Recently, I read a story that described a systematic effort to plant false news stories in Facebook groups of Sander’s supporters during the 2016 general election campaign. While the details and politics of this effort are beyond the scope here, what particularly interests me is what happened when someone discovered the deceptions, and tried to inform other people in the group. They were shunned and ostracized, accused of being a “Hillbot” and in some cases kicked out of the group. You can read the story here. Why did Sanders supporters ignore Truth?
There is an important Mussar less for us about the Soul Trait of Truth. It took me a while to sort it out, because Truth teaches that falsehood has no legs, and if you supply untruths, people will no longer believe you. Yet these statements seem to have little bearing on what actually happened. In the long run of course, these falsehoods were ultimately uncovered. But in the short run, they may have had their intended impact, making Sanders supporters less likely to vote for Clinton.
Some people were so insistent about sharing these obviously fake news stories that they where kicked out of the Facebook groups by the moderator. The fake news stories ranged from “the Clinton-has-Parkinson’s conspiracy to the Clinton-is-running-a-pedophilia-ring-out-of-a-pizza-shop conspiracy.” Pedophilia ring? Seriously? Mussar provides two answers to help us understand why Sanders supporters ignored Truth.
First, the fake news was feeding into anger they already felt. For example, many Sanders supporters were livid that the DNC was biased for Clinton. Anger lies within the realm of the evil inclination, and when the evil inclination is aroused, we become susceptible to manipulation. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote in the Path of the Just, “One who the evil inclination holds in bondage either does not see the truth, or fails to recognize it when he beholds it, for the evil inclination literally renders a man so blind that he becomes like one that gropes in the dark and stumbles over the obstacles which he does not see.” (Path of the Just chapter 3).
This realization holds an important lesson for all of us: who has not gotten angry and had their judgment impaired? When you were in the midst of that anger, were you even aware that your judgment was off? The key mistake the Sanders supporters made was to share this fake news without discernment. And, they ignored evidence that the news was fake.
The second reason comes from Proverbs:
- “Fools see their own way as right, but the wise listen to advice.” Proverbs 12:15
- “A fool gives vent to all his feelings, but the wise, thinking of afterwards, stills them.” Proverbs 29:11
- To answer someone before hearing him out is both stupid and embarrassing. Proverbs 18:13
Do you get the gist of the point I am making? These people were acting like fools, allowing their evil inclination to incite them to participate in the perpetuation of a falsehood. Some of you might rightly think this is a harsh assessment. Nevertheless, I stand by the assertion. People who ignored evidence that they were sharing fake news were acting like fools.
At the same time, who among us has never acted like a fool? I know I have, more often than I’d care to admit. The more asleep we are, stumbling in darkness & ruled by our emotions, the more we’ll find ourselves acting the fool.
One Mussar practice to counter the danger of passing on false information comes from Rabbi M. M. Levin, who wrote “Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.” (Chesbon HaNefesh chapter 12). Were Facebook and Twitter available in the 19th century when Levin wrote his classic, he undoubtedly would have included a picture of an unfortunate retweet with embarrassing consequences. This lesson is so important, and so counter to the prevailing culture in the world today, that it bears repeating: Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.
What would it take for you to meet this very high bar? What is one step you can take today to move in this direction? I’ll be honest, it becomes a lot easier with a dedicated Mussar practice. Start your practice now by taking the Soul Trait Profile Quiz.
Also published on Medium.