TEXT, LIES & CYBERSPACE
By Bernard A. Karshmer
s "snail mail" loses the communications race to near-instantaneous e-mail, we face unprecedented ethical issues--among them the ease of spreading cybergossip. Today we can routinely press "forward" to broadcast newly received information to large numbers of people--and often do so without giving much thought to its veracity. Yet, as Jews, we are commanded to "keep far from a false charge" (Exodus 23:7), and must therefore guard against disseminating untruths.
Two examples: Several months ago a Jewish friend forwarded an e-mail to me, and to many others, on his "fairness for Israel" distribution list, which read:
...Just heard that Starbucks Coffee is closing all their stores in Israel. Starbucks says that it is a business decision, not a political decision. They ARE NOT CLOSING any stores in the Arab or Muslim countries. Let us as Jews let them know that we will not patronize their stores for their position on Israel. When they lose enough business, maybe they will get the message that we as a Jewish population will not tolerate their actions....Please send this message to your relatives and all your Jewish friends and associates.... BOYCOTT STARBUCKS AND LET THEM KNOW WHY!!!!
Pretty strong stuff. But was it true? I decided to investigate. A simple search took me to the Anti-Defamation League website, where I discovered the following message:
An e-mail message claims that the recent decision by Starbucks to close its operations in Israel was the result of 'caving in' to anti-Israel pressure. There is no evidence that this was the case.
In announcing the move on April 1, Starbucks made clear that the closing was due to business considerations only. ADL has been in touch with contacts in Israel and the United States on this matter and is confident that the Starbucks move was purely a business decision. There is no evidence that more nefarious considerations contributed to this decision.
The ADL analysis caused me to doubt the validity of the e-mail charge, and I decided not to risk wide distribution of a potentially false accusation.
Another faulty e-mail concerned The Passion of the Christ. To calm Jewish fears about the film, the e-mail sender noted that the popular nationally syndicated radio commentator Paul Harvey had described it as follows:
There is not a scintilla of anti-Semitism to be found anywhere in this powerful film....It faithfully tells the Gospel story in a dramatically beautiful, sensitive, and profoundly engaging way. Those who are alleging otherwise have either not seen the film or have another agenda behind their protestations....
At first I was reassured by Harvey's words. While I generally find him to be too conservative for my taste, I have nonetheless come to regard him as a reliable source of information. Rather than blindly forwarding these words to my Jewish friends, however, I decided to check their validity. A simple "exact phrase" Google search of "scintilla of anti-Semitism" directed me to the review--which I quickly discovered had not been written by Paul Harvey, but by Deacon Keith A. Fournier, the leader of an organization called The Catholic Way. Whatever Fournier's credibility might be, I do not hold his opinion in the same regard as I do Harvey's, and thus this e-mail went no further.
These two examples should serve as cautionary tales. Given that we Jews are commanded to seek truth, isn't it time that we make it an imperative to verify messages before sending them spinning into cyberspace?
Dr. Bernard Karshmer is an associate professor of Applied Dentistry at the University of Colorado School of Dentistry and a member of Temple Sinai in Denver, Colorado.
How to Evaluate Internet-Circulated Rumors: Discerning an e-mail's validity can best be accomplished through the use of a search tool such as Google. Entering the keywords "Starbucks" and "Israel" in the Google query box, for example, easily traced the Starbucks e-mail. These two words (typed in lower case and without quotation marks) returned references to two of the most popular urban legend debunking pages--www.snopes.com and www.urbanlegends.about.com. While one could proceed directly to these pages to determine the legitimacy of Internet rumors, I have found that a more productive first step is to use Google or another quality search engine. So, for example, while the Starbucks rumor search on Google led directly to "snopes" and "urban legends," searching Google for the Paul Harvey story (using the words "scintilla" and "anti-Semitism" without quotation marks) took me to www.apologeticsindex.org. For this reason, I believe that the skillful use of keywords on a good search engine represents the most productive way to determine an e-mail's validity.--B.K.
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