June 19, 2024
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June 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Ready to hear about the newest worrying trend I’ve noticed on the internet? Yep, besides incitement, misinformation and cyberbullying. Even beyond Candy Crush invitations!

I’ve been noticing a plethora of posts on social media that purport to show something true and heartwarming. For instance, there’s been a video circulating recently showing a gorilla named Koko who knows sign language, “speaking” through ASL about climate change. The video purports to show how she reacted to hearing about the COP21 Climate Conference, and the message she wants to send to people about fixing the Earth: “I am gorilla. I am flowers, animals. I am nature. Man Koko love. Earth Koko love. But Man stupid. Stupid! Koko sorry. Koko cry. Time hurry! Fix Earth! Help Earth! Hurry! Protect Earth. Nature see you. Thank you.” Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it may be a bit misleading. According to Snopes.com, a website that sheds light on Internet rumors and hoaxes, the lack of any context about how the video was filmed or what Koko was shown or “told” via ASL beforehand makes it impossible to discern whether Koko really knows what she’s talking about or whether she’s just signing what her trainer showed her to sign.

Another example of a recent misleading post I’ve seen is a picture of an African boy, captioned, “In this African tribe, when someone does something wrong, they take the person to the center of the village where the tribe surrounds him and for 2 days say [sic] all the good he has done… They unite to reconnect him with his good nature. (So beautiful) [sic].” That seems like a wonderful idea—imagine if we could all do that! Imagine if we could stop blaming each other when we do wrong and instead remind ourselves of all the good we can do! But wait… was this post real? Some commenters pointed out that this story is very vague (“this African tribe”—which one?) and that the picture was actually stolen from a photography book called Amen: Grassroots Football. The picture has nothing to do with the story, and there’s no way to know if the story is real or not.

But misleading posts have been a staple of social media since its inception, as well as the media in general (just think back to the Yellow Journalism of the 1900s or the sensationalistic headlines of tabloids). What makes these any different?

What makes these different is a trend I noticed in their comments sections—and this is something unique to social media, of course; print media doesn’t have comments from the readers built-in. Many people in the comments section correctly point out that the posts are misleading and/or likely false. But many say something along the lines of, “Why does it matter if this is true or not? It’s still an amazing message!” and “Does this need to be true? Can’t we just enjoy a nice post?” When it came to the Koko video in particular, I noticed many people saying something along the lines of, “She speaks more eloquently than many real people,” and, “Who cares if she was taught it or not? We need to listen to her anyway.”

This raises the question: should we care? When it comes to uplifting posts like these with heartwarming messages, should it matter to us that they aren’t really what they seem? Or should we accept them for their messages, even if not for their content?

To make a comparison—and forgive me for connecting the secular to the sacred for a moment—in school right now I’m learning Shir HaShirim, one of the five megillot. With this megillah in particular, there are many different ways to look at it. The love story it tells can be understood literally, although it becomes difficult from the text to figure out who exactly it’s talking to. But the megillah can also be understood allegorically; as Rashi famously explains, for instance, it could be an allegory for the relationship between the Jews and God. Overall, even in Judaism there is precedent for appreciating a story, even in the Biblical canon, for its message and not necessarily for its “journalistic truth value.”

But when it comes to the social media posts, I feel that there’s a fundamental difference: they are being presented as truth, not as allegory. The video of Koko purports to be what she’s really saying, what she really feels about climate change. The captioned picture of the African boy purports to be about a real tribe. And that’s where things get dangerous. As many commenters pointed out in the posts when responding to those who said it’s okay that the post isn’t totally true, the value of what they’re showcasing is degraded because of the falseness. For instance, in the Snopes article, some professors lament that the Koko video will cause people to view human-ape interaction research (which is a real thing!) in a negative light, because of the fact that a video of it was potentially staged to make a point. With the photo of the African boy, some commenters pointed out—and I agree—that this just serves to raise stereotypes of people in Africa as separate and homogenous (once again, “this African tribe”—with no reference to any specific group).

This isn’t an issue with books like Shir HaShirim in Tanach, as those aren’t showcased as “true stories” within the canon; they just give the story and then were interpreted by the sages. But with new Internet posts, that claim to be giving the truth, it’s truly a worrying trend. I feel that we should all try to share the truth—we can find enough heartwarming moments in our lives and in the world, I’m sure, that we don’t need to make anything up.

Oren Oppenheim, 18, is a senior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan and lives in Fair Lawn, NJ. He spends his free time writing and reading, and hopes to become a published novelist and a journalist. You can email him at [email protected] and see his photography at facebook.com/orenphotography.

By Oren Oppenheim

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