Earlier this week, my colleagues and I shared some thoughts on the recent accusations that a teacher at Seth Boyden School in Maplewood had forcibly removed a 2nd-grade student’s hijab. In that email, we expressed our concern for all involved, as well as our commitment to refrain from drawing conclusions until the findings of a full investigation are made public. That noted, there is one aspect of this situation that bears exploration regardless of the facts that will emerge.
The incident was first shared by the student’s mother on social media. It gained attention and traction when Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Maplewood native, shared her own post and expanded on the initial one. In the days that followed, there were countless reports shared by a wide range of media outlets. Each one raised the emotion and the outrage over this incident. And why shouldn’t that be the case? After all, the image of a child having her religious head garment ripped from her head is shocking. But every one of those articles cited as its source the two unverified social media posts by the student’s mother and her friend. And, as we have learned so painfully in recent years, just because something appears on social media, it does not make it true. In fairness, it also doesn’t make it untrue.
And that is where the problem lies.
News outlets, social justice organizations, and even the Governor himself posted about the incident as if it had been investigated and found to be true before any investigation had even begun. And as we said in our email earlier this week, such a rush to judgement is not “just justice.” As a result, a seven year old child has been thrust into the center of a media frenzy, and a veteran teacher of thirty years has received death threats and does not feel safe in her home. And people throughout our community are as divided as they are outraged.
And all of this has happened as the result of two social media posts.
In the Torah, we read: “Do not go up and down as a talebearer among your people.” (Leviticus 19:16)
The Hebrew word for tale-bearer is “rakhil” (Reish-Kaf-Yod-Lamed). Interestingly, the word rakhil is related to a word meaning trader or merchant. Thus, one might conclude that a tale-bearer is like a merchant trading in information rather than goods. The question thus becomes not only whether or not the information they are “trading in” is true, but also how one goes about verifying the veracity of that information before sharing it further.
And that is where the problem comes in. When we move so quickly that upon reading something, we immediately share it, we become tale-bearers. Our intentions may not be malicious, but when we share something, we may inadvertently be adding to the misinformation that is out in the world. And the more that happens on any given subject, the more available “sources” there are for others to see and the more seemingly true the initial story or accusation appears. Each time something is shared, we increase the likelihood that it will be reshared. After all, if you see something on Facebook, and on TapInto Maplewood, and on NJ.com and posted by the Governor, it MUST be true. And yet, in this case, the sources for all of them were two social media posts.
With everything that has transpired in last week, I cannot help but see a familiar Jewish tale in a new light. As the story goes, a young boy went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged her forgiveness. The rabbi told the boy to take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The boy thought this was a strange request but was anxious to make amends and set out to fulfill the task. When he returned to tell the rabbi, she said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”
Social media isn’t a gentle breeze that carries feathers in every direction. It is a tornado that spreads the feathers faster and farther than ever before. And in the process, more damage than ever can be done by the words and the posts we share.
The accusations of last week have neither been verified nor debunked. But you wouldn’t know that from many of the reports that picked the story up. But as we continue to wait to hear the outcome of the investigation, a few things are clear. We ARE living in a time when Islamaphobia, anti-semitism, and other forms of hate and intolerance are rapidly increasing. We DO live in towns that value diversity but are far from shining examples of equity, and work needs to be done. And we DO live in a time when social media makes it easier than ever for false or unverified information to be spread as fact. It is time we all slow down a bit, and before pressing the “Share” button, take some time to verify the information we are about to help amplify.
Daniel M Cohen
(We have also become aware that during the same week that these accusations came out, there was an incident of anti-semitic, racist, and homophobic graffiti on school grounds at Maplewood Middle School. We are, as always, available to talk about this and any incident that may be affecting our young people. )