It was a story that made headlines around the world, giving the Charedi world a universal black eye.
El Al’s Flight LY002 from New York’s JFK Airport found itself experiencing an unexpected delay on June 20th when a small group of Charedi travelers demanded seat changes that would prevent them from sitting next to women. Passenger Khen Rotem described the sequence of events, noting that flight attendants unsuccessfully attempted to resolve the problem, until after much criticism and arguing, two women agreed to switch seats so that the 6 P.M. flight could finally take off. According to Rotem, one of the Charedi men kept his eyes closed from the time he boarded the plane until the time he arrived in Tel Aviv to avoid looking at women.
“Bottom line,” wrote Rotem, “in the time that the El Al plane was engaged in theological debates and personal rights, 12 planes from other airlines went ahead of Flight 002. The flight to Israel was delayed by an hour and 15 minutes.”
The story went viral, making headlines in both Israeli and American media as well as the BBC, Irish Times, and Moscow-based Sputnik News, among others. But things didn’t end there. Days after the story broke, the CEO of one of Israel’s largest high-tech companies announced that its employees would no longer fly El Al due to its “discriminatory” practices, prompting the airline to formally announce that any passenger who refuses to sit next to another traveler would be removed from the plane, as reported by Haaretz.
End of story, right?
Two weeks after the news first broke, Israeli news site Kol Hazman offered a very different version of events supplied by another passenger on the now-famous flight. The article included a statement from El Al saying that the flight had been only slightly delayed and both official documents and El Al confirm that LY002 left just 18 minutes late on the date in question. Asked about the discrepancy, Rotem acknowledged that his timeline may have been inaccurate and that he posted the information simply to have El Al clarify its policy on situations like the one that transpired on that evening. Rotem said that he never expected his post to go viral or to create negativity about any particular events.
Unfortunately, that is pretty much what happened.
It wasn’t until the Trump presidency that the term “fake news” became part of the vernacular, with our 45th president using the term to fight back against what he considered unfair coverage by media outlets that he felt were out to get him at every turn. But the idea that less-than-truthful information could be disseminated to the public is hardly new.
According to Smithsonian.com, President John Adams expressed his dissatisfaction with the free press at the turn of the 19th century in a copy of French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet’s 1795 writing Outline of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind. Leaving his own footnote in the margins of the book’s discussion of the news media’s ability to print freely without censorship, prompting free debate, then-President Adams wrote, “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798.” Historian David A. Copeland winds the timeline back on fake news even further, setting it at 1640 with pamphlets published in both colonial America and England playing fast and loose with the truth to further particular ideas.
Of course, no student of history could forget the mass hysteria that reportedly ensued as actor Orson Welles narrated the story of War of the Worlds on a CBS radio program on October 30th, 1938, describing the mythical Martian invasion of New Jersey in vivid detail. At the time, news reports said that nearly a million people fled their homes in a state of panic, with the story growing more apocalyptic as time went by. But even that initial report may have been fake news, with data showing only a relatively small number of listeners tuning into the program and fewer still falling for the hoax. According to Slate, the story was hyped by newspapers who had lost advertisers to radio outlets during the Depression and was a desperate bid to discredit radio as a reputable source of information.
The stakes and the stage are considerably larger than ever before in today’s fast-paced wireless world. Satirical news abounds, with late-night talk show hosts often skewing the truth in order to create a memorable punchline. Readers who stumble upon The Onion while surfing the web will find themselves scratching their head in wonderment until they realize that they are on a parody site that prides itself on witty but fanciful stories. Further complicating matters is the fact that anyone with a social media account can put pretty much anything out there, with their words having the ability to go viral at any time. Whether their statements are accurate or not is often beside the point, with some people deliberately placing misleading content in their feeds while others do so quite unintentionally.
According to NBC News, a 2016 study analyzing the consumption of fake news during the 2016 presidential election found that social media platforms have been a game changer when it comes to the spread of misinformation. Facebook proved to be the site visited most often by people just prior to clicking on a fake news site, beating out Google, Twitter, and web mail platforms and it has since partnered with fact checkers in an attempt to prevent the proliferation of fake news.
Internet fact-checking is nothing new, with many an urban legend rapidly losing its luster after being debunked by Snopes. Started in 1994 by Californian David Mikkelson of California, Snopes was originally intended to be an online treasure trove of myths and other tall tales, but eventually, it evolved into the internet’s oldest and largest fact-checking site. Using a core group of researchers and analyzers, Snopes investigates and analyzes rumors, displaying the sources and materials used to arrive at its conclusions. Topics addressed on Snopes include storing valuables in your dishwasher during a hurricane (not a good idea since dishwashers can flood and can also float away during a significant storm); whether or not First Lady Melania Trump wore a jacket bearing the words “I DON’T REALLY CARE, DO YOU?” when she went to visit immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents (yes, she actually did); and Coca Cola’s purchase and imminent discontinuation of Dr. Pepper several years ago (neither of which actually happened).
So perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned in an age where anyone can find themselves addressing a global audience is one that you were probably taught by your parents, many moons ago: don’t believe everything you read. That story that appeared in 2015 about being able to recharge your iPhone by popping it into the microwave? A fake, reported CNN. The death announcements of actor Morgan Freeman and PBS “Science Guy” Bill Nye are just as erroneous as the countless Elvis sightings that have been reported over the years. The fact that something appears on the internet or in the newspaper doesn’t automatically make it true.
Amidst all of the hoopla surrounding fake news comes the most important realization of all: whether they are perpetuated accidentally or intentionally, mistruths can have negative consequences. In the case of El Al’s Flight LY002, the difference between an 18-minute flight delay and one that was reputed to be more than four times longer had many indicting the Charedi passengers, and by extension, Charedim in general, for an imposition that was nowhere near as egregious as originally portrayed.
That point was driven home by an email exchange included in the Kol Hazman story between El Al and Israeli news personality Sivan Rahav-Meir, who did what the other journalists before her had failed to do: she reached out to the airline to verify the story. Sharing the dialogue that noted the inaccuracies of the original report on Facebook, Rahav-Meir wrote, “I don’t want this post to defend those two people [who delayed the plane] I want that this post to defend the other 8 million people from public criticism that has absolutely no basis in fact.”
So on behalf of those of us, myself included, who were so quick to believe the worst about those Charedi passengers, I apologize to those individuals for being so quick to believe the worst of them. I promise you, it won’t happen again.
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines, and many private clients. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.