The post-fact era

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

I recently read an article called “Deepfakes: The Dawn of the Post-Truth Era” by Shelly Palmer (www.shellypalmer.com/2018/10/deepfakes-dawn-post-truth-era/) about how easy it is to manipulate technology. The thought is scary: at some time in the near future, we may not be able to tell the difference between a real photo and a fake one, or a real video and a fake one. This will be true even for voices: technology will make it impossible to detect to whom a voice really belongs. Even scarier for me, though, is a problem taking place now: People’s inability to tell the difference between fact and opinion.
The simplest way for me to describe the difference is to talk about the novel “Moby Dick.” It is a fact that a novel called “Moby Dick” exists and that it was written by Herman Melville. It’s even factual to say that it is considered part of the American canon of classics. What is opinion is whether or not “Moby Dick” is a great novel. I have a friend who considers the book a masterpiece of literature. I, on the other hand, thought the novel’s ideas were good, but their execution was horrible and the book poorly written. Which of us is correct? Our thoughts about the book are opinion, not fact, so we had to agree to disagree. (By the way, my friend thought the whole discussion was funny.)
An additional problem arises when it comes to history. There was a debate last year about what caused the American Civil War. Some people claimed the war was fought over states’ rights, rather than slavery. The problem was they failed to note the reason for the fight over states’ rights: some of the states were defending their right for citizens to own slaves. So yes, it is a fact that states’ rights was an issue, but it’s also factual to say that the states were debating slavery. This discussion led to many others offering their opinions on slavery. For example, one politician claimed that the best time in the United States was before the Civil War, even though there was slavery. Someone else claimed that slavery is acceptable because the Bible allowed people to own slaves. Another group said that most slaves were happy under the system. The first two statements are opinion, no matter how many people believe them. (Just to be clear: I abhor both opinions.) The third statement about slavery can actually be debated – although I can’t imagine why anyone would – because one could try to prove that most slaves were happy to be slaves. I don’t believe that statement is factual for a variety of reasons, including the fact that slaves ran away from their masters (think of the underground railroad in the United States) and the slave revolt in Haiti.
Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean that it is true. As Jews, we should especially be aware of this because people readily believe lies about us. For example, people claim Jews use the blood of Christian and/or Muslim children to make matzah for Passover and/or hamantashen for Purim. A new blood libel – that Israel is harvesting the organs of Palestinians – has been floating around the past few years. These are lies, but people believe them, even without any facts to support their cause. They know it’s true because they heard it third hand from someone, or they know someone who knows someone who... You get the idea. As for opinions, there are many unflattering ones about Jews and they are harder to fight because people cling to them even when you show they’re making a generalization that’s unfair to the majority of people in that group. 
Unfortunately, we’ve seen far too much of this in politics in recent years. Mexicans, Muslims and others have been smeared because one member of a group has done something. Or, sometimes, no one has done anything wrong, but it’s politically expedient to have an enemy – any enemy – to make people forget about the problems they face – real problems – and make up pretend ones. While some are worried about computer fakes that will occur in the future, I’m more worried about fake facts being broadcast today.