Fake news and false information: How can we identify it?
In Parashat Shoftim, God establishes a procedure for determining the authenticity of prophets.
This process, says Rabbi Chaya Rowan Baker, coordinator of practical rabbinics at The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, can help us understand and address the challenging problem of sorting truth from falsehood.
Truth is revealed only over time so we must continually re-evaluate information and adjust our positions as new details emerge.
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We live in a world full of information. Some of it is reliable and helpful; some is false and detrimental, whether intentionally or unintentionally. As consumers of that information, what tools do we have to determine its reliability?
This week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, deals with governing systems: Judicial, enforcement, Levite and Priestly leadership, kingship, army, and the institution of future legal systems unpredictable by the reader.
Among the details of all these systems lies the issue of false information and how it can be identified as such. God tells us there will be a system of prophets.
“I will put my word in the mouth of your prophet and he will speak to you my word. But beware: there will also be prophets who will deceitfully speak in my name that which I have not spoken or they will speak in the name of other gods and lead you astray.”
These prophets, says God in our parasha, are false prophets and they are worthy of death.
But…how shall we know the difference between true and false prophets? How will you know, asks God? It’s very simple:
“.אשר ידבר הנביא בשם ה’ ולא יהיה הדבר ולא יבוא – הוא הדבר, אשר לא דברו ה’; בזדון דיברוֹ הנביא, לא תגור ממנו”
When a prophet speaks in the name of God, if the thing does not follow, nor come to pass, that is the thing which God has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not revere him. (Deuteronomy 18:22)
In other words, if his prophecy is not realized, you should know that it was uttered by a false prophet. When you think of it, however, this is a strange instruction. After all, it may be a very long time before we know whether or not the prophecy is realized. Sometimes the prophecy even refers to events beyond our lifetime, as is the case with much of the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moshe describes what will or will not happen in the land of Israel depending on our conduct.
And what of prophets such as Jonah, who delivers the word of God but then God decides to act differently? According to this criterion Jonah should be declared a false prophet.
The decision whether or not to believe the prophet is a decision of the present, and it cannot depend on future happenings. This is why the way the Torah deals with the issue of misinformation always seemed unhelpful to me, until I thought: Maybe this isn’t really meant to help us determine a true prophet from a false one. Maybe it is designed to develop our sensitivity and alertness to the idea of fake news and how to protect ourselves from it.
In a world full of misinformation, we must be willing to constantly re-evaluate. Acknowledging our own wrong judgement must be routine. Along with recognizing that new information can and sometimes must change what it is that we hold to be true.
Telling us that determining truth is a matter which required the perspective of time does not help us know the truth at the moment of the “prophecy,” but it encourages us to keep our eyes open after we make our decision whether or not to trust it and to remain attuned to new developments.
It helps us understand that truth is revealed only over time and that with every detail that unfolds we can – indeed we must – re-examine reality and adjust our positions.
In that kind of world of critical thought and intense attention, the power of false information and fake news will diminish and a spirit of truth-seeking will flourish. Understanding that any claim to ownership of truth necessarily must stand the test of time makes truth-seeking more important than truth-holding. And that helps us differentiate true prophecy from falsehood.
Shavua Tov from Schechter!
Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker, Dean, The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.
Ordained in 2007 by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Rowen Baker has served, since her ordination, as the rabbi of Kehillat Ramot-Zion in French Hill, Jerusalem. Ramot Zion, a flagship Masorti congregation, is home to many Israelis in search of a meaningful connection to Jewish tradition in a rapidly changing world. For the past eight years, she has served as Coordinator of Practical Rabbinics at SRS.
Much of Rabbi Rowen Baker’s work is done outside the synagogue space, with those not accustomed to synagogue life, so as to make accessible a vibrant Jewish approach and practice which is part of all walks of life. In 2015 she was the first Masorti rabbi – and the first ever female rabbi – to be invited to teach Torah at the Israeli President’s residence.
Rabbi Rowen Baker holds an MA with Distinction in Talmud and Jewish Thought from The Schechter Institute, and a BA in Jewish History and Archeology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a fellow at the Honey Foundation for Israel and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly Executive Council.
Rabbi Rowen Baker lives in French Hill, Jerusalem with her husband Etai, their four children and their dog Hummus.