Access to information has historically been the catalyst for major changes in society. The advent of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1436 is seen as a key event by historians that led to the dissemination of information and the end of the Middle Ages by the 1500s. As the English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in 1620, the printing press was one of three inventions that changed the world.
Today we are living in the information age. You no longer have to get up in the morning and read the newspaper to find out what is going on in the world. You do not even have to go to your computer or phone to look up information. Push notifications are constantly delivering information, wanted or not, accurate or not, to you every minute of every day.
But is the world better for this information? Is ubiquitous instant access to information building a more knowledgeable society? Is there a tipping point when too much information has a detrimental impact? One need only to look at the current conflict between Hamas and Israel to begin to understand some of the challenges of the information age.
Yes, newspapers and other media outlets are covering the conflict. Beyond the accusations of bias for or against one side or the other, there is a fundamental challenge faced by this source of information. The conflict going on in Israel today is highly complex. It is not only what is happening today, it has history going back to the 1800’s just to understand the most recent events. And the city of Jerusalem goes back over 3,000 years. Although Jerusalem means “City of Peace” it has been destroyed twice, been under siege 23 times, attacked 52 times and captured 44 times. Simon Sebag Montefiore begins to tells the story in his book Jerusalem The Biography in a mere784 pages.
Media outlets have the challenge of informing their audience while ensuring that they keep them engaged. Extensive background coverage to provide context any situation may result in the audience seeking more concise sources of information. So to keep their followers engaged, they keep the information short and controversial. As the well-known newspaper adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads!”
And many are not getting their information from authentic news outlets anymore. According to a Pew Research Center publication in 2018, “Social media outpaces newspaper print in the U.S. as a news source.” Their study shows that 20% of those surveyed get their news from social media and the percentage is increasing since it is the most popular source for those between the ages 18–29 to get their news.
Social media is not an accurate source of news. Anyone can post just about anything they want. Some social media sites have community rules enforced through AI algorithms that frequently block legitimate commentary while allowing obvious violations. Other sites under the guise of free speech are unmonitored and allow anything include hate speech.
Since people tend to surround themselves in social media with likeminded connections it becomes an echo chamber. People are not exposed to divergent views; all they see is reinforcement of their own perspectives. One begins to believe in the validity of their truths because all they see are people agreeing with them.
Of course, there is the outright false information and propaganda promoted through social media. Starting early on Hate Groups realized they could publish whatever they want on their website to reach and recruit people to their cause. Similarly, there is no fact checking necessarily on social media which led to activities such as Russia publishing totally fictitious stories and promoting them on social media to influence elections in the US. Known as click bait, people click on them, agree with the story, and then repost. I know that more than once I have made that mistake.
Finally, although the same Pew Research found that today 49% Americans get their news from television, down from the previous 57%, there is no distinction in the survey between news sources and entertainment. In 1996 The Daily Show was launched as a news parody. Jon Stewart, who took over the role of the host/anchor person in 1999, is credited in simultaneously creating the aura of a local news show while being entertaining. The mixing of comedy with news, presented in the style of a news show is often times taken as authentic news. The show was also the breeding ground for personalities and other parodies such as Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, John Oliver from Last Week Tonight and Trevor Noah, the current host of The Daily Show.
Sadly, these entertainers are portraying themselves as knowledgeable sources of information on complex issues including the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both of these figures used their shows as platforms reaching millions to express their views on this highly complex situation and sadly many viewers took their diatribes to be the truth.
Truth in Judaism is an interesting concept. There is what I believe, and there is what you believe; however, only Hashem knows the truth. The famous line from the US Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a powerful statement; yet, it was the perspective of the author and signers, not of the British. As an Israeli citizen and ardent Zionist, I do believe in the right for Israel to exist and protect itself aggressively against anyone attacking or attempting to destroy it. Still, I recognize there are Palestinians who are also seeking self-rule and a homeland of their own. As Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory states, “Boy, frame of reference will sneak up on you, won’t it?”
The challenge becomes how to connect people and share your perspective in the echo chamber created by social media. Often, including in this recent conflict, it is said that Israel is winning the battles but losing the war when it comes to public opinion. We see Democrats, the party that is supported by more than 75% of Jewish Americans, begin to fracture where the progressive members are no longer supporting Israel. We see the divide in opinion between Jews in Israel and America widen as discussed in such recent works as We Stand Divided by Daniel Gordis.
The answer, to me, is in personal one-on-one contact. If we want people to listen to “the other” and develop understanding and respect, there needs to be direct contact and dialogue. I believe this is what Yossi Klein Halevi was saying when he wrote Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. He followed up the book with engaging in dialogue with Palestinians. He also republished the book with Palestinian responses.
It is clear from his writing and the responses that there is not agreement on fundamental issues. There may never be agreement on fundamental issues. But we will never be able to cross the chasm until we start talking to each other. Information is important, but until we start engaging, listening and empathizing, we will not resolve the challenges that divide us.
Where do we start? We need to start with our youth. They need to understand their peers in order to build understanding, respect and empathy. This cannot be accomplished through social media. It must be done face to face. Of course, it is not practical nor economically feasible to have Jews in Israel and America meet face to face to begin to understand one another. Nor is it possible to have Palestinian from Gaza to sit and meet with Israeli youth in Haifa. This is where technology can play an important role.
The latest trend in social networking is 1-1 engagement. Using AI to match people up and web conferencing to facilitate meeting, you can reach out and meet people and talk to them. We will not solve our problems overnight. We have not been able to resolve these issues for over 100 years now. But if we begin with dialogue to create understanding, we will be able to eventually come to a solution.
I believe Israel should sponsor an initiative to facilitate dialogue between Israeli youth, Jewish youth in America, Palestinian youth, and youth around the entire world. In doing this Israel can become as it says in Isaiah 42:6 אור לגויים, “A Light unto the nations.”