By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com
The Corona Virus is a very serious issue, and it is something that should not joked about. There are people whose very lives are in the balance. Creating and forwarding false information that causes people to worry, whether knowingly or unwittingly, is a Torah prohibition of “Lo Sonu ish es amito.”
There are three types of people who receive social media information: (a) Those who forward them without checking them out; (b) those who don’t forward them at all, and (c) those who forward information from social media only after ensuring that they are true.
Most people know someone who fits into the first category. The problem is that a good percentage of the time, the item that is being forwarded is patently false.
Dozens of fake news items have been sent around. Many of these fake news items go viral on social media, spreading extra panic and fear.
Among a few of the fame items were that the Jewish lawyer from New Rochelle had attended the ECap Conference in Miami, which was attended by thousands of Jewish people. In fact, one person wrote that he “knows for a fact” that the individual was in attendance. Not one attendee had bothered checking the roster of names (which every attendee was provided after registering) but instead kept forwarding the messages. Eventually, Ecap published a statement that this man was never there.
On Wednesday the following false information went viral:
“BREAKING: Reports of a man suspected of coronavirus who attended a wedding yesterday evening, March 3rd, in Bais Faiga Hall in Lakewood, NJ. There were hundreds of guests there who may have been exposed. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all those that may have come in close contact with this individual stay at home for at least 10 days and call 1-800-232-4636 immediately if they begin to show any symptoms of the virus.”
Not only does this message not have a shred of truth to is, but it has been confirmed that law enforcement was working on finding the sick individual that created this message and if found, will face charges. It takes a real deranged individual to type such a message and forward it. Insanity will be a great defense.
There are also “jokes” where people dance the “coronavirus dance” at weddings, wearing face masks and surgical gloves.
There was even a photoshopped fake “Yom Tefillah” created on an Agudath Israel stationary.”
Social media networks were littered with messages on Wednesday regarding a supposed teenager from Modi’in Illit who had been exposed to the Coronavirus and was in quarantine. The messages, which were supposedly from the Health Ministry, warned that the boy had visited numerous places where lots of Charedim were in high numbers, such as the Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim, Beitar Illit, The Shteiblach in Zichron Moshe in Yerushalayim, went into four popular mikvahs and even attended a wedding of one of the children of a leading Rebbe.
The message became so widespread that the Health Ministry had to officially denounce them as fake news. The Health Ministry then reiterated that messages such as these need to come from one of the official channels of the Spokesperson’s Office to be considered real and official warnings.
“The message is fake and it is an appalling attempt to sew fear and confusion among the Charedi community,” a statement from the Ministry said.
Is there a prohibition of midvar sheker tirchak, lying, if it is written down and not told orally? Yes. The Tzitz Eliezer (volume 15, response 12) quotes the opinion of Tosefos in Bava Basra (94b), “Hachi hashta” that indeed there is a prohibition of lying in print. This is also the opinion of the Yad Rama on Bava Basra 172a. The halachos of lying to people, whether Jew or gentile, are found in Choshen Mishpat section of Shulchan Aruch (228:6).
The Rabbeinu Yonah, in his Shaarei Teshuvah (ch. 3, no. 186) tells us that the prohibition exists even if no harm comes about to the person who hears it. True, the punishment for such a lie is much less than if the lie had actually hurt the person; but it is still forbidden.
(It should be noted, however, that according to the Sefer Yereim of Rabbi Eliezer of Mitz, while it is not recommended to lie when it brings no harm whatsoever to the recipient, the actual prohibition of lying only applies when harm is brought to someone. We do not, however, rule in accordance with this opinion.)
What if the person forwarding the e-mail is unaware that it is a fabrication? Perhaps all of those cases cited above are specifically when the person is aware that they are not true, but here the innocent e-mail forwarder was unaware of the fundamental untruth of it. The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah tells us that Rava stayed away from saying certain things because he suspected that there might be something untoward about it. Perhaps the very wording of the Torah’s prohibition, “stay far away from an untruth,” is an indication that if one is unsure of whether it is true, one should stay far away and not pass it on, unless one has made effort to ascertain its truth.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org