Friday, January 28, 2011

Twitter: Armed and Dangerous?


There's been this news story floating around Hollywood over the last few years (the incident here took place in March of 2009), about a dispute between music personality Courtney Love and a Texas fashion designer.  It seems that they had a falling out over their business dealing.  Love was seriously upset...and proceeded to start accusing the designer of doing other malicious and unseemly things.

We may never know to what extent any of these charges are true.  What we do know is that the dispute didn't get played out in a trendy LA restaurant, or on the set of one of Love's music videos.  It played out on Twitter.

Now the designer has filed a lawsuit against Love alleging libel.  The designer believes that her reputation was severely tarnished thanks to Love's tweets, and that her business is suffering as a result.  (Love had between 40,000-60,000 followers on Twitter when this all took place.)  According to legal experts, this is the first celebrity libel lawsuit - involving Twitter - that has ever taken place.  Observers are anxious to watch the events play out, as many believe that it will be a landmark case that sets the tone for future legal discussions about free speech and the Internet.

According to this article, it looks like Love's legal team is weighing a few different defenses.  One is their assertion that Twitter is purely a forum of opinion.  People post their thoughts all the time...and everyone knows that you're not supposed to take Twitter posts too seriously.  Alternatively, the legal team is also exploring whether they can claim that she was temporarily insane....because she was addicted to Twitter.  Her attorneys are suggesting that her Internet addiction proves that she did not set out to be purposely malicious to the designer (a requirement in libel lawsuits).

The Jewish response to this pattern of behavior, and these defenses, is clear.  Thanks, in part, to this week's Torah portion (Parshat Mishpatim), we know that Judaism abhors any and all kinds of gossip.  As our parsha notes: "You must not carry false rumors."

Judaism takes gossip and rumor-mongering so seriously because we understand that our words (whether they are spoken or tweeted) have the ability to do permanent damage.    Certainly they can be emotionally hurtful to the person whom we are talking about.

But the dangers of gossip are broader than just hurting another's feelings.  As is illustrated in the Courtney Love case: the designer is arguing that her reputation was permanently diminished, because tens of thousands of people followed Courtney's twitter feed (and thus saw the things that Love had written about her).  (According to Jewish law, it is entirely irrelevant if the things that Love wrote were true or not.)

Regardless of whether the California court system finds Love guilty of libel (stay tuned: the case goes to trial in early February), this incident should give us pause.  It should remind us that how we behave online - especially what we post on social networking sites - matters.  Our actions have consequences.  We are liable when we actively spread gossip of one kind or another. 

And, according to Jewish tradition, we are also liable if we simply take part in the gossiping of others.  The obvious example here is when we buy a copy of People Magazine, or visit a gossip website.  Our purchase of the magazine, or our visiting a website only fuels this industry, and encourages more gossip.

The Talmud famously asks the question: why are our fingers shaped like pegs?  The rabbis' answer: so that when we hear something improper, we can simply plug our ears.

Shutting out all gossip may not be a realistic response, given the day and age that we live in.  But that doesn't mean that we can't aspire to the Talmud's approach.  At the end of the day, we aren't responsible for what other people are writing or saying.  But we can be responsible for what we hear or read.

Let's learn from Courtney Love's unfortunate situation: and stay away from the dangerous gossip that calls out to us online.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

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