Some of us must have by now heard about the phenomenon of “fake news” that has come so starkly to the fore in the recent presidential (not precedential) election. But based on what I read in print and online publications, including The Scoop, it would indicate that they must think it is happening somewhere else and is somehow not relevant to us in Lakewood.
The high-profile examples we all read about are the false reports of FBI agents mysteriously killed after exposing Hillary’s emails, various anti-black and Hispanic reports about Donald Trump and a slew of what used to be called wacko conspiracy nut content that never got a grip on society’s psyche. Recent (real) news reports have featured interviews with people who employ large numbers of writers in the pursuit of proliferating fake news to serve a number of conservative/liberal/anarchist/wacko objectives. Fake news is not some small backroom boiler operation. It has made the big time. Even Facebook has caved in and joined some coalition to try and combat it.
How could this happen, I thought. How could an otherwise largely intelligent populace drink heartily from this vat of cuckoo kool-aid on a whole range of topics? After all, real news is shocking enough to entertain and disturb us. Where is our healthy disbelief and cynicism to assist us in filtering truth from fiction, let along fiction that serves an insidious agenda?
Some of us may remember an early example of this phenomenon – early in the second intifada, there emerged the picture of an Arab father shielding his child, who was supposedly killed by Israeli gunfire moments after the photo was taken. French TV reported it and it spread like wildfire around the globe. The problem – the child wasn’t dead. It was staged (fake) news. Lapped up by reporters and a worldwide audience only too eager to accept the narrative offered, no one properly challenged it. Even the Israeli authorities, most likely based on its being reported by a reputable (to that point) journalistic source, initially apologized for the tragic event. This used to be known as propaganda, and it still should be. Examples of this are widespread and an almost accepted tool in opinion-shaping. Especially in an era where news sources wear their political and moral missions on their sleeves (Fox News, CNN etc.) many stories are at least tilted towards a preferred narrative. The days of objective reporting are long behind us and to think otherwise is foolhardy.
So, in the realm of propaganda, we know it is happening and we know we need to be cautious, and so by now, every story of Israeli excess or Palestinian craftiness is met with a counterforce of hasbarah and counter-propaganda and apologists galore to save us from the other side’s evil intentions. This is probably as good as it is going to get.
Even more concerning are the little items I have been noticing recently in our own community and here is where the insidiousness really poses a danger to our society. Setting aside any halachic issues (and there are many) with accepting the fake news as real, we are bombarded almost daily with fierce over the top attacks on individuals and institutions within our communities. The blogs, the print publications and the pashkevilin flow like a river of hate and blame for every ill we suffer. Busing problems, taxes, development, traffic, shul politics, and denigration of rabbonim, lay leaders and regular Joes alike; all the issues that affect anyone are broadcast with a conviction and accusations against individuals of intentional harm. Now, I don’t expect everyone to be able to control themselves when they feel personally aggrieved by someone/thing. Their hyperbolic diatribes, while unfortunate, are not shocking. What is shocking is how quick everyone else is to accept wholeheartedly this entire story as absolute truth. Where is that healthy cynicism? Where is the need for more probative data to support the claims? This is like the guy at the shul Kiddush who holds forth on all the hock of the day and everyone just assumes because he speaks with confidence and conviction that he must know what he is talking about. Well, in many cases, he hasn’t got a clue about the truth. He has as much reason to sell an opinion-shaping perspective as anyone else. We must do better, as individuals and as a community.
I don’t know whether editorial responsibility is the answer, as many of these blogs and even probably the print versions are loosely or barely monitored and controlled. And I am all for the ability of the common man to voice his concern about abuse of power, abuse of the weaker in our society and rooting out corruption wherever it lies and wherever it threatens the health of our society. I don’t know how much to expect from individuals exercising self-control, bombarded as we are with sound bites and videos and texts and blog postings, on topics from favorite recipes to the impending “end of the world as we know it”, on a daily basis.
Let’s face it – nothing is Fair and Balanced anymore, every input is from a perspective, if not always designed to sell that perspective to the reader/listener. So how do we filter all the input, how do we separate fact from fiction, germ of truth from hyperbole, character assassination from acts of self-preservation? How do we separate fake news from real, even in our own little town?
I am hoping someone out there has some good ideas.
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