Thou shalt not share false witness

It looks just a little odd, doesn’t it? And yet, you know exactly what I am referring to. The language of the 8th commandment (by at least one ordering of the commandments) reads “bear false witness” and “share false witness” has the same sound. I will argue here that it ha, for the most part, the same meaning.

The social media environment has two characteristics that make it ethically difficult. [1] The first is that it is “bent.” [2] The second is that it is morally ambiguous. “It,” that environment, does not specify the roles we play in it, so we do not know how to respond to each other in that environment.  Friends treat each other like strangers and strangers like friends.  Opponents treat each other like enemies.  There seems no reason not to.

share 4Take, for instance, the notion that “a re-tweet is not an endorsement.” [3] I think that is demonstrably false. Let’s consider two notions of what “endorsement” means. The first is truth-value. I “endorse” a story as true by “sharing” [4] it with friends. The second is salience. I “endorse” a story as “meaningful” or “interesting” or “satisfying” or as morbidly confirmatory.

In the second kind of “endorsement,” I make no claims at all about the truth of the story. I inflict [5] this story on you because I think you should be interested in it or because I know you are interested in it.

There are probably not very many people who are positively inclined toward both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Newton Leroy Gingrich, so let me use them as polar cases. The story comes to you that Hillary is maintaining a child pornography ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington D. C. You hate Hillary, so you roll the story around on your tongue, reassuring yourself that this is just like her, whether the “specifics” (that means the story itself) are true or not. You have a bunch of “friends” [6] who also hate Hillary and you wish for them the same delicious experience you have had so you “share” it with them for their enjoyment.

You have not said the story is true, at least not in any direct way. Have you violated the commandment not to share false witness?

Newt Gingrich is a back alley fighter. He taught the Republicans under his tutelage in the share 2House of Representatives to work the media by calling their opponents ugly names and by alleging damning but unconfirmable [7] statements or actions on their enemy’s part. He brought a gun to the Congressional knife fight.

Did he really kill his first wife in the hospital by smothering her with a pillow so he could marry someone else? Well…maybe not literally. But the story is “true” in the sense that it would be just like Newt to do a thing like that. And when I heard the story, I relished it because it stoked by hatred of this evil man and I know that you would enjoy hating him too, so I pass this story along to you for its potential as emotional fuel. You and I will be closer for having shared this story and no one will be harmed by it.

You have not said the story is true, at least not in any direct way. Have you violated the commandment not to share false witness?

I think so.

On beyond the moral implications of being part of a group that is held together by hating the same people—which I am not raising in this essay—is the question of whether highlighting the significance of a story which you do not know to be true is the same as “sharing” a lie. I am arguing here that it is.

[1] I am drawing here on Regina Rini’s article in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal
[2] Her word. She goes so far as to refer to “bentness.” I take special pleasure in it because it is the word C. S. Lewis uses in his science fiction trilogy. Among all the oyeresu of the solar system, only the oyarsa of our planet is “bent.” Take my word for it.
[3] Rini uses “tweet” to refer to all social media. She doesn’t mean only Twitter.
[4] At the very base of the language part of the problem is the widespread use of the verb, “share.” It is a positively connoted word. Anyone who said, “I will share my lunch with you” will be understood. If he says, “I will share my AIDS with you,” he will not be understood because AIDS is bad and “share” is good. I wish we had not accepted “share” to include the spreading around of the most vicious and unsubstantiated rumors. But we have.
[5] I am wondering if “inflict” is precisely as negatively connoted work as “share” is positively connoted. The Latin root is flegere (past participial form is flictus) and it mans to beat or strike. So “I am sharing this beating with you” would be the sense of “inflict.”
[6] Not real friends. I mean people who have friended you of whom you have friended.
[7] Within that news cycle.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Paying Attention, Political Psychology, Sustainability, ways of knowing, Words and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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