When internet use was first becoming popular, there was much concern about exposing children to illicit content. That concern has evolved into a real fear, after so many children and adults have had their lives ruined by addiction to this negative activity. As a result, rabbinic bans have been invoked, filtering systems have been designed, and meetings have been held, all to try to get a handle on this difficult problem. Some have called for teaching responsible internet practice. After all, the internet is here to stay and is rapidly becoming a necessity in everyday life.
This entire discussion is predicated on defining the problem of the internet as leading to destructive behavior. The issue, however, is far more insidious, and we haven’t even begun to understand it.
Over a decade ago, one of my children came home from yeshivah with the following story. The rebbi had a standing weekly assignment for a talmid to present a dvar Torah on the parashah to the class. That week, the designated talmid read a dvar Torah that he had found on the internet. It didn’t take long for the rebbi to realize that the talmid was reciting pure kefirah and he stopped the presentation. Upon investigation, it turned out that the unwitting boy had found the “dvar Torah” on a Conservative Jewish website (that was not marked as such) and was not sophisticated enough to realize that the article was problematic. I remember thinking at the time: How could this have been avoided? Could we develop a filter that would block anything hashkafically incorrect?
I think the most insidious problem of the internet is the misinformation, innuendo and outright falsehood that are packaged as truth, indiscernible from legitimate information. Because of the new social media, even false statements are propelled into the blogosphere and then often quoted by legitimate sources, gaining even more credence. People then act on them, no matter how outrageous they may be. Witness the recent shooting in a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., by a crazed young man who believed the ridiculous story that Hillary Clinton was running an illicit endeavor from the backroom of that pizza shop. Even more amazingly, the authors of this absurd claim still perpetuate it, arguing that there is no definitive proof that it isn’t true.
The proliferation of “fake news” websites is quite scary. Names like Mark Dice and Alex Jones spew paranoiac conspiracy theories with no basis in fact. Donald Trump was interviewed by Alex Jones on his website during the primaries and Trump lauded him for his positive contributions to the campaign. Alex Jones claims that the president-elect called him on election night to thank him for his efforts in getting Trump elected.
In addition to ideologically-based fake news, there are fake news websites that openly admit that their news stories are fictional. Jestin Coler owns a company called Disinfomedia which operates several fake news websites. In an NPR story, Coler said, “The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.” One notable fake story from Coler’s site that claimed that people in Colorado were using food stamps to purchase newly legalized marijuana, led to legislation being introduced in the Colorado State Legislature. Another, that the FBI agent who leaked Clinton’s e-mails was killed, received 1.6 million hits. Coler owns many fake news sites and employs more than 20 writers. In the NPR story, Coler reports that others in the business make $10,000 to $30,000 a month and says that generally applies to him as well. The Wall Street Journal reports that ads from well-known companies often appear on fake news websites, and are inadvertently funding them.
What does this mean for us? Unfortunately, we are not immune from falling for fake news. Much of it was repeated in Jewish publications blogs and websites during the election. We have to give serious thought to guiding our community on dealing with the new realities of social media and fake news. Certainly, we must become more sophisticated consumers of information, especially digital information.
More importantly, we have to recognize our strong and unique mesorah in this area. The detailed laws of lashon hara don’t only apply to the telephone or the Shabbos table. They also apply to the internet. Hiding behind the anonymity of a screen name, blog or website does not exempt anyone from these halachos no matter what societal norms are. Reading such posts or blogs is just as forbidden as writing them, not to mention forwarding them to others. And speaking of forwarding, many of the jokes, cartoons and other “interesting“ material that is sent around without much thought, may involve additional prohibitions such as “leitzanus” or “nibbul peh.” There is no digital heter for internet or journalistic activity (kudos to those Jewish publications that take these halachos seriously).
While we often condemn the media for being untruthful, we must be true to our more stringent standards of emes. Our Torah teaches us to go way beyond current societal concerns about “fake news.” Kedushas Yisrael demands more from us. It’s time we started living up to it.