Fake... News?

The phenomenon of pieces of information disseminated in the internet which cannot be substantiated or even openly contradict the facts, is growing. In common parlance, we call them "Fake News". The recent attack of Iran on American military bases in Iraq highlighted the issue in an unexpected way.

Iranian news quoted an Israeli Journalist, Jack Khouri, suposedly saying in a tweet that the casualties and wounded from the attack were evacuated to Israel. Since the Iranian News network is owned and controlled by the State, we can assume that there was an intention behind the quote. Jack Khouri made a public statement clarifying that he never tweeted what was attributed to him and that the whole quote was made up. One could entertain the hipotesis that the Iranian leaders were trying to make the attack look larger than it was, in an attempt to divert attention within Iran to the growing opposition they are facing.

The same idea of "inventing" news exist everywhere, including the US. It is generally used to undermine the credibility, prestige, or image of a particular group as a way of enhancing the credibility, prestige or image of one's own. There are plenty of "fake news" going around targeting President Trump, Bernie Sanders and many more political figures on both sides of the divide.

One of the reasons (not the only one) that "fake news" are possible is that there is no regulation or standards for News in the Internet. Any attempt to impose rules of conduct on the Internet would have to be a Global one, since the server for an English News site could very well be in China, Russia or Timbuktu. But some of the countries hosting servers (legal as well as "black") are benefitting financially from their existence - so they will hardly join in an effort to regulate them. What becomes more distressing is that, as the prevalence of electronic media over the printed one becomes more overwhelming, many in the written media start quoting these "fake news" as factual, and since they are quoting from another source they can get around the regulations under which normally the printed Media is suposed to operate. The result is a blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction - between factual events and events "tailored" to support a political agenda. What makes the whole thing more distressing is how the use of "fake news" is affecting society by promoting polarization.

Years ago, the Association of Teachers of the UK voted to suspend Holocaust Education in Great Britain. As the news started circulating, some enterprising individual decided to "clarify" the meaning of "UK" by adding between parenthesis "University of Kentucky", which is also known by the initials "UK". The result was a serious backlash against a University which, in fact, promoted the study of the Holocaust and has very good realtionships with the local Jewish community and Israeli Universities. I cannot even imagine what the agenda of the "enterprising individual" was, but I do know what the consequences were because at the time I was the Executive Director of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation in Lexington, where UK is located.

The idea of using news to discredit others is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as Humanity. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, better known as the "Chefetz Haiym", wrote a seminal book elaborating on the very old Jewish concept of "Lashon HaRah", sometimes (inaccurately) translated as "Gossiping". Lashon HaRah does not necessarily have an intentionality, but it does have consequences - sometimes intended and sometimes unintended. A probably somehow more accurate translation into English would be "iddle babbling" - the need to talk about people with or without knowledge of the subject being discussed; the need to use comments about other people as a way to connect with those around us. Yes, it does include gossiping as one of its manifestations - but it is more than that.

The Chefetz Chaiym (whose Yeshiva was in the shtetl my Grandfather was born in) talks about the consequences of Lashon HaRah and the ramifications of those consequences. It actually tells us that the act of Lashon HaRah damages not only the target of the comment but the commentator as well. He goes as far as to say that Lashon HaRah is as bad as murder because it may even lead to it. In 1995, inspired by Lashon HaRah spread by some Rabbinical figures about Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Amir decided he was justified to kill him.

Lashon HaRah is indeed used by people of all walks of life as a weapon. The consequences of using the weapon can go from undermining somebody else's position to encouraging murder - many times having consequences completely unintended by the commentator.

Autocratic regimes such as the one in Teheran, consciouly use "Lason HaRah" to promote a specific political agenda, but most of us use it just because it provides a topic of conversation to share with others...

We would be well advised to remember Egyptian poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), who wrote in one his poems "When the words leave your mouth, they are not your words anymore". The Rabbis' comments were most likely not intended to promote the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and our "enterprising individual" most likely did not intend to tarnish the reputation of a University; yet in both cases the comments took a life of their own creating unintended consequences.

An Argentinean popular saying states "Put your brain into gear before you let your tongue run"

 

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