April 14, 2024
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Combating Misinformation: Safeguarding Families Amid Crisis

In a world where news is delivered with enormous speed and through all types of mediums, the pain being felt by the families of our soldiers and captives can often be exacerbated by the rapid spread of rumors and misinformation. This reality demands a complete re-evaluation of our relationship with the media, including social media, and the realization that just because we hear or see something, that does not mean that the information is necessarily valid or worthy of being forwarded. Even if the information is accurate, we must keep in mind that recklessly disseminating it could cause trauma before those who are specially prepared and trained to handle these extremely delicate interactions have the chance to deliver the news.

Beyond the basic human compulsion to share news, both good and bad, we know that there is no good reason why anyone should be involved in spreading information prematurely. While that should be quite obvious, the Torah specifically prohibits such reckless behavior, which often causes unnecessary pain to others.

The current war has reignited our understanding of what it is to live in a world of fear of the unknown. For the countless Israelis with family members in harm’s way, life has become an almost constant state of tension. For the families of the captives, that sense of fear is certainly multiplied several times over — with the combination of not knowing what traumas they might be subjected to at any given moment or if their loved ones are even alive.

Israelis have long lived with the terrifying concept of “the knock at the door,” whereby military officers arrive and inform a family that their child has fallen in battle. This scene was always part of the Israeli consciousness but, for years, it seemed distant from our reality or confined to history. Since Oct. 7, that is no longer the case.

 

The Dangers of Misinformation In Times of War

Almost every Israeli family has some connection to loss from this war, and we know those knocks on the door have been delivered hundreds of pain-filled times in recent weeks. Restless, nightmare-filled sleep penetrates all of our homes, and every notification on our phones can induce panic. In this regard, misinformation, or prematurely released information, is extremely irresponsible and devastating.

However, as reprehensible as such behavior might be, there is likely no legal recourse to prevent it. Indeed, the intent of those who spread the information is rarely malicious. Social media is a playground for such thoughtless activity, and we are likely years past creating effective boundaries for limiting the spread of misinformation.

The responsibility to limit such activity is, therefore, on us as individuals and certainly as parents and educators. We need to reinforce the message that the phones in our pockets, despite whatever positive and necessary functions they provide, are also tools for deeply dangerous, offensive and unethical behavior.

This is no easy task because, again, the intent is rarely to impose harm; it is simply an issue of acting irresponsibly without taking the time to think of the consequences. As committed as our society has become to togetherness, national unity and solidarity in the wake of the war, it is worth remembering that here, too, acting responsibly and with sensitivity is very much another way to show solidarity and prevent unnecessary harm to someone whom we might not even know. It becomes part of that national collective that we are so committed to preserving during these challenging times.

Tragically, we all know that eventually, the information will emerge. The term hutar l’pirsum — cleared for publication — has become an all-too-well-known part of the lexicon during these tragic times. But that information must be allowed to be shared only once it has been properly vetted and delivered via the official, professional channels. Practicing restraint will prevent cases in which it is delivered to the wrong hands, as can happen with people with similar names or when the severity of an injury has been exaggerated. Misinformation can also play into the hands of our enemies by creating panic over things that might not have occurred but, when misreported, lead to chaos and dangerous behavior.

It is important that we internalize these lessons and commit to behaving with maximum restraint. This is the basic moral and human practice that these times demand.


The writer, a rabbi, is director of Tzohar’s Center for Jewish Ethics.

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