The Ethics of Social Media

Oxford Dictionary definition of ethics:

Moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.

Synonyms: moral code, morals, morality, values, rights and wrongs, principles, ideals, standards (of behavior), value system, virtues, dictates of conscience

Integrity

Reality

Identity

Content

Privacy

Property

Appropriateness

70 Faces

Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15 (Bemidbar Rabbah is a collection of Rabbinic homiletic interpretations on the Book of Numbers.)

"One silver basin" was brought as a symbol of the Torah which has been likened to wine, as it says "And drink of the wine which I have mingled" (Mishlei 9:5). Now because it is customary to drink wine in a basin, you may gather from the text, "that drink wine in bowls" (Amos 6:6) -- he on that account, brought a basin. "Of seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary" (Bamidbar 7:19). Why? As the numerical value of yayin (wine) is seventy, so there are seventy modes of expounding the Torah.

Or HaChaim on Genesis 1:1:5 (Or HaChaim is a commentary on the Torah written by Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar (1696-1743).)
You should know that we have permission to explain the implication of the verses after careful study – even though our conclusions differ from the explanation of our Sages. That is because there are 70 faces to the Torah. There is no prohibition against differing from the words of our Sages except if it changes the Halacha. Similarly, we find that even though the Amoraim did not have the right to disagree with the Tannaim in halachic matters – but we find that they offered alternative explanations to verses.

Identity

Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents. Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and given by what we wear./ Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls./ Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors./ Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing./ Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love./ Each of us has a name given by our celebrations and given by our work./ Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness./ Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death. (Zelda, "Each Man Has a Name," as adapted by Marcia Falk in The Book of Blessings, New York: Harper Collins, 1996, p. 106ff.)

Realistic Identity

...The narrow focus on privacy as a form of control misses what really worries people on the Internet today. What people seem to want is not simply control over their privacy settings; they want control over their online reputations. But the idea that any of us can control our reputations is, of course, an unrealistic fantasy. The truth is we can’t possibly control what others say or know or think about us in a world of Facebook and Google, nor can we realistically demand that others give us the deference and respect to which we think we’re entitled. On the Internet, it turns out, we’re not entitled to demand any particular respect at all, and if others don’t have the empathy necessary to forgive our missteps, or the attention spans necessary to judge us in context, there’s nothing we can do about. (Jeffrey Rosen's article "The End of Forgetting")

Privacy

Judaism views privacy as an element of communal holiness and ethical perfection rather than as an individual right.... Because the concept of privacy is a relatively modern one, it is not explicitly discussed in traditional Jewish sources. Indeed, Classical Hebrew does not even have a word for "privacy" (the modern Hebrew word is prayeiyut). That said, a number of Jewish texts do relate to various aspects of what would today be considered personal privacy. (Stein, Jonathan. "Judaism and Privacy" myjewishlearning.com)

Property

By erasing external memories, our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior. In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast….a society in which everything is recorded will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them. Without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking. (Mayer-Schoenberger, Victor. "Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.")

Appropriateness

Social Networking: The 4 Characteristics of Digital Media

  1. It's searchable -- anyone, anytime, anywhere can find it.
  2. It's forever -- anyone can find it today, tomorrow, 30 years from now.
  3. It's copyable -- once they find it, they can copy it, share it, and change it.
  4. It has a global invisible audience -- even if your page is private, you can't tell which friend shares your pages. You have no control over what friends will do with it.

Gossip

It might be helpful for us to explore new ways of living in a world that is slow to forgive. It’s sobering, now that we live in a world misleading called a "global village,” to think about privacy in actual, small villages long ago. In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud, for example, any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people-oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean- was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.) But these…villages were, in fact, far more humane and forgiving than our brutal global village, where much of the content on the internet would meet the Talmudic definition of gossip. Although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged….Unlike God, however, the digital cloud rarely wipes our slate clean, and the keepers of the cloud today are sometimes less forgiving than their all-powerful divine predecessor. (Jeffrey Rosen's article "The End of Forgetting")

Talmud Bavli, Arachin 15b

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the tongue, all the limbs of man are erect, but you are horizontal; they are all outside the body but you are inside. More than that, I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone and the other of flesh.

Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 5b

The Rabbis explain that the design of our bodies also tries to minimize our speech since humans have two eyes, two ears, and two nostrils, but only one mouth. It is even said that the reason humans have earlobes is so that they can be used as earplugs when lashon hara is being spoken. Within the same text, it also includes the another way to block out gossip rather than using our earlobes: "Why are the fingers tapered like pegs? So that if one hears anything improper he can insert them in his ears."

Bereishit Rabbah 67:3

Rabbi Levi said: Six organs serve the human being: three are under his control and three are not. The latter are the eye, ear, and nose. He sees what he does not wish to see, hears what he does not wish to hear, and smells what he does not wish to smell. Under his control are the mouth, hand, and foot. If he so desires, he reads in the Torah, or uses bad language or blasphemes. As for the hand, if he so desires, it performs good deeds or steals or murders. As for the foot, if he so desires, it walks to theatres and circuses, or to places of worship and study....

Five Categories of Lashon Hara

  1. Speech that causes disputes due to "he said, she said" talk which can cause confusion
  2. Speech that is harmful or derogatory
  3. Specifically untrue derogatory speech
  4. Speech which causes pain - emotionally, physically, and financially
  5. Words that are close to lashon hara

Chofetz Chaim 6:1-2

It is prohibited by the Torah to accept and believe lashon hara. One who accepts it transgresses the prohibition of, "Do not accept a false report" (Exodus 23:1)... It is also forbidden to intentionally listen to lashon hara even if one has no intention of believing it. However, there is a difference between (1) listening versus (2) believing lashon hara

  1. Listening to lashon hara is forbidden if the information does not pertain to him. However, if the information being said might pertain to him in the future, it is permitted to listen in order to be prepared and protect himself [from damage or harm]. It is permitted because his intent is not to hear the derogatory information about the person, but rather to protect himself from harm.
  2. However, it is forbidden under all circumstances to believe the lashon hara and decide in your heart that the information is true [unless it is confirmed].

Chofetz Chaim 1:8

The prohibition of Lashon Hara applies as much to speaking about him verbally as it does to writing about him in a letter. There is also no difference how he communicates the Lashon Hara –whether explicitly or by way of a hint – in all cases it is categorized as Lashon Hara.

Jewish Values and Social Media/Cyberbullying

Hebrew English Meaning Social Media Connection Citations
Hochai’ach Tochee’ach You shall rebuke The obligation to be a social critic when you see that society or individuals are making terrible mistakes. Such criticism is viewed as an expression of care for others Caring for others, standing up for others, reporting bullying

Lev. 19:17;

Gen. Rabbah 54; Shabbat 54b

Halbanat Panim Avoidance of public humiliation The loss of personal dignity at the hands of others is considered one of the gravest wrongs in Judaism -- akin to murder. Not humiliating others, not letting others be humiliated

Moed Katan 9b; Baba Metzia 58b

Ona’at D’varim Verbal humiliation A series of laws aimed at preventing people from verbally abusing one another; emotional distress Don't let others verbally abuse one another, don't verbally abuse someone

Lev. 25:14;

Lev. 25:20;

Baba Metzia 58b

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof Justice, justice, you must pursue The obligation to actively promote justice Make sure that inappropriate content is being reported, follow rules of the app/social media platform

Lev. 19.36;

Deut. 16.20;

Zechariah 8.16‐17; M. Avot 1.18; Pro. 31:8-9

B'tzelem Elohim In the image of God The foundational principle that every human being is created in the image of God and must be treated accordingly Treat others with respect Gen. 1:27; Gen. Rabbah 24
Pikuach Nefesh The saving of life The highest Jewish obligation that overrides almost every other law Report threats, report talk of suicide, report behavior that could lead to someone wanting to commit suicide.

Yoma 85b; Sanhedrin 4:5; Baba Metzia 62b

Bakesh Shalom V’Rodfehu Seek peace and pursue it The obligation to actively reduce conflicts. A series of laws and ethical teachings advocating peace, conflict resolution methodologies, and prohibiting violence against the innocent Stand up for others, report inappropriate behavior/content

Ps. 34:15; Pro. 31:8-9; Shabbat 54b

Lashon Hara

Lit. "The evil tongue"

Prohibits statements which are not true, including factually truthful speech if it might possibly malign an individual or ruin a reputation. The gravity of the offense comes from the fact that it is nearly impossible to retract these types of statements

Erchin 15b; Bava Metzia 58b; Pro. 18:21; Mishneh Torah, Laws of De’ot, 7; Book of Ben Sira 19:10

Rechilut Discussing the permanence of spoken words Prohibits statements which are not true The gravity of the offense comes from the fact that it is nearly impossible to retract these types of statements

Erchin 15b; Bava Metzia 58b; Pro. 18:21; Mishneh Torah, Laws of De’ot, 7; Book of Ben Sira 19:10

Ahavat Ger Love of the stranger in your midst A series of laws insisting on compassionate behavior towards strangers, empathy with foreigners, and their inclusion in every aspect of society Be respectful, represent your true self

Ex. 22:20, 23:9; Deut. 16:14; Pro. 31:8-9

Hebrew English Meaning Social Media Connection Citations
Adam Yachid A single human being The rabbinic concept that one human being was created originally so that no one can say, my father was greater than your father. In other words, every human being is unique and inherently precious Be respectful Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, 37a
Derech Eretz Being a mensch Guidance on our moral and ethical behaviors or conduct as Jews and citizens of the world. Treat others well, stand up for what is right, care for others M. Avot 2:2, 3:21, 4:15; Lev. Rabbah 9
V'Ahavta L'reyacha Kamocha Treat your friend as you would want to be treated A blanket statement of looking at those around us as if they were ourselves and treating them as such Care for others, care for yourself Lev. 19:18; Shabbat 31a; Pro. 31:8-9; Sefer Hamitzvot 206
Dan L'chaf Zechut Judge everyone favorably To be fair in all judgments -- not just legal Don't judge people without knowing them M. Avot 1:6, 2:5; Shabbat 145b; Pro. 31:8-9
Al Ta'amod Al Dam Reyacha Do not stand idly by the "blood" of your friend Don't stand and watch someone be hurt, physically, emotionally, verbally, or spiritually. If you see someone being bullied, say something Lev. 19:16; Ex. 2:11-12; Mesilat Yesharim 19:17; Gen. 4:9
Tzniut Modest Behavior There are many way ways to follow modest behavior: avoiding arrogance, what we wear, what we say, what we do, etc.

Maintain your privacy online, think twice before you post or send something, also has a strong relevance to "sexting" and other inappropriate sexual behavior

Isa. 3:18; Gen. 24:65; Vav Vatra 57b; Yevamot 107a; Sotah 3b

  • Whoever can prevent members of their household from committing a sin, but does not, is punished for the sins of their household. If they can prevent their fellow citizens from committing sins, but does not, they are punished for the sins of their fellow citizens. If you can prevent the whole world from committing a sin, but does not, they are punished for the sins of the whole world. Shabbat 54b
  • Life and death are in the hands of the tongue; and they that indulge in it shall eat the fruit thereof [you’ll suffer the consequences of mean words!]. Proverbs 18:21
  • One who gives his neighbor a bad name, can never gain pardon. Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Kamma 8:7
  • Even if we upset somebody only through harsh words, without committing any tangible act of injury, we are still required to seek forgiveness. Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 2:9
  • If a person guards his speech, others will emulate him and he'll be rewarded for that merit also. Chofetz Chaim
  • If the humiliation took place in the presence of others, make your apology in their presence, as well as in private. Otherwise the victim has the right to say, “You shamed me in front of others, and now you want to apologize in private. Bring me all the people who heard you embarrass me, and then I will accept your apology." Yalkout Shimoni, Hosea 14
  • It is forbidden to call someone by a name they dislike. Maimonides, Law of Character Development 6:8
  • Hillel used to say: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" Pirkei Avot 1:14