Hate, Truth and Freedom of Expression in the Age of Social Media

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 17, 2020 / 20 Tevet 5780

This weekend commemorates the legacy of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many events are happening around town. One of Neveh Shalom’s interfaith partners is Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church (3138 N Vancouver Ave, Portland, OR 97227). On Sunday January 19, at 2-4 pm, there will be a special ecumenical service: Empower the Dream Ecumenical Service.

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Miles Davis, who is the president of Linfield College.

While I have a previous commitment to the Portland Area Jewish Educator’s Day of Learning, this would be a meaningful opportunity for those who are free.

Summary: After numerous area rabbis’ emails were hacked this week, it seemed a good opportunity to discuss social media. While these platforms offer us many benefits, they also are responsible for much of the polarization we see at large. They are powerful channels for hate in general and antisemitism in particular. What do some Jewish thinkers have to say about this? What do we think? Are there solutions?

Earlier this week, my email was hacked. So were the emails of several other local rabbis and numerous rabbis across the country. More accurately, my email was impersonated, with a new email that looked sufficiently like the Neveh Shalom address.

In this phishing scheme, those who responded were asked to purchase some eBay cards, then send me the photograph of the rear of the card so that I could provide assistance to a number of very ill congregants. Let me state clearly for the record, I would never ask for help supporting congregants in need in this way.

I doubt any of us feels good when our identities are forged in the above manner, even though it’s a common complaint from which many of us suffer.

Most of us have at one time or another received notification that a rich Nigerian has died and left a small fortune. All we need to do is share our banking details with them and the money will be ours. That approach uses human greed, and our magical thinking that maybe, just maybe, we have won the lottery and will receive a windfall from someone we’ve never met. Maybe this older phishing expedition never bothered me because it seems kind of obvious.

What happened this past week was more disturbing as it preyed on our compassion and our commendable desire to help others. Such plots, when successful, undermine the foundation of trust on which human interactions and society depend.

While a phishing scheme does damage the social fabric, it doesn’t do so in the most noxious of ways. It’s an annoyance, and occasionally, when we have let our guard down, it might even cost us a few dollars. Yet such activity is part and parcel of far more severe challenges posed by social media.

The topic of social media, trust, freedom of speech and hate speech has been on the minds of many. Clearly, social media offers many benefits to society, even as we don’t have clear guidelines on how or whether to regulate it. Simultaneously, hate speech, antisemitism and hate groups have all found a welcome home on line and an easy way to multiply their impact and the harm they cause. As the incidence of hate crimes spikes, we ought to pay greater attention. Our safety and that of other minorities is definitely tied in to this; Judaism also has a great deal to say about proper speech which is more about ethics, personal conduct and the good society.

Two notable Jews have weighed in on the issue, taking very different stances. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, not surprisingly, sees primarily the benefit of social media, downplays the risks, and argues strongly that his industry—and the fortune he’s made from it—should not be regulated. You can find his October Georgetown talk here.

Then in December, Sacha Baron Cohen, the English actor and comedian, gave a major address at the Anti Defamation League. He challenged Zuckerberg, and outlined the very real dangers social media poses to tolerance, freedom and democracy. Here is a link to his video.

It is interesting—each of them is arguing for freedom, democracy and inclusion. Each makes strong arguments. Zuckerberg believes that society advances when everyone has a voice and there is greater inclusion. Even though these values may be abused, the benefits they offer outweigh any unintentional harm. Sounds good.

Sacha Baron Cohen believes that facts are real, that democracy depends on a shared notion of truth and that the obverse has always benefitted demagogues and totalitarian leaders. Freedom of speech, he argues, is not an end, but the means to freedom. When elections can be hacked and the mob riled up to do terrible things, all good people ought to take notice because the purpose of free expression has then been undermined.

He makes an additional profound point that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach—a bigot is and ought to be free to spew their vile thoughts. But that doesn’t mean that society needs to provide a private platform that reaches billions for such racists and bigots to amplify their lies. This also sounds correct.

The meaningful contradiction between the stances of Zuckerberg and Cohen is important and germane to our lives. Speech and communication are fundamental tools of ethics and morality. How we use them influences our moral actions. It affects how we raise our children and the tenor of public discourse. Personally, I am deeply disturbed at where we are as a nation, believe we can do better, and know that Judaism has something valuable to add to this conversation.

Given the centrality of this concern to our age, our 12th Graders in Tichon recently held a fruitful dialogue about social media. While we didn’t reach any conclusions, we did something better—we generated a set of compelling questions to further our thinking. You’ll find some of those questions in Shabbat Table Talk, below.

Before that, here is a book recommendation penned by a well-regarded scholar at Yeshivah University, Daniel Z. Feldman. Entitled “False Facts and True Rumors: Lashon HaRa in Contemporary Culture,” the author takes a good stab at providing an analytical Jewish lens on proper speech in an interconnected world. I’ve only just begun to thumb through and scan it, and it is a good faith effort to connect our traditional sources with the difficulties of navigating on-line life.

Whether that book or another, I hope that this winter you will invest some time in learning, reading and thinking more about this issue.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  • Is hate speech free speech?
  • In what ways does anonymity heighten irresponsibility?
  • If we are to censor social media platforms, who gets to decide what is censored?
  • Similarly, who decides what is true?
  • We are supposed to have freedom of speech in public forums. Is anonymity a public forum? Why or why not?
  • Should mass scale platforms, such as FB, have different standards of truth and trust because of their reach?
  • Has the normalization of anonymous hate on social media given rise to the increase in hate crimes?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week