Parshat Shelach - The Dangers of Misinformation

Parshat Shelach

June 29, 2024

23 Sivan 5784

Shlomo M. Hamburger

The Dangers of Misinformation

Talk Delivered to Chabad Shul of Potomac, MD

On December 28, 1917, H.L. Mencken, a prominent journalist, satirist, essayist, and scholar of the English language, published an article entitled “A Neglected Anniversary.” The article explained the history of the bathtub. Tracing its roots back to 1828, Mencken recounted how the bathtub was introduced in England by Lord John Russell and initially used by a small class of enthusiasts. The bathtub made its way to America thanks to the efforts of Adam Thompson, a cotton and grain dealer who had it installed in his Cincinnati home in 1842. According to Mencken, Millard Fillmore saw the tub in 1850 during an election year stumping tour while he was still Vice President. On becoming President after Zachary Taylor’s death, Fillmore had the bathtub installed in the White House.

There was only one problem with Mencken’s article: it was a complete fabrication. Of course, that didn’t stop newspapers and magazines from citing it as a historically accurate account.

About nine years after the original hoax, and after repeated stories referring to his fake history as fact, Mencken had enough. In May 1926, in the Boston Herald, he published the first of three separate confessions explaining that he had made up the whole thing; it was entirely fake. As he wrote, “If there were any facts in [the article], they got there accidentally and against my design.”

This should have put the hoax to rest. But no. Just three weeks after his first confession, the same Boston Herald reprinted details of the bathtub history as news. As recently as 2004, the Washington Post ran a travel column noting that Millard Fillmore was the first president to install a bathtub in the White House. A correction appeared a few days later.

Long before the internet and social media, Mencken’s fake history of the bathtub became one of the most notorious media hoaxes of the twentieth century. One commentator noted that through his hoax, Mencken demonstrated that “the American public would believe any absurdity, as long as it appealed to their imagination or emotions.”

Have you ever believed something wholeheartedly, only to find out it was completely false? Maybe it was that hoax about how goldfish have a 3 second memory or how an ostrich buries its head in the sand when it is scared? Or maybe it was how an iPhone can become waterproof with a software update. All, not true, debunked, and still believed.

Why do we have such an instinctive frenzy for fictional proof and such an instinctive aversion to factual proof? Why, paraphrasing Mark Twain, do we never let the truth get in the way of a good story?

These questions came to mind in reviewing Parshat Shelach. Just as Mencken’s fabricated story misled the public, so too did the spies’ report mislead the Israelites.

As we all know, Moshe sent twelve spies to scout the land of Canaan. Upon their return, ten of the spies delivered a negative report, emphasizing the strength of the inhabitants, the fortified cities, and the threatening neighboring tribes. The land was one that devours its inhabitants. Their report instilled a sense of dread among the people who immediately cried for a return to Egypt. Only two spies, Joshua and Calev, provided a positive report and expressed faith in G-d’s promise. They urged the people to move forward and conquer the land. In the end, the Israelites’ lack of faith and trust in G-d led to their punishment; they lost the opportunity to enter the Promised Land, the ten spies died in a plague, and the rest of the generation was left to die in the wilderness over the next 39 years.

Let’s take a closer look at the story to see how misinformation led to this result.

Moshe originally asked the spies to return with a factual report based on six specific questions. They returned with samples of the fruit of the land. They confirmed that it was a land flowing with milk and honey. Nevertheless, the ten spies reported that the inhabitants were powerful, and their cities fortified. They warned that the land was surrounded by various tribal enemies, including the dreaded Amalekites.

The people began to tremble and murmur at which point Calev spoke up and tried to silence them. According to the Talmud, Sotah page 35a, Calev reminded them that this was the same Moshe who led the people out of Egypt, split the sea, and delivered the manna. Surely, he argued, G-d was on Moshe’s side and if Moshe says we can conquer the land, we can do it.

Not to be outdone, the ten spies unloaded their concerns. They brought out their report and claimed that the land devours its inhabitants. The land was filled with giants and, they claimed, “we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes.”

At that point, the people heard enough. They cried out and wept all night complaining “If only we had died in the land of Egypt!” They demanded a new leader who would take them back to Egypt. Joshua and Calev tried again to calm the people and remind them that with G-d on their side, they had nothing to fear. Their response? The entire congregation threatened to pelt them with stones. At that point, G-d intervened, spared Joshua and Calev, and ultimately imposed the punishment for the ten spies and their generation of followers.

What went wrong? How were the ten spies able to manipulate public opinion with false information?

To understand this, let’s start with the spies’ motivation. Rashi, citing the Talmud, teaches that they had bad intentions when they went out and had the same bad intentions when they returned. In 1973, the Rebbe delivered a talk in which he addressed this issue. As the Rebbe explained, the spies lost sight of their role. As shluchim, messengers, they had to remain “one” with the one who sent them. They were no longer objectively subservient to their mission. Instead, they stuck with their subjective perspective about the potential for success. They only presented facts and opinions that supported their views.

That still leaves a question of why they did it. On the one hand, these men were designated leaders and trusted representatives of their various tribes. At the same time, as the Baal HaTurim pointed out, they were more like middle management.

Recognizing this status, the Zohar (III Parshat Shelach p. 158a) explains that the spies delivered a negative report out of fear that they might not remain in a position of leadership once the land was conquered. To maintain their power and move up the rung of leadership, they had to undercut the establishment and convince the people to abandon the plan to conquer the land.

How did they get everyone to believe their fabricated account? The spies’ negative report began with a truthful statement that the land flowed with milk and honey. Without that kernel of truth, the whole story might have been rejected. As the Talmud explains (Sotah 35a; R. Yochanan in the name of R. Meir),

כָּל לָשׁוֹן הָרָע שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ דְּבַר אֶמֶת בִּתְחִילָתו, אֵין מִתְקַיֵּים בּסוֹפוֹ.

“Any false message that has nothing of truth at its beginning will not be established in the end.”

They bought credibility with this one point of truth. That said, as Ramban asks, what was wrong with their report? The turning point occurred when they uttered one word – efes (Parshat Shelach 13:28), meaning “however,” as in “The land was flowing with milk and honey, however (efes) [fill in the blank]”. The word efes is typically translated as “nothing.” Here, Ramban explained that efes indicates some type of void; something beyond our abilities or something that is in no way possible. The spies explained that, although the land was rich, there was no possible way the Israelites could overcome the power of the inhabitants.

A report that began with credibility ended up preying on the instinctive fears of the impending dangers. Today, we call this appealing to confirmation bias. We like and seek out information that confirms our preexisting fears, beliefs, or values and reject anything, even factual evidence, that contradicts those feelings. We might even re-interpret contrary factual evidence to make it conform to our preexisting narratives.

This bias is enhanced when the information comes from people in authority or trusted leaders. Because the ten spies held positions of influence within the Israelite community, their report carried significant weight with their followers. After all, why would people in ostensible positions of authority lie to us?

Another reason for our obsession with fictional proof is that it tends to be easier to understand. When ten tribal leaders band together to deliver a clear warning message, it is easy to understand the point. When Joshua and Calev tell people not to worry because, even though the dangers exist, G-d will protect them in some unspecified and unverifiable way, the message without more proof or explanation does not calm their fears.

Note how false narratives use words to manipulate the listeners. Words have the power to uplift; but they have the power to stoke fear, panic, and even anger. In our country’s legal system, free speech is protected. Yet there are limits. In a famous 1919 Supreme Court case (Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 52 (1919)), Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” The point was that words conveying false information can prey on our fears and cause mass hysteria which can foreseeably damage others. Deliberately spreading misinformation is not just irresponsible, it is harmful.

This type of manipulative speech is called demagoguery – the action of winning support by exciting the emotions of ordinary people rather than by having rational or morally correct ideas. Through their emotionally charged presentation, the ten spies convinced the people that their negative report was correct.   

Interestingly, this is one distinction between this week’s portion and next week’s portion, Korach. Parshat Korach is about the dangers of following a demagogue. The Talmud (Sanhedrin, page 110a) famously notes that Korach did not die by being swallowed up by the Earth. That punishment befell those who followed the demagogue. Korach was eventually punished; but in the immediate battle between Korach the demagogue and his followers, Korach stood back and watched while his followers were punished. By contrast, Parshat Shelach focuses on the consequences to us of demagoguery and what we can do to avoid falling prey to the misinformation.

Back to our Parsha, why weren’t the people of Israel convinced by Joshua and Calev’s positive report? Because once they were emotionally convinced of the futility in conquering the land, they resisted any factual or positive information that contradicted their position. Although they witnessed the many miracles, as pointed out by Calev, they were caught by the human tendency to succumb to fear and misinformation. Joshua and Calev’s report was never refuted; it was rejected, drowned out by the cries of those wedded to the prevailing negative narrative.

It is tempting to blame the internet or social media for the consequences of today’s misinformation. However, both the H.L. Mencken story and the story of the spies happened well before the internet and social media. The problem with misinformation is not caused by electronic mass distribution. The problem is caused by us and our voracious appetite for misinformation.

What is the answer? Well, the same Torah that described the problem also prescribed the cure.

First, follow Calev’s advice. When faced with the rabble rousing caused by the ten spies, Calev said “va’yahas” – be quiet! Stop and think critically about what you just heard or read. Does it sound credible? Is it even plausibly true? Think about Mencken’s story — Is it credible that people did not take baths in bathtubs until Lord John Russell introduced the idea in 1828?  That might have been a give-away that something in the story was amiss.

Consider the report from the ten spies. If the land devours its inhabitants and the fearsome inhabitants were giants, why should we have been afraid of them? How were they still roaming the land? Why weren’t they devoured? The report did not add up on its face. Perhaps, like all propogandists, the ten spies used a combination of fact and fiction to make their point, unaware of the inherent contradictions of their message. By pausing and thinking critically, the demagoguery can be exposed.

Second, remember your mission; remember who you are. In Kuntres Umaayan (Overcoming Folly), the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, wrote that when the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) persuades you that something is good, stop and think about it. Is this consistent with the purpose for which you were created in the first place? When faced with a narrative that seems persuasive and consistent with your emotional biases, ask yourself whether the story is plausibly true or whether the speaker has some other vested interest in making you believe the truth of the information. Is falling in line with the narrative consistent with your values and what you know of the world around you? Don’t lose your objectivity when someone tries to blind you with dazzling misinformation.

Third, when confronted with an idea or story from a third-party source that hits you at an emotional level, do not feel the need to react. In Pirkey Avot (Chapter 1:17), Rabban Gamliel’s son Shimon spent years among wise sages and the best advice he learned from them was that there is nothing better than “shetika” – silence, non-response. Someone offering an inflammatory idea wants you to engage for whatever purpose. You don’t have to respond. There is a great Yiddish saying that “nisht altz vos iz ahf dehr lung darf zayin ahf dehr tzung” – Not everything in your lungs (or in your mind) must find its way to your tongue. And as we see in Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs (21:23):

שֹׁמֵר פִּיו וּלְשׁוֹנוֹ שֹׁמֵר מִצָּרוֹת נַפְשׁוֹ

“Those who guard their mouths and their tongues guard themselves from trouble.”

Also, Rambam in Hilchot De’ot (Laws of Character Traits, Chapter 2, Halacha 5) describes five types of speech. One of them is called “disdained speech.” This includes unnecessary talk that is not sinful but is discouraged, such as excessive idle chatter.

But this is hard. When we read or see an important juicy story on social media, we absolutely must send it to others in our network. (I think this mandate is somewhere in the terms and conditions for internet use.) We need to show everyone that we have the inside scoop.

The better course of action might be to pause, think critically, and consider whether you really know something worth sharing just because someone sent the information to you. Make sure what you are sharing is true before sending along the latest hoax or misinformation. As my late father once wrote, “Errors caused by lack of knowledge can be avoided if the possibility of lack of knowledge is admitted.”

Finally, make sure to rely only on trusted sources. In the story of the spies, Joshua and Calev were transparent and credible. We know who said what and when. What about the other ten spies? We know who they were. But which one (or which ones) gave the report? Did they all recite the report in unison? Did one of the ten deliver the report with the others nodding in agreement? The Torah does not say. Perhaps this anonymity is the Torah’s way of telling us that once misinformation is circulated and doing its damage, you don’t know who really started it and who is standing behind it.

On August 8th of this year, Fillmore Glen State Park in Moravia, New York will host Fillmore Days & Bathtub Races, honoring Moravia native President Millard Fillmore. According to news reports, the bathtub races were an annual thing until 2000 when someone was hit by a bathtub on wheels. In 2020, they renewed the annual event with appropriate safeguards in place, not to prevent the spread of misinformation but to protect against out-of-control bathtubs on wheels. The citizens of Moravia aren’t about to let the truth get in the way of good fun. This playful celebration reminds us that not all entertaining fictional stories are harmful – unless, of course, they involve wheeled bathtubs careening down the street.

By contrast, the story of the spies from Parshat Shelach underscores the profound impact of our words. Words said in a particular way can inspire or destroy. The ten spies’ negative report caused widespread fear and rebellion. All it took was for them to utter some false words that preyed on fears and emotions before the entire community lost faith in G-d’s promise and was condemned to wander and die in the wilderness.

In an age where misinformation can spread rapidly and widely, the spies’ story in Parshat Shelach teaches us the importance of critical thinking, verifying sources, and being aware of our own biases. It’s a powerful reminder to seek the truth and not be swayed by sensational or fear-mongering reports.

In our own lives, it is also a reminder to be more like Joshua and Calev, standing firm in our convictions and faith, rather than being misled by the noise and misinformation around us.

Shabbat Shalom.