January 2017 Shofar Article

Some call it brainwashing. Others call it mind control. Some call it propaganda, while others call it misinformation. Today people call it fake news. But whatever we call it, deceptive advertising is dangerous. It plays tricks on the mind and undermines individual and social trust.

Two new forces make deceptive advertising even more dangerous today. First, it is usually broadcast on the internet through news stories or social media, and the internet automatically gives all information disseminated on it an added patina of legitimacy. Pundits used to write that if you tell a lie often enough and loud enough, people will believe it. Today’s observer would change that to “just put it on the internet” and people will believe it.  

Second, we’ve become so accustomed to hearing about unbelievable and outrageous behavior in our “anything is okay” society, that we no longer question the reliability of anything we read or hear. Purveyors of lies know that and prey on our acquired gullibility.

This problem with fake advertising is not new. Our rabbis warned us against it thousands of years ago when writing about legitimate and illegitimate ways of attracting business. The rabbis (call Sages) overruled certain individuals who wanted to eliminate all forms of retail competition. We read about this In the Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Baba Metzia 60:

“Rabbi Judah says:  A shopkeeper must not give the children (who are sent by their mothers to do the shopping) burnt ears of corn and nuts because this encourages them to come to his shop (and it is unfair to the other shopkeepers). But the Sages permit it. Nor should a shopkeeper sell below the market price. But the Sages say: Good for him. A shopkeeper, says Abba Saul, should not sift crushed beans. (So that it looks like a container of whole beans when there are less expensive crushed beans mixed in.) But the Sages permit it.”

However, the Sages, draw the line at deceit in advertising.  

While they have no problem with Abba Saul sifting crushed beans in general, “They agree that he should not sift them only at the top of the container for this would amount to nothing else than deceit. It is also forbidden to paint (so as to improve their appearance) animals or vessels (before selling them).

The lesson for us in this fake news outbreak is buyer beware. We are not going to stop determined liars from making up news to gain an advantage. But we can refrain from automatically taking everything we see and hear as true and then passing on this information without first checking for veracity.

The next time we hear or read about an outrageous event or bit of news, let us take a few days to let investigators confirm events. Only then should we accept what we hear and see as true and decide whether it is wise to pass that information on.  

-Rabbi Birnholz