The Dharma of Facebook: Fake News Is Downstream of Facebook’s True Purpose.

The “News Feed” on Facebook is a misnomer.

Yes, “news” does make up the content, either produced by an organization or individual, but the spirit of the “news feed” is actually fleeting glances into people’s personalities and values.


When I see content shared by a friend, I am not first learning about the world, I am primarily learning about my friend. Facts don’t matter. Truth does. Tim’s truth. Tim’s view of the world. He is sharing it. His truth may be based on facts. It might not be. But that doesn’t matter, because Facebook is not designed to be a source of facts or news, it is designed to be a social setting where personal identity, values and truths are shared.

Media is the clay of your identity, your truth.

This is at the heart of the social distribution strategy that has raged through the journalism industry over the last few years. The secret to Buzzfeed and other “viral” content is that the stories aren’t written for an initial audience, they are written for that audience’s friends.

The headline isn’t meant to inform somebody about the world. The headline is a tool to be used by a person to inform others about who they are. “This is me” they say when they share that headline. “This is what I believe. This shows what tribe I belong to.”

It is virtue signaling. It is truth telling about you. It is an opportunity to have water cooler talk at scale. We construct a digital identity on Facebook, because that is what the platform is designed to do. All acts center around identity creation and networking. The entire news industry changed its strategy to accommodate this practice.

And now that industry is confused because it finds itself competing with fake content…. which does the job of virtue signaling, truth telling (different from facts) and identity creation even better.

News can be social. But social can’t be news.

Digg, Reddit and others are “social news sites.” News is at the center of the community. Identity comes second and in relation to news. The “front page” of the old Digg or any Subreddit is a communal value. The communal value is related entirely to news and information. Communities like these have a self-correcting mechanism for facts and a respect for nuanced truth (even if a truth cannot be known, there is an aspiration for truth through comments, argumentation, etc. It is not designed to be futile like changing somebody’s identity might be).

There is a way to make news social. Most examples we’ve seen of it require a socially constructed shared experience. Think Wikipedia.

So news can be social, but can social become a hook around which we get the news?

Every platform has a Dharma in its design. All code is political and destiny.

If you were to take Twitter and Facebook as they are now and drop them into an alien culture with our level of intellect, the same problems would arise. Facebook will have fake content rise to the top, and Twitter will have fake personalities. The problems are inherent. Or perhaps, they aren’t problems at all. They are a result of intentional decisions made to achieve other goals.

There is more to human nature…….

I do not view this problem in a vacuum. It is not new. It is not going away (although it may subside post-election…..maybe) and it is not an easy problem. I fear most of the conversation in the past two weeks are hacking at branches, not roots.

Even this post at its most ambitious is only going further up the branch, suggesting FB’s purpose or design problems are upstream of fake news.

But perhaps there is something even more inherent. Not to a software platform, but to the human software of our brains.

I’ve written before about a tension between Truth and Fact. I keep coming back to it in my mind.

There is this belief that if only the facts rose to the top like cream, everyone would be able to agree. But I think that’s too rosey a picture.

Peter Thiel said it best to the press club: He said the media always has taken Trump literally. It never takes him seriously. It’s quite the opposite for Trump voters, argued Thiel:

“I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’ ”

Trump is speaking “truth” even if he isn’t speaking “facts.” The entire criticism lobbed at the “mainstream media” from Trump’s campaign has been about not telling the “truth” even if being “factual.”

Humans are tribal and in the last generation or two we’ve turned political ideologies into tribes. We’ve combined identity with political beliefs. Beliefs used to be malleable. Identity is a much tougher thing to bend. When the two are fused, you end up with dangerous totalitarian beliefs on both the political right and left. This is dangerous. Perhaps Facebook is the least of our worries.

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