How Confident Are You That What You Are Reading is True?
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, fraud or abuse that otherwise might go unnoticed, ignored, or even excused. Brandeis wrote these words well 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 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 child’s teacher posts on Facebook, the endless information is now just a click away.
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 been literally destroyed because of 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. While the system wasn’t perfect, the result was 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 truth and accuracy.
In his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Thomas M. Nichols elucidates this concept: People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.
All of this places an enormous burden on us, the readers and consumers of information, to be vigilant and judicious before blindly accepting everything we come across in print, online, or in person. Especially in the information age, we must ask ourselves, who is the author or speaker of these words? What authority or credibility do they have? How does what they are saying match up with what I know about the person, place, or issue being discussed? Is there another side to this story? Do I have all the facts and information to draw a conclusion?
This week’s Parsha contains the instruction – mi’dvar sheker tirchak, distance yourself from falsehood. The Gemara (Shabbos 55a) tells us that God’s signature, his insignia, is emes, truth. To be Godly and God-like one must have ferocious loyalty and fidelity to the truth. Exaggerating, distorting and bending the truth distance us and alienate us from the Almighty.
The great Chassidishe Rebbe, Rebbe Zushia explains the verse, “Mi’dvar sheker tirchak” as: Mi’dvar sheker – as a result of lies and falsehood, tirchak – you will become distant from Hashem. To be close with and in the footsteps of God, truth must be our stamp and our signature.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 74) writes that the Torah does not include the obligation to “distance” ourselves when it comes to any other mitzvah or law. When it comes to lying, it isn’t enough to be committed to the truth and devoted to never lying, but one must distance themselves completely from lies and from liars. He writes that not only is the one who lies accountable, but the one who listens to lies, who provides a platform, or who explicitly or implicitly allows the liar to spread his or her lies, is also answerable.
The Chinuch speaks in strong terms about one who lies: “Falsehood is abominable and disgraceful in everyone’s eyes, there is nothing more disgusting than it, and curses come to the home of those who love it. Therefore the Torah exhorts us to greatly distance ourselves from falsehood, as it says, ’distance yourself from falsehood.’”
Shlomo HaMelech, 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 amended 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 his or her thoughts posted to The Huffington Post or The Times of Israel doesn’t mean he or she is a journalist or someone with a command of facts, the definitive position, or even a reliable perspective at all.
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 as importantly, in how we process and accept what we read.