Twitter and the Evil Tongue

For those of us immersed in social media, there is an endless assault on our senses by happenings large and small.

The president-elect sends a Twitter message criticizing the leader of a local union of the United Steelworkers for doing a “terrible job” and sending American jobs abroad. The tweet goes viral, and the union leader receives random threats from people on the basis of no known facts whatsoever.

A baseless charge linking Hillary Clinton to sex crimes is tweeted by a retired army officer, now in line to be the national security adviser in the new administration. The tweet is part of a deluge of fake news that reaches a particularly susceptible reader in North Carolina, who goes out and shoots up a pizza parlor to “investigate” the charge.

Comet Ping Pong is the pizza place in Washington where the shooting took place. Photo by Elizabeth Murphy from Alexandria, VA.

Comet Ping Pong is the pizza place in Washington where the shooting took place. Photo by Elizabeth Murphy from Alexandria, VA.

Being lampooned on social media is particularly harmful because there is no effective redress. Even if you find the source, there is no way to reverse the damage. The hundreds or thousands of viewers are beyond reach. Social media also offers an enticing immediacy and anonymity. Retweeting takes just a few keystrokes. One need not know the original author nor have any independent opinion of the worth of the message.

However, it would be wrong to single out Twitter in this regard. Moving at a slightly slower pace, but still beating out all news media, is Facebook. And not far behind is talk radio, a continuing stream of facts, fiction and innuendo.

We can’t help but respect movie stars, politicians and even friends and neighbors who achieve high numbers of “followers.” But we know that the path to achieving those inordinately large numbers is often just flavored or off-flavor gossip.

In Jewish law, gossip is a serious sin. Lashon ha-ra, the evil tongue, is a temptation we must resist. Yet in an age of social media, gossip is always too easy, too nearby and seemingly too impersonal.

Devout Jews perceive the injunction of lashon ha-ra to include two obligations: First, not to speak evil or gossip about others. And second, not to listen to gossip, because it is understood that the listener is an enabler and hence an inextricable part of the sin. So upon hearing gossip, a Jew should cover his ears, at one time a familiar motion.

Is there a similar defense while tapping on a cell phone, clicking at a computer or listening to your car radio? If not, we need to invent one. Perhaps there should be a special button on our electronics to mute evil gossip. Until that button is invented, however, we need to observe the mitzvah of “lashon ha-ra” and strike an electronic pose comparable to covering our ears.