We tend to think of “fake news” as a new phenomenon, a product of advanced social media technology and our coarse and divided popular culture. But as Ecclesiastes observes (chapter 1, verse 9): “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Fake news — the deliberate spread of misinformation to sway public opinion — dates back to the days of the Bible.
This week, Jewish congregations worldwide will read the Torah portion of “Shelach” (Numbers 13:1–15:41), which tells the story of Moses and the spies.
The setting is dramatic. Moses has led the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt and across the Red Sea to freedom. He has guided them to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, and repented their sin of the Golden Calf. Now, Moses stands with them near the boundary of the Promised Land.
He selects twelve “men of distinction,” one from each tribe (13:3). They are to “see what [kind of] land it is, and the people who inhabit it” (13:18). “So they went up and explored the land” (13:21), the Bible says, spending a full 40 days traveling the length and breadth of the Land of Israel, which was promised to their forefathers generations ago. They collect samples of the land’s produce, including a huge cluster of grapes. Then they return to give their report.
That is when things go terribly wrong.
The majority, ten out of the twelve, give a discouraging report to the people. “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant. … We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. … The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. … There we saw the giants …. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (13: 27-33)
This is the first recorded example of “fake news.” It includes two types of fakery. One involves “facts” that are just made up — stories of giants and grasshoppers. The other involves true facts — “milk and honey” — that are spun in a damaging way, couched in editorial language — “We are unable” — that is calculated to create division and despair.
The minority — Caleb and Joshua — dissent vigorously. “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it,” Caleb protests (13:30).
But the people are dismayed: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert.” (14:2) They despair: “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” (14:4)
The “fake news” has had its effect — not only misinforming the people, but encouraging political division and sedition.
Caleb and Joshua reiterate their report, and tell the people to have faith. “The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land,” they say, urging the people to have faith that the Lord will protect them from harm.
It is to no avail: for their trouble, the Bible says, “The entire congregation threatened to pelt them with stones.” (14:10)
As punishment, the Children of Israel are condemned to wander in the desert for another 40 years, until nearly all of the adults have died. Only a new generation, the Lord decrees, will be able to enter the Promised Land. (14: 29-35)
So fake news is nothing new. What fundamentally divided the spies was not what they saw when they scouted the land, but what they believed about their ability to inhabit it. The majority did not have enough faith, and sought to undermine the faith of others. They planted faulty intelligence with that deliberate, destructive agenda in mind.
Today we face the same problem. The truth is obvious enough for our reporters to see. But some are determined to divide the country and undermine its leadership. They feed false information to the public, or present true facts in the most negative light. As a result, half the country lives in a nightmarish alternate reality, terrified of the country’s leadership.
It is not just a crisis of reporting, but also a crisis of faith. We lack faith in the country’s institutions; we lack faith in ourselves.
“Fake news” has brought this country to a breaking point. Nightmares are becoming reality. Unless we redouble our faith in what we have in common, we are doomed to wander.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.