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?
The Torah instructs us - 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 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.
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.
There is another danger of non-judicious consumption of what is available on the internet. Even when what is being reported is true, is it our business, do we need to know, will the knowledge help us or hurt others? The craving for salacious details and the appetite to know the story emanates from a terribly unhealthy sense of nosiness, inquisitiveness and our insatiable need to be in the know.
This phenomenon expresses itself in many scenarios. When some hear about a couple getting divorced, their first response is “what happened?” as if they are entitled to a report about the most personal and private details of a couple and often children going through a difficult time. Many pay a shiva call and feel a need to ask, “How did he or she die?” Certainly the mourner is free to volunteer the cause of death if they like, but is it really our business and do we truly need to know? When we ask, “Why did he lose his job?” or “why did they break their engagement?” or “why is she still single?” are we asking because we care about them, or is finding out somehow satisfying something in ourselves?
For some, the “need to know” stems from a sense of “information is power.” Information is social currency and the more we know, the richer and more powerful we are. For others, the “need to know” stems from an inability to live with tension or mystery. And yet, for others, the “need to know” is similar to whatever draws us to slow down and look at the accident on the highway even though it has nothing to do with us at all and only creates traffic for others.
The Torah places great value on people’s right to privacy. Jewish law demands that we conduct ourselves with the presumption that all that we are told even in pedestrian conversation is to be held in confidence unless it is explicitly articulated that we are free to repeat what we heard. The laws of hezek re’iyah forbid a person from looking into his or her neighbor’s property in a way that violates their privacy. We are instructed not to speak lashon ha’rah or rechilus and spread gossip, even if the information is absolutely true and entirely accurate. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 23b) goes so far as to tell us that we are permitted to distort the truth in circumstances that someone is prying for information that is none of their business and that they are not entitled to have.
Certainly the internet can be a great resource and blessing in our lives but the burden is on us to remain vigilant not to assume everything we read is true, or to read even things that are true, just because they are available to us.