There is a story in Jewish tradition about a man who insults another man without realizing that the man is a prominent rabbi. When he does realize it, he is horrified and tries to apologize. He asks what he can do to make up for it. The rabbi tells him to take a feather pillow to the top of a hill, tear it open and let the feathers blow away. The man doesn’t understand but he does it, then comes back and says, “Now what?” The rabbi says, “Now go and gather up all the feathers.” The point is that once words are out there, they cannot be retrieved—we should take care what we say, because we won’t be able to control it or take it back, like the scattered feathers from the pillow.
With the advent of the internet, this becomes true in a whole new way. Once we post something on Facebook or Twitter, on a blog, or even when we send an email, those words and pictures are out there, and we no longer control what happens to them. They can be spread far and wide, and take on a life of their own. People who have posted thoughtlessly offensive things, or jokes that weren’t understood as such by those who saw them, have been virally shamed on social media, in ways that have, in some cases, destroyed their lives. This has happened often enough that a book has been written about it.
When we think about a story like the one with the feather pillow, we often think about carelessness or meanness on social media that directly hurts individuals (including, potentially, ourselves). We also tend to think about text that we’ve written ourselves or pictures we’ve taken of people we know. We don’t think as much about text or pictures we receive on Facebook or other social media and pass on, and we don’t think about our responsibility when passing on information that seems like it’s there to help people. Unfortunately, many warnings and dire reports on social media turn out to be false.
Today, vulnerable populations—immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and others—are feeling more threatened than they may have a few months ago. Inflammatory stories or warnings that are based on rumor, not fact, can increase fear and anxiety unnecessarily, and make it harder for all of us to know what we really need to be paying attention to and worrying about. Passing on this kind of information without verifying the truth of it, thinking, “Well, it can’t hurt to pass it on,” or “If it’s true, people need to know,” actually can hurt people. These rumors make people afraid to leave their homes and go to work. Children live in fear that their parents won’t come home. Fear and anxiety can cause physical illness. This is all harmful.
Even passing on true stories about bad things that happen, without passing on stories of encouraging responses to those events, is harmful because it adds to the climate of fear. For example, a few days ago a Jewish cemetery in Missouri was vandalized. In response, over 1,000 people (including Vice Presiden Mike Pence and the governor of Missouri) came to a gathering to clean up the cemetery, and Muslim-Americans raised over $100,000 to help pay for it. If the vandalism were publicized and not the tremendous, positive, community response, it is far more frightening, because it shows the hatred but not the support and love. While the hatred is real, the support and love is too, and is most likely greater. The hatred is only part of the truth. The hatred and the response to it is the whole story.
We need to take responsibility for the truth, and the whole truth, of what we decide to pass on when we see it on social media. When you see information that does not cite a source, even if it is sent by someone you know and trust, ask where they got it before passing it on. If they cannot cite a credible source (like a government agency or a reputable news organization), do not pass the information on. Snopes.com and Politifact.com are two resources that can also quickly and easily help to determine what is factual and what isn’t. Check the date on articles before you share them and make sure they’re current–not from a previous year.
It is more important than ever that the information we disseminate be true. Let us take our responsibility to our friends—on Facebook and in real life—and neighbors seriously, and do all we can to help and support them by being mindful of the truth of the words we put out into the world.