Have you ever been reading your social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) and run across something so AWFUL, so unspeakably DREADFUL, that you felt THIS INFORMATION MUST BE OUT THERE NOW! so you hit “Share” or “RT” or “Forward” to make sure all your followers can read it?

or

Have you ever been reading your social media and run across something so FUNNY, so completely HYSTERICAL, that you agreed MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO LOVE THIS! and you hit “Share” or “RT” or “Forward” so that all your friends could enjoy it?

I think most of us have done one of these. It’s only human to want to do something about bad behavior or a danger. It’s also human to want to amuse our friends. However, we need to be careful that in doing so we do not make lashon harah, evil speech, which our tradition sees as one of the great evils in the world.

Lashon harah prohibits the use of speech to say anything negative or derogatory about another person, even if it is the truth. To fully observe this commandment, according to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, we should avoid speaking unnecessarily about another person, even in a positive way, because we don’t know what repercussions our speech may have.

There is an exception to this rule: we can say negative things about another if those things are true, but only if our silence would result in injury or severe loss to another person.

All of this makes social media very worrisome. How can I use this wonderful tool without engaging in lashon hara?  I like to use a very simple little tool, three questions:

  1. Is it TRUE? – Could I prove it if I needed to do so? What is my evidence?
  2. Is it NECESSARY that I repeat it? – What are the consequences of not repeating it? Will there be injury, significant loss, or death?
  3. Is it KIND? – Could someone be hurt by my speech, including but not limited to innocent bystanders? Does the necessity of repeating the words outweigh any possible hurt to the persons potentially injured?

If something passes these three questions with a yes, then I can say it (or forward it, or RT it.) If not, I must refrain.

A terrible example recently has been circulating around the world. People have been worrying on social media that terrorists are infiltrating Europe among the refugees. A recent article in the L.A. Times addressed the issue, and thoroughly debunks the theory, pointing out that ISIS and other groups have many easier ways to get to Europe than to suffer with the refugees. So those who have repeated this meme, “Are terrorists infiltrating among the refugees?” have repeated a lie, which will do infinite damage to those poor refugees who have already suffered much. And yes, lashon hara can take the form of a question, if it raises doubts about the good reputation of another. “I was just speculating!” is no excuse at all.

Remember: Lashon harah is a Jewish concept, not US civil law.  In US civil law, truth makes any speech ok, and the standards are lower for speech about public figures. Jewish tradition demands a higher standard. “Is it true” is only the first question we ask.

What about exposing wrongdoing, or public protest? Both of those can be done without making lashon hara. If speech is both true and necessary, and the good will outweigh the suffering it will cause, then speak! We may not stand silent while our neighbor bleeds.

Social media is particularly potent speech because it travels so far, so fast. Careless use of it has ruined reputations, destroyed careers, enflamed violence. We need to be careful in using such a powerful tool.

What is your experience with the power of social media? Do you have personal rules for its use?