago Eli Pariser wrote the book about it. How the internet age is providing us with the news we want, with the slant we want, about the topics we want. This sounds delightfully convenient, Pariser notes, until the news we need to hear is filtered from us. Often, the news we need to hear we do not want to hear. The filter bubble keeps us mathematically entrenched in our own circuitous self-interest stories.

Frank Bruni’s op-ed this weekend takes off from there to describe what he sees as a much more “ancient” conundrum, one not quite so easily foisted upon technology and Facebook. Instead, Bruni notes, with the help of our friend Jonathan Haidt, the “Facebook Effect” is the newest apogee of our inherent tribalism—we like being around people like us, people who think like us, people who fit our profile.

So it goes with the fiction we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to and, scarily, the ideas we subscribe to. They’re not challenged. They’re validated and reinforced. By bookmarking given blogs and personalizing social-media feeds, we customize the news we consume and the political beliefs we’re exposed to as never before. And this colors our days, or rather bleeds them of color, reducing them to a single hue.

We construct precisely contoured echo chambers of affirmation that turn conviction into zeal, passion into fury, disagreements with the other side into the demonization of it. Then we marvel at the Twitter mobs that swarm in defense of Sanders or the surreal success of Donald Trump’s candidacy, whose historical tagline may well be “All I know is what’s on the Internet.”alex-gregory-i-d-like-your-honest-unbiased-and-possibly-career-ending-opinion-on-some-new-yorker-cartoon

Those were his exact words, a blithe excuse for his mistaken assertion that a protester at one of his rallies had ties to Islamic extremists. He’d seen a video somewhere. He’d chosen to take it at face value. His intelligence wasn’t and isn’t vetted but viral — and conveniently suited to his argument and needs. With a creative or credulous enough Google search, a self-serving “truth” can always be found, along with a passel of supposed experts to vouch for it and a clique of fellow disciples.

Carnival barkers, conspiracy theories, willful bias and nasty partisanship aren’t anything new, and they haven’t reached unprecedented heights today. But what’s remarkable and sort of heartbreaking is the way they’re fed by what should be strides in our ability to educate ourselves. The proliferation of cable television networks and growth of the Internet promised to expand our worlds, not shrink them. Instead they’ve enhanced the speed and thoroughness with which we retreat into enclaves of the like-minded.

In other words, we do not want to be disciples and we never have wanted to be disciples, not to anything or to anyone—unless that discipleship serves our deeper, more innate craving for self-promotion. In an endless sea of edifying information, Facebook quickens the impulse we’ve always had: to bolster my evidence in my story of me. As The Onion so powerfully illustrated today, to so beautifully bolster the evidence I’m pushing in this post, “Man Forced To Venture Pretty Far Into Wilds Of Internet To Have Opinion Confirmed”:

VAIL, CO—Trekking well beyond the comfortable terrain of the first few pages of his Google search, local man Bruce Costas, 35, was reportedly forced to venture deep into the harsh wilds of the internet Wednesday to have his opinion confirmed by outside sources. Costas, who had fervidly espoused the opinion during a conversation earlier in the day, was said to have spent most of his evening slogging through a dense and oftentimes disorienting jungle of uncharted news sites, rarely visited blogs, and broken links in hopes of coming upon some hidden spring of affirmation, however small or isolated, that could corroborate his viewpoint. According to reports, the intrepid voyager only found what he had been seeking when he stumbled by chance onto a sparsely populated forum in the darkest, most desolate back country of the digital sphere, seven pages into the crumbling remains of an ancient message board thread. Sources confirmed that when he finally returned to the safe shelter of popular, mainstream websites, the conquering hero immediately trumpeted the triumphant news of his validated beliefs across every corner of his social networks.

This gets to the heart of the matter. An enclave of opinion may start with a tribe, but it ends with an individual expert—me. This is what the Bible says about human nature, and it is what we continue to find on Facebook news feeds. As much as it is heartbreaking, as much as it is trending, it is not news. On the contrary, the real news, the news that continues to be news, every time it is delivered, is the kind of truth we couldn’t have asked for (and wouldn’t have asked for), even if we knew it were possible. It continues to be the news we do not want to see.

In the Lectionary for church this Sunday, one of the readings is Galatians 1, wherein Paul reminds his readers that “there is no other Gospel.” He tells the Galatians that if anyone, even an angel from heaven, even Paul himself, delivers them a different message, it is fraudulent. The Gospel is singular—it does not change, and there is only one.

I wonder what the Galatians were hearing. Something new had come down the pipeline, something exciting, something that people could get behind. It seems to me that Paul is reminding them that there is nothing new, and that even this, which seems new now—it is often just another attempt to take your life back, to be an expert again. The true Gospel, the only Gospel, will always be an offense to this impulse, because your story—and all its affirming sources—is dead and gone. As Paul tells them later, “You have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer you who live.” For whatever reason, this always seems to be news.