Fake news: where it all began
The first recorded incident of fake news may very well be the biblical story of the meraglim, the 12 spies, one from each of the Israelite tribes, sent by Moses on a reconnaissance trip to the land of Canaan.
As recounted in Chapter 13 of the Book of Numbers, the meraglim returned with bad news. “And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’”
The Israelites responded to the spies’ bleak report with nothing short of despondence. “And all the congregation lifted up their voice and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or would we had died in this wilderness.’”
Ultimately, the nation was sentenced to walk the desert for 40 years. Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who dissented from the majority report on Canaan, would be the only two of the desert generation to ever set foot in the Land of Israel.
The story of the meraglim seems especially meaningful these days. The spies, entrusted with the task of reporting objectively, lied, and the result was a national tragedy. Likewise, during the U.S. presidential campaign, fake news abounded, and the result was an electorate confused about what to believe and distrustful of the media in general.
Social media spread false stories throughout the campaign, including a report that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Weeks before the inauguration, an online outlet uploaded an entire dossier of salacious but unverified allegations about the new president. On Sunday, Trump’s senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, disputed reports about the low turnout at the inauguration, citing what she termed “alternative facts.”
In its current usage, “fake news” appears to mean at least two different things. It may refer to outright lies and unverifiable allegations – like the Pope endorsement story and the Trump dossier. Or it can indicate a reader’s skepticism about a news story’s perspective – as in, “I don’t like your point of view; therefore, it must be fake.”
We would likely all agree that the former classification has to be rooted out before too much damage is done. But when it comes to the latter category, it is important to make a distinction between fact and opinion. Here, the media and readers are equally responsible. Journalists have a responsibility to search for truth among the allegations, outright lies and partisan bickering, and readers would do well to not immediately dismiss anything and everything that does not fit with their particular worldviews. The story of the meraglim indicates the dangers we all face if we fail to rein in fake news.