News v Gossip: Let There Be Light

Image: Hands with smartphone, the word “NEWS.” Art by geralt at Public Domain.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. – Gen 1:3

In the Creation story, God uses words to create the world and almost everything in it. Only human beings are different; God uses his hands to make them.

This story in Torah is about many things, but one of the most important to Jews is that words are immensely powerful. Words create worlds.

Today I read about a case of words creating worlds that shocked me to my core. This story by Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post reports:

Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years.

Let that sink in. “Fake-news.” “Fake-news empire.” He has made his living for years selling something he calls fake news.

I’m reading messages on Facebook, and I see a link for a story: “Donald Trump wins popular vote!” If I’m a Trump supporter, I think, “Wow! this is great!” and I click for the story. If I was a Clinton supporter in the election, I think, “Wait, that can’t be right!” and I click for the story. Either way, I read the story and I see all the ads that come with it. Paul Horner makes money. Cha-ching.

This example comes from an article on this phenomenon by Madison Malone Kircher. She includes a link to a list of fake-news sources, and I strongly recommend that you take a look.

OK, so this is very bad. A guy writes lies, labels and markets those lies as News, and markets them to people on the Internet, making his money on ad sales. It’s legal, but it’s also wrong by any moral code I know, and reprehensible according to Jewish tradition.

But it gets worse.

In the interview in the Washington Post, Paul Horner brags that “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.” He outlines exactly how he made up stories and planted evidence to support those stories. He talks scornfully about people who take his stories as truth and never fact-check them, sending them along to others. Note that he wasn’t a Trump supporter – he just thought it was funny to fool Trump supporters. He appears to have soothed his conscience about this by characterizing his writing as satire.

Paul Horner creates worlds with his words. He does not do this alone: he has thousands and thousands of helpers, people who blindly click on headlines, accept articles from websites they know nothing about and send links along to their friends, who trust those words because they came from a friend. They post the links to Twitter and Snapchat. The lies spread like a virus.

And Paul Horner isn’t the only one. Paul Horner is the representative of an industry. To learn what sites not to trust, sites that pride themselves on clickable headlines and viral lies, see this list.

According to Jewish tradition, gossip is a sin. Listening to “news” of unknown reliability and repeating those words, those fall under the heading of rechilut, listening to or spreading gossip.

I confess I’ve clicked on some headlines like that.  I confess that I’ve read the articles, been shocked, once or twice tweeted them.  I (naively) believed that things labeled “news” that seemed possible to me were actual reportage of facts, and I spread those lies by sending the links to others. Chatati – I sinned.

Teshuvah is a process for recovery from a sin. I have realized my sin. I take responsibility for it – I didn’t always check to see if the source was reputable. I’m deeply sorry I did that (and I did know better, because usually I do check to see if a reputable journalist wrote it.) Now for the hard part: a plan to make sure this never happens again.

Tempting as it is to get news from Twitter and Facebook, from now on, I get my news from journalists and nowhere else. I am an online subscriber to the WaPo, the LATimes, the NY Times, and my local news organizations. Sure, I may follow breaking news on Twitter, getting first-hand reports from eyewitnesses, but I will always remember that those witnesses are not journalists. Real journalists are bound by a code of ethics, and when they are caught breaking that code, there are consequences. While there are bad apples in every bin, most journos are trying to find the truth and tell it, and they stake their professional reputations on their words.

News from a professional journalist can be relied on as news. Later facts may change the way we interpret the news, but if one of those journalists is caught in a lie, much less spreading lies for profit, that’s the end of their time at a respectable institution. Also, notice that politicians of all stripes dislike the big newspapers – real journalism annoys ideologues on the left AND the right. If a politician seems chummy with a news organization, something is wrong.

Paul Horner and his ilk are not professional journalists. They don’t even pretend to be journalists. Their excuse is that they are making jokes. In my world, unless their words come with a recognizable label (like The Onion, for instance) it’s a sinful use of words. When we pass along clickbait, we become complicit in the sin.