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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת משפטים, תש״פ

Parshat Mishpatim, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

Weeding Out Fake News

No matter which section of the political spectrum we inhabit, in today’s media-driven world, we all fear the call of FAKE NEWS! When we are scrolling online, it is too easy for our eyes to attach to a radically disturbing or triumphant news article that perfectly fits our views on the world. It is too easy to click that “share” or “forward” button before reading the full article. And at the same time, it is too easy for us to label information we wish was not true as a detestable specimen of “fake news.” Along with trustworthy news sources, the Internet now houses websites focused on satire, and those that are more assiduous, websites that aim to look authentic but put forth disinformation that supports specific agendas.

God begs us in Parshat Mishpatim: Mid’var sheker tirhak - You shall distance yourself from falsehood (Exodus 23:7). Distancing ourselves from falsehood is different from what we learn in the Ten Commandments, part of last week’s Torah portion. In the Ten Commandments, we learn: Lo ta’aneh b’reakha eid sheker - You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:13). This ninth out of ten commandments forbids us from lying about something we once witnessed. And distancing ourselves from falsehood is different from what we will learn in Leviticus: V’lo t’shakru ish b’amito - And you shall not deal falsely with each other (Leviticus 19:12). In this excerpt from Parashat Kedoshim, our Torah implores us not to perform deeds dishonestly. In Parashat Kedoshim, God asks us to do what we promise, to run our businesses with integrity, and to practice transparency in our actions.

When God asks us in Parashat Mishpatim, our parsha today, to distance ourselves from falsehood, God asks us not just to speak and act truthfully, but also, to stay away from dishonest sources and information. God knows, the more we come in contact with lies, the more we internalize those messages. The more we share disinformation, even disinformation that we did not create, the more those who trust us are misled. Essentially, when God asks, midvar sheker tirhak, God asks us to stay far, far away from what we now call Fake News.

In the Jewish tradition, we are taught from a young age the importance of knowledge and the importance of activism. Today, we are struck by the challenge of staying knowledgeable and active, while we know that some of the sources we read may not be fully accurate. But that fear of fake news need not be so pervasive. We have methods and resources to identify the trust we can hold in the information we read.

One simple place to start when reading anything online is to read past the headline. Often, headlines either do not actually describe what is in the article or are written in a way to deliberately inflame the readers sensibilities. When you read past the headline, you may find information that immediately seems questionable or typos that show the unprofessional nature of your news source.

With regards to the source of your news itself, make sure that the articles you read come from news sources you trust. If you are ever hesitant about the truth of a news article, you can Google search to see if that piece of news shows up anywhere on any other sites (here’s a hint: it should). You can also click any news website’s About page or use Google to find information on the website. To keep informed, it is always best to read multiple news sources and even better to read news sources that tend to slant in a variety of social and political directions. By reading multiple articles on the same subject, you can discover truth through factual consistency.

Whenever you read an article online, it is important to keep in mind a few very basic rules for authenticity. First, each news article you read should have the author and date clearly listed. Second, too many banners or pop-ups are not a good sign for trustworthiness. Third, make sure your article cites its sources; any links within the article should work. And fourth, if the picture looks like it was photoshopped or grabbed from a Google image search, do your research before trusting it! There are several websites you can use to reverse search an image, meaning that if you copy and paste a picture, you will be able to find where it was originally posted online.

At this point, I do want to share that I read some of these tips on a HuffPost article written in 2016, by Nick Robins-Early. As the authenticity and bias of articles on the HuffPost can sometimes vary depending on the author, I checked my sources before I felt ready to share this d’var Torah with you.

Ultimately, plenty of trustworthy news sources exist for those with any combination of political and social interests. Experiment with those you find compelling, and choose a few to rely on for your daily updates. When you find an article that incites extreme emotion, check yourself before you post or email or otherwise share. I have come to learn in this community that we are a group of people who are passionate about what we believe. We have a thirst for both taking in and disseminating knowledge. Let us make sure that when we are reading and sharing, we are doing so with full integrity. Especially in the midst of an election year, let us embrace the commandment mid’var sheker tirhak. Let us carefully and deliberately distance ourselves from falsehood. Shabbat Shalom.