In his book “Other People’s Money and How Bankers Use It,” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Shining a spotlight on an issue can expose and reveal corruption, dishonesty, or fraud that otherwise might go unnoticed, ignored, or even excused. Brandeis wrote these words before the Internet was a thought in anyone’s mind and he likely could not have even dreamt of the sunlight it would shine and the accountability it would generate.
The Internet can be credited with incredible progress, not only in disseminating information, advancing technology, and creating online communities, but also in promoting and protecting morality. Previously, reprehensible individuals got away with all kinds of abuse and damaging behavior because their victims were intimidated and afraid to speak up. Others who suspected inappropriate conduct had no forum to raise questions or to solicit information that would confirm their fears. The Internet provides an instant network and a shield of anonymity for those fearful of retribution or revenge.
The capacity for instant access to information also makes us better informed, allows us to think more critically, and empowers us to ask crucial questions that make us safer, healthier, and stronger. If you want to know more about your doctor’s education, read reviews of your landscaper, or see what your babysitter posts on Facebook, the endless information is now just a click away.
The Internet also gives a voice to those who otherwise might find themselves silenced. A rabbi whose books were banned by a segment of the community recently wrote:
“It’s almost impossible to overstate the effect that the Internet has had on the parameters of discourse in the frum community. This first became apparent to many people during the controversy over my books, when myself… and several others were able to publicly present a defense of the rationalist approach to Torah and science, and many people were able to voice their distress and fury with the ban. This put the other side in a panic. They were used to controlling the public discourse… which never allowed criticism to appear. They were not used to people being able to talk back and get their side of things across to the public. They can’t figure out how to operate in a world where everyone can make their views available to a public, which enables people to (hopefully) make intelligent choices as to which side is presenting correct conclusions.”
Brandeis was absolutely correct. Sunlight is indeed a great disinfectant. The Internet has sanitized our world in wonderful ways by holding people accountable for their behavior, choices, actions, positions and writings. But what Brandeis didn’t mention is that unfiltered sunlight can also be harmful, toxic, and cause cancer.
There has never been a greater vehicle to disseminate lashon ha’rah, gossip and slander, than the Internet. Lives have literally been destroyed from false accusations, innuendo, distortions, and untruths. Once upon a time thoughts, ideas and opinions were only printed if they had merit and were deemed worthy and carefully screened by a publisher. Journalists had to vet their stories and fact checkers confirmed all assertions before an article went to print. Authors gained credibility and readership based on their education, expertise, experience, and peer review.
Today, anyone with Internet access can publish his or her ideas and opinions and even his or her version of facts with no expertise or credentials and with no consequence or accountability. Readership and popularity are often a function of salaciousness and sensationalism, not of truth and accuracy.
The Internet is the ultimate realization of truly free speech. However, is truly free speech a Jewish value? Yes, we subscribe to the American ideal of free speech and believe in not stifling conversation, debate, or freedom. But at the same time, the Torah clearly mandates that our speech not be totally free and that we regulate carefully what comes out of our mouths. Rav Yisroel Salanter says that last week’s parsha, Tazria, which deals with the consequences of speaking lashon ha’rah, comes immediately after Shemini, which focuses on the laws of kashrus, in order to emphasize that we should be as careful with what comes out of our mouth as we are with what goes in it.
We are enjoined from spreading gossip or hurtful words, even if they are true. We are prohibited from revealing secrets and are forbidden from repeating information unless we have explicit permission to do so. We are obligated to judge favorably and to give the benefit of the doubt. We are warned not to plagiarize and instead to give credit where it is due.
Yet, somehow for many Jewish and Orthodox bloggers and social media users, these rules that we accept must regulate our speech in person, have seemingly been put to the side when it comes to the Internet and the web. Sitting at our computer, or typing on our iPad or Smartphone, gives a false sense of insignificance to the spontaneous comment we share. However, in some ways those comments are even more significant than what we say. What we type becomes part of the permanent record and can be read by thousands around the world. Would we say the same thing, in the same way, if we were standing in front of a room full of people? Would we express the sarcasm, cynicism, snarky observation, narcissistic self-absorption, or hyper criticism before a live audience of friends, acquaintances, and strangers?
Shlomo Ha’Melech, the wisest of all men wrote in Mishlei (18), “maves v’chaim b’yad lashon, death and life are in the hand of the tongue.” Perhaps his wisdom can be emended today to read death and life are in our fingertips on the keyboard. Not everything appearing in our inbox or on our Facebook timeline are authoritative or even true. Just because someone rants about a bad meal or poor service he had at a restaurant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it out. Just because someone got her thoughts posted to The Huffington Post, or even The Times of Israel doesn’t mean she is a journalist, the definitive position, or even a reliable perspective at all.
Last summer, one of my young daughters asked me one day, “Abba, what is a blog?” I was very taken aback and asked her where she heard that term. She explained that she overheard people at Shul talking about blogs and what they are saying about the Rabbi.
I know firsthand what it is like to read outright and explicit lies about yourself and I can tell you that what hurts is not that some coward hiding behind anonymity, even with a noble agenda, posts an outright lie. What hurts is knowing that many of the people reading it set aside their personal history, experience, and knowledge of you and accept what is written, because, hey, if it is on the Internet, it must be true.
The burden of making sure that the Internet functions as a disinfectant and not as a toxin is on the readers and consumers of its content. We must be judicious, careful, and extremely vigilant, not only in what we write, but in how we process and accept what we read.
To be clear, I believe that bloggers who have exposed perpetrators of scandalous and heinous behavior—and those who support them—have done a great service to society. We owe them a debt of gratitude for demanding accountability from the perpetrators and our communities and from our leaders. They deserve our encouragement to continue to bring bad people and those who are sympathetic to them to light and to demand explanations, apologies and consequences when appropriate.
But anonymity must be used only as a last resort. It steals from the reader the ability to evaluate the contents in light of its author. Is he credible? Does he have any expertise or experience related to his topic? Does he possibly have a self-serving motive or an agenda? Has he been accurate and trustworthy in the past, or known to spread lies? How can I confront him and challenge him to defend his statements if I do not know who he is? What consequences does he or she suffer as a result of being slanderous or relaying inaccurate information?
The pasuk in Shoftim says, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you puruse.” The Midrash quotes our Rabbis who encourage us to read it, tzedek b’tzedek tirdof. Pursue justice, but only in just ways. We must demand that in the pursuit of their often just causes, bloggers not lose sight of justice. When anonymity is necessary, it must be used to have the courage to expose corruption, not to provide the vehicle to cowardly spread lies and falsehoods.
Just as the laws of lashon harah are incumbent not only on the speaker, but the listener who enables them, so too, there is a great obligation not only on bloggers and social media posters, but on all of us who regularly tune in to “listen” to them as well.
Are anonymous bloggers cowards or courageous heroes? It depends on the veracity as well as the agenda of what they write. It is up to us to be thoughtful and exceedingly careful in applauding those who have done society a courageous service, while making clear that we won’t tolerate cowards who simply spread slander.