Fake news: where it all be­gan

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Letters To The Editor - — YONI

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.

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