When we think of the commandment to not bear false witness, we often think of it as a commandment not to lie, and that is one valid application. However, we should do more than just avoid deliberately spreading false information; we should also strive to avoid unintentionally doing so as well.
When I was a kid, I remember watching Muppet Classic Theater, in which the Muppets performed several classic fairy tails. One of the stories they told was The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but with one key difference. In the original fairy tale, the shepherd boy is bored, so he pranks the townspeople multiple times by claiming he saw a wolf when there was none. In the Muppets version however, the shepherd (played by Gonzo) isn't deliberately dishonest. Instead, he just overreacts to tiny things and jumps to conclusions rather than getting all the facts straight, rushing to warn the townspeople about some impending disaster (including flood, earthquake, and plagues of insects) that then never materializes. In both the original and the Muppet version of the story, when the wolf eventually does show up, the shepherd runs to warn the town, but they don't trust him. But in Gonzo's case, his character flaw was not that of lying, but of not making sure what he was saying was true before telling it to others.
If we're not careful, we too can fall into the trap of unintentionally spreading false information. We naturally want to warn others when we suspect something might be wrong. But in the heat of the moment it's easy to forget that we don't always see things accurately. And while we might have good intentions, the consequences of being careless about the truth can be just as damaging as if we had intentionally lied. Spreading false information can damage reputations or or encourage harmful actions. And even if we happen to get it right, developing a habit of carelessness increases the chances of getting things wrong in the future.
Being careless about the truth could manifest in a number of ways:
- Assuming that someone is guilty before learning all the facts,
- Assuming that someone's actions are motivated by malicious intent,
- Sharing a fact, quote, or statistic without checking its source,
- Sharing a news story or article without verifying that it is accurate,
- Sharing a news story or article without even reading it,
- Presenting something as established fact when it is actually a matter of opinion or still being researched,
- Implying another source is unreliable without providing a valid reason for skepticism,
This is not to absolve others from their own responsibility to vet the accuracy of what they see, read, or hear. But we make that task easier by not inadvertently giving false information further paths to spread. We don't need to have absolute certainty before sharing something. And even the most careful individual will make mistakes. But by making a conscious effort to spread truth and not error, our ability to discern what is truth will grow stronger with time.