The Startup
Published in

The Startup

What Would Benjamin Franklin Think About Facebook?

Each day, Facebook users send and receive billions of photographs, animations, videos, articles, useful and useless information, gossip, advertisements, fundraisers, and political and social screeds. This mass of information reaches so-called ‘friends,’ friends of friends, and so on to the reaches of the globe. There are also groups to join, promotional opportunities, and an overwhelming array of response to all of this. Emojis, witty banter, supportive cheers, and acrimonious vitriol freely flow, enabling ideas, opinions, news, facts, and outright lies to bind people together in what Facebook likes to tout as a ‘community.’

This all may sound fundamentally disassociated from an era in which news publishing required setting type by hand, and then delivery by boat or horse, or both. However, many aspects of Facebook would be thoroughly recognizable to Benjamin Franklin, America’s first master of social networking. As a writer, printer, publisher, and postmaster, Franklin was the most experienced and thoughtful intellectual of his era who pondered, and defended, the theory and practice of communications. It seems worthwhile in our perplexing times to try and invoke his wisdom by engaging in a thought experiment — what would Benjamin Franklin think of Facebook?

Looking back to Facebook’s origin story, Franklin undoubtedly would be impressed, but also annoyed that it emerged from the hallowed halls of Harvard. As a boy, Franklin grew up in Boston and thought of Harvard College as a bastion of spoiled elitists, taught by sanctimonious and censorious Puritan clergymen. As the son of a candle and soap maker, Franklin was able to access only two years of formal education, and so likely harbored jealousy of the rich young gentlemen on the other side of the Charles River. His own instruction was a much more organic affair. At the age of 12, Franklin’s father contracted for him to be an apprentice in his brother James’ printing shop. Frustrated at doing only menial work, Franklin began submitting articles for publication under the pseudonym Mrs. Silence Dogood. His fourth essay ridiculed Harvard College. The students of “this famed Place” he wrote, “were little better than Dunces and Blockheads,” and after graduation are “as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.”

Notwithstanding his feelings about Harvard, Franklin most certainly would have admired the hard work, innovation, and enormous profit launched by Mark Zuckerberg and a handful of his classmates from a dorm room in Cambridge in 2004. He might even have seen Zuckerberg as a kindred spirit. Each of them chose a rebellious and entrepreneurial path at an early age. At 16, Franklin ran away from Boston, illegally breaking his contract with his brother, and risking arrest to strike out on his own. Zuckerberg likewise nearly was expelled from Harvard — before he dropped out following his sophomore year.

To create an obnoxious website called “Facemash,” Zuckerberg at the age of 19 hacked into the Harvard University network and extracted photos of his female classmates for the purposes of constructing a game which asked users to compare the headshots and select ‘who’s hotter?’ Franklin might have seen this as ungentlemanly, but he also would have appreciated the fraternal sexism. In 1745, he penned “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress,” urging marriage, but counseling that if the young man preferred to initiate an affair, he should choose an older woman, on the basis that she would be smarter, kinder, more, useful, discreet, and grateful.

Franklin clearly would have recognized, if not shared Zuckerberg’s sexist mischievousness, but even more significantly, he would have entirely grasped what Zuckerberg was trying to accomplish in the coming years as he strove to develop Facebook into something entirely different than its immature and mean-spirited initial version.

In its early years of public development, before 2008, Facebook focused its efforts on developing a “news feed” through which groups of friends shared information and ideas about “the things they were passionate about.” After creating an account, users added friends to their feed, thereby forming what has become known as the world’s first digital “social network.”

Franklin would have understood and cheered this objective wholeheartedly. After training as a printer in London in 1725 and 1726, Franklin settled in Philadelphia. His first serial publication, beginning in 1729, was the Pennsylvania Gazette, the most substantial newspaper in colonial America, which provided news from both home and abroad, reports of public events and scientific discoveries, as well as editorial essays and letters. An example of its cohesive aspiration is Join, or Die, the first political cartoon printed in North America, which in 1754 advocated that colonial militias fight together for their common defense in the French and Indian War. Franklin’s most famous and nearly ubiquitous colonial publication Poor Richard’s Almanack, similarly provided a communal wellspring of information that united colonists.

Franklin also organized a “society of mutual improvement” with several men he admired in Philadelphia, known as the Junto, which eventually became a model for many others in the city and beyond. Initially, members brought their own meagre book collections to share, but Franklin was a voracious reader. In 1731, he encouraged fifty people to contribute funds to purchase and import books, and to share them. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which is still flourishing today, thus became the first circulating library in the colonies, and eventually, the first Library of Congress.

All of these efforts achieved similar goals to Zuckerberg’s idea for a news feed — sharing information that connected individuals together in conversation and strengthened their ability to perceive of themselves as a community — and to organize as one.

Another aspect of Facebook Franklin would have loved is the speed at which the information flows from one person to another. It was a much different story in Franklin’s day: Disseminating information involved the labor-intensive work of setting the type for each page of text and then literally “pressing” paper onto the inked type to print each sheet. Then, printers had to arrange circulation of their finished product. Sharp elbows often were involved in this effort, and both Zuckerberg and Franklin used them in establishing their businesses early on. When Franklin and Hugh Meredith bought the Pennsylvania Gazette from Samuel Keimer in 1729, Andrew Bradford was the town postmaster, which meant that all the information traveling through Philadelphia went through his shop — an enormous economic advantage. Additionally, postmasters enjoyed franking privileges, meaning that Bradford’s newspaper The American Weekly Mercury could circulate for free.

Using his political connections, Franklin managed to get himself appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, after which time his Gazette vastly expanded its reach. Franklin spent the next 53 years of his life serving as a postmaster, first for Philadelphia, then for the colonies as a whole, and finally as the first Postmaster General of the United States.

During these decades he ended the practice of giving financial perks to some newspapers and printers over others, thus facilitating a tremendous increase in the information that flowed throughout the colonies. His efforts also contributed to lowered costs, extended post roads, improved coordination and frequency of mail carrier routes, and improved mail privacy — all of which facilitated the development of the colonies into a connected ‘continental’ social network.

Still, by our standards, communications both domestic and international were painfully slow. In many instances in his long career as a representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly in England, and as an ambassador of the new United States in France, Franklin was sending information to America that was hopelessly outdated by the time he received a response more than a month later. Facebook’s ability to convey information in nanoseconds, rather than weeks or months, via public or private exchange, is obviously an incalculable advantage over Franklin’s era.

Given all of these natural affinities — community building, and the ability to share information widely, quickly, and cheaply — it is likely that if he were alive today, Franklin would have an account on Facebook. He might even have violated Facebook’s rules and maintained dozens, under the more than 42 pseudonyms he used to share his thoughts anonymously during his career — starting with Mrs. Silence Dogood. Judging by the common themes of the voluminous material he wrote, printed, and distributed — in both private letters and formal publications — Franklin today would share scientific discoveries, his thoughts on politics, witty attacks on overzealous clerics and corrupt politicians, and advice on matters personal and professional. In keeping with his rhetorical style, Franklin’s posts and replies would be playful and efficient, thoughtful, provocative, irreverent, and often profound.

Writing under his own name, Franklin also would take care not to over-share or over-react, in keeping with the virtues he tried to model in his public life. According to his Autobiography, written between 1771 and 1790, Franklin during his late teen years was unrestrained, which included fathering a child out of wedlock. In 1726, around the time he decided to return to Philadelphia and marry, he determined to master his baser instincts and created a plan for doing so that listed thirteen virtues to which he aspired: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity, and Humility.

Sharing personal details of his everyday activities would have violated number 2: “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.” Branding the content posted by others with hearts and angry signs might have violated Number 9: “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.” And posting notices of his many accolades would have violated number 13. “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Although with proper guard rails Franklin likely would have seen Facebook as a useful communications tool, he also was an insatiable editorialist with a philosophical bent. I am confident that Franklin would have thought deeply about the many contentious Facebook controversies and scandals that have raged across the globe in the past decade since it evolved into the transformative behemoth it is today.

Up until 2012, Facebook weathered a variety of complaints as it tried out new features, many of which were designed to increase its desirability to advertisers. For example, in its early years an individual’s News Feed began to include sponsored ads or stories based on a user’s interaction with a business on the site. Complaints regarding violations of privacy like this were handled with opt out provisions that largely quelled criticism. This sensible policy of placating customers at little cost surely would have appealed to Franklin, who always was alert to the demands of the marketplace.

2012 brought a new era of controversy and complaints that were far less easy to resolve. At its initial public offering in that year, Facebook was valued at $104 billion dollars. At the time, the network had more than one billion monthly active users, and 140 billion friend connections. Now, Zuckerberg needed to generate proportionate income to appease shareholders who collectively bet on a valuation far outstripping Facebook’s actual profitability.

To that end, Facebook began collecting and selling vastly more data in a bid to lure advertisers. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission had fined the company for breaching its promise to withhold personal data from third-party apps. Nonetheless, Facebook continued encouraging app developers to build products using its data, and questions have been raised about the company’s ability to protect user data, even if it wanted to (which it almost certainly does not).

For example, in 2014, a Cambridge psychology professor named Aleksandr Kogan founded a company called Global Science Research that created a personality test called “thisisyourdigitallife.” Nearly 300,000 Facebook users signed a consent form and received compensation to take the test. However, the quiz also was surreptitiously shared with millions of the research subjects’ friends as well. These individuals had no idea that their responses (and their personal data) were being harvested.

Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm co-founded by Americans Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon, ultimately used this data, collected from more than 50 million Facebook users, to create psychographic profiles of voters in specific locations. Their objectives were to manipulate voter preferences in the Brexit vote and U.S. Presidential elections in 2016 by using the data to microtarget advertisements playing on their fears and prejudices.

When the news of this data harvesting project surfaced in 2018, Zuckerberg apologized and began efforts to adopt the European Union’s more stringent General Data Protection Regulations, even in regions outside the E.U. What would Franklin have thought of this scandal?

Benjamin Franklin most likely would have been fascinated by the technological and quantitative aspects of the data aggregated by Kogan and Cambridge Analytica. In 1751, he used information including records of births, marriages, and deaths to predict “the Increase of Mankind” in Europe as compared with the North American colonies. As an astute businessman, he also would have understood the value of knowing which audiences would be likely customers for his publications. And as a Pennsylvania Assemblyman and Continental Congressman, he would have marvelled at the ability to sway votes so efficiently.

However, Facebook’s privacy problems probably also would have reminded him of the spying that took place in his own era, which he heartily opposed. As a colonial postmaster, Franklin made his employees swear not to open any mail — a common practice among postmasters who were also printers and eager for news to publish. During the revolutionary era, it was common for statesmen like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others to write in code to avoid the common problem of spying.

On the basis of Franklin’s distaste for surveillance alone, he almost certainly would have joined the ranks of those outraged by the harvesting of Facebook’s data. But his outrage also would have extended to the idea that the personal details of his own life could be excavated and disseminated. As Gordon Wood writes, Franklin was a “man of many masks,” whose conversation was marked by “calculated restraint” and “reserved character.”

Franklin additionally would have seen Cambridge Analytica’s actions as a form of “deceit” — violating his seventh virtue. For Franklin, deceit was the opposite of Sincerity. In making only an insincere effort to protect user data, Facebook thereby became complicit in Cambridge Analytica’s nefarious scheme.

Finally, and most importantly, Franklin would have absolutely condemned the uses to which the consulting firm put the data it amassed. Christopher Wylie, a contractor with Cambridge Analytica (and later its most prominent whistleblower), admitted that their purpose had been “to fight a culture war in America. [The company] was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.” It literally is impossible to think of a goal more anathema to Franklin’s main objective throughout his life as a community organizer and public servant — to join together Americans at home and abroad.

Franklin’s desire to foster unity amongst rivals perhaps is most evident in his peerless diplomacy to accomplish ratification of the U.S. Constitution. On June 11, 1787 he urged his fellow congressmen: “For we are sent hither to consult not contend, with each other, and Declaration of a fix’ Opinion, and of determined Resolutions never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us.” As a master of collective action, Franklin urged convention attendees to stand together, as Michael Warner writes, “to act as authors and promoters of the whole document.” Notwithstanding the Constitution’s lamentable failure to eradicate slavery and grant full citizenship to women, this still was a supreme accomplishment — the culmination of efforts Franklin and other had been engaged in for decades — to knit together America’s colonies into a singular entity, now a United States.

Franklin might have reminded Zuckerberg of the better angels of his original, very simple Facebook goal — to bring people together. Any use of the platform to segment and polarize rather than unite would clearly fall afoul of Franklin’s overriding philosophy of networking as a means of building communal comity, prosperity, and virtue.

In addition to privacy concerns, Franklin also would have had a great deal to say about the very thorny matter of what today is politely called content moderation, but really is — more bluntly speaking — censorship. Today, Facebook removes, or demotes an enormous volume of speech for reasons it specifies, including “violence and criminal behaviour, safety, objectionable content, integrity and authenticity, and respecting intellectual property.” These categories have evolved and vastly expanded over time.

When Facebook first was launched, utopian — mostly American — idealists believed that the Internet could and should be an almost entirely unregulated “marketplace of ideas” This was the early idealism behind the Open Internet, a commonly accessible network which would unleash creativity and exchange in unprecedented volume. Free expression was assumed as a norm, and in keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment, Mark Zuckerberg envisioned that Facebook would be an unobstructed conduit for people to share content of their own choosing.

American law ratified this vision, if not its execution. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another content provider.” This provision both reflected a nation imbued with a spirit of free speech, and also enabled the United States to become the social media centre of the world, as companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit found safe legal harbour from any misconduct by their users. Nearly everywhere else in the world, social media companies could be (and sometimes are) held liable for harm arising from content on their sites. Legal scholar David Post credits this provision with driving a trillion dollars of value to American companies. Adopting the ethos of the First Amendment, Section 230 promised that in America, neither Congress, state legislatures, nor the executive branch would censor the Internet.

This feature of American law, and Facebook, can trace its ancestry directly to Benjamin Franklin and the culture of freedom of the press he began to loudly assert in mid-18th century Philadelphia. Franklin both experienced censorship and practiced the routine tasks of deciding what to print and publish, and what to avoid, during most of his career. His familiarity with both sides of the equation began at an early age.

In 1722, Massachusetts governors jailed James Franklin and forbade him from printing his newspaper the New-England Courant, on the basis of an editorial barb suggesting that the administration had been lax in pursuing pirates. Censorship of the press was entirely allowable for governors under English law, as all publications technically operated with permission from the Crown. To get around the restriction, James nominally put his younger brother in charge of the Courant, and Benjamin’s career as a publisher thus began in an act of rebellious subterfuge. Benjamin’s own “indiscreet Disputations about religion” soon got him into hot water as well, hastening his flight from Boston. Censorship, and evading it, was part of Franklin’s life literally from his childhood.

Nearly a decade later, Franklin experienced his most difficult encounter with proposed censorship — this time from an angry mob. In 1731, his Philadelphia shop printed a circular for a sea captain, who mockingly referred to local clergy as “black gowns” and declared them just as unwelcome on his ship as “sea hens” — a widely-known euphemism for prostitutes. The sea captain promptly sailed off before public outrage erupted — with the result that all of it was directed at Franklin, including loud calls for a boycott of his shop. In response, Franklin published a defensive “apology” on the front page of the Gazette, asserting, in part, that printers were not responsible for the content they produced on behalf of clients. In essence, he declared his own Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

In a statement titled “Apology for Printers,” he irreverently responded to the outrage: “Being frequently censur’d and condemn’d by different Persons for printing Things which they say ought not to be printed, I have sometimes thought it might be necessary to make a standing Apology for myself, and publish it once a Year, to be read on all occasions of that Nature.” He continued: “’the peculiar Unhappiness” of printing as a profession is that scarcely anything can be published ‘which shall not give Offence to some, and perhaps to many . . . . it is unreasonable to imagine Printers approve of every thing they print, and to censure them on any particular thing accordingly; since in the way of their Business they print such great variety of things opposite and contradictory. It is likewise as unreasonable what some assert, That Printers ought not to print any Thing but what they approve; since if all of that Business should make such a Resolution, and abide by it, an End would thereby be put to Free Writing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of Printers.”

Franklin’s impassioned non-apology apology has been quoted on numerous occasions as the cri de coeur of a free American press. Perhaps less quoted is the second half of Franklin’s Apology, which explains the enormous amount of care Franklin took in deciding what not to publish, that the public would never see and therefore give him credit for averting.

The shift in tone is the result of his pragmatism, which always tempered his libertarianism. The protestors were also Franklin’s customers, and not just his neighbors. As a printer, he had to balance free expression, liability, and profits. He continued:

“Printers do continually discourage the Printing of great Numbers of bad things, and stifle them in the Birth. I my self have constantly refused to print any thing that might countenance Vice, or promote Immorality; tho’ by complying in such Cases with the corrupt Taste of the Majority, I might have got much Money. I have also always refus’d to print such things as might do real Injury to any Person, how much soever I have been solicited, and tempted with Offers of great Pay; and how much soever I have by refusing got the Ill-will of those who would have employ’d me. I have heretofore fallen under the Resentment of large Bodies of Men, for refusing absolutely to print any of their Party or Personal Reflections. In this Manner I have made my self many Enemies, and the constant Fatigue of denying is almost insupportable.”

Mark Zuckerberg and his public relations staff likely would recognize and share Franklin’s sense of frustration. Facebook today culls an unprecedented volume of speech and images from its site — and for its efforts is equally condemned by those whose content is removed, and by those who think more should be taken down.

The stakes are enormously high in these decisions. As law professor Jeffrey Rosen wrote in 2010, social media moderators “have more power in determining who can speak and who can be heard around the globe than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president” — and that was years before Facebook began its campaign of full throated content moderation. Section 230 or no, both Franklin, and Facebook should be seen as not merely printers of the ideas of others but also as publishers asserting editorial control. Franklin made clear that he did so often.

Facebook was loathe to admit this role at the outset, but the slippery slope descending to its current position as the world’s most prolific censor began early on. Despite its initial plan to allow expression to pour forth, unfiltered, within short order people were posting terrifying text and images. Facebook needed to maintain a site that users were not afraid to access, and thus some policing was unavoidable. In 2008, Facebook formed a small “hate and harassment team” which removed material that “violated the terms of service, which prohibit material that is hateful, threatening, pornographic or incites violence or illegal acts,” a list which sounds similar to Franklin’s own prohibition against ‘vice, immorality, and harm.’ For several years, Facebook resisted expanding its restrictions, hoping to maintain its conceptual privilege as a mere ‘printer,’ essentially free of liability. But horrifying content continued to be posted, making this position increasingly untenable.

This problem reached a critical juncture in 2019. For twenty-nine minutes, thousands of Facebook users watched a livestreamed massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. The idea that Facebook could be a largely unobstructed conduit of user-generated content, an idea that steadily had been eroding, now vanished. Today, tens of thousands, and possibly more than one hundred thousand content moderators, speaking dozens of languages around the world, review flagged content and remove posts and accounts as rapidly as possible. The company also is pouring money into the expansion of artificial intelligence programs that perform many of the same functions. Facebook further has hired fact-checking firms to advise it of clear misinformation which should be removed entirely or demoted by algorithms which determine how often or how widely a post is seen, although it is unclear to what extent the company abides by their suggestions.

Benjamin Franklin would no doubt be horrified, but not necessarily surprised by the human violence, depravity, and meanness shared on Facebook. He lived in a time of cruel colonization tactics, genocide, slavery, plague, famine, and brutal warfare. Since the origin story of the American free press, which dates back to Franklin’s era, these difficult conditions have always existed. Neither Franklin, Mark Zuckerberg, nor any other credible communications professional would ever suggest that there is nothing worthy of censure — and censorship. But the daily work of drawing a boundary line between printable and unprintable speech also involves surveying a vast terrain of materials much less easy to distinguish. As Franklin wrote in his Apology, “So many Men so many Minds,” adding “All this is very hard!”

Two irresolvable problems persist, from Franklin’s time to our own, which we must admit and acknowledge. The first is that there is evil in the world, and plenty of people who want their voices to be heard for reprehensible purposes. Some censorship is necessary, in any society, to promote the common good and to minimize harm of many kinds. The question is: who should be the arbiter?

Franklin was very clear on this point. In 1737, an essay was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, presumably written by Franklin himself, “On Freedom of Speech and the Press.” He admitted that there were “abuses of the freedom of speech” that amounted to “excesses of liberty. They ought to be repressed;” and then asked: “but to whom dare we commit the care of doing it? An evil magistrate intrusted with power to punish for words, would be armed with a weapon the most destructive and terrible. Under pretence of pruning off the exuberant branches, he would be apt to destroy the tree.” In other words, Franklin wasn’t opposed to all censorship — he simply trusted printers, rather than politicians, to make the difficult call between allowable and immoral speech.

Before we accept his position, we should consider that this too, must be acknowledged as an imperfect proposition. Who is so perfectly virtuous as to be able to draw the boundaries of speech with wisdom and equanimity in all cases? Take the case of Benjamin Franklin himself, for example. Franklin came to the cause of abolition only very late in his life, although fervently at that time. His last public act two months before his death in 1790 was to submit a petition to Congress advocating an end to legal slavery.

But for most of his working life, Franklin held several African Americans in bondage, both in Philadelphia and in London, including a couple named Peter and Jemima, their son Othello, and John, a young man who accompanied Franklin on overseas journeys. David Waldstreicher “underscores that American printing, like much of the colonial economy, was established by slaves and servants: the ‘labor of the unfree.’” Even though Franklin himself started life as an indentured apprentice, beaten by his brother with legal impunity, “fully one-quarter of his own Philadelphia Gazette editions contained ads fostering the slave trade.”

The choice not to censor in this egregious case is a good reminder that these types of decisions often have as much to do with economics as they do with morality. Franklin chose to print the ads and accept the revenue while also taking payment from Quakers to print their abolitionist circulars. Just as in the case of the black gowns and sea hens, he might have claimed that he wasn’t really paying attention to either, but the responsibility ultimately rested on his shoulders, as it does in the case of Mark Zuckerberg — whether he wants to admit it or not. Both then and now, printers were engaged in a constant exercise of balancing competing forces: the potential for outrage, their moral duty, and the desirability of profits. How sad then, in retrospect, that the slight to clerics caused so much more outrage and potential for financial losses than the advertisements for the sale of human beings held in bondage.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg’s chief rival, Twitter C.E.O. Jack Dorsey, made a transformational decision to begin removing tweets containing dangerous misinformation about Covid-19, including those from the accounts of prominent politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, and Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela. And just this week, Twitter applied a fact-check label to a tweet shared by President Donald Trump, who claims that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. The President’s assertion, which defies research and evidence, is considered dangerous not only because in-person voting may spread the Covid-19 virus, but also because the allegation of fraud might be used as a pretext for defying election results in November that are adverse to the President and his Republican party.

The fact-check label directs users to articles about mail-in ballots in mainstream news sources. This move is significant because this is the first time Twitter has chosen to label a Trump tweet, despite years of complaint over his circulation of conspiracy theories, bullying language, racist and sexist taunts, and even medical recommendations that can lead to unnecessary suffering and death.

Facebook, in contrast, chose not to follow Twitter’s lead when Trump posted the same content on its site, stating: “We believe that people should be able to have a robust debate about the electoral process, which is why we have crafted our policies to focus on misrepresentations that would interfere with the vote.” Facebook will take down lies about how to order a ballot, for example, but not lies about a candidate or lies by a candidate. If the source is what it calls “authentic” meaning a real person connected to a real name, Facebook assumes that users can make their own assessment of the likely value and veracity of the information. So, for example, if Donald Trump recommends drinking bleach, Facebook leaves the post intact and assumes readers won’t listen to him.

Who would Franklin side with, Dorsey or Zuckerberg? The young Franklin who wrote Apology of a Printer, might well have sided with Mark Zuckerberg. “When Truth and Error have fair Play,” he wrote, “the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” But Franklin would have been vexed to have his “inauthentic” pseudonymous accounts removed, and we would have lost a great deal of wisdom if he had not been able to use anonymity to put forth provocative criticisms. Franklin therefore might have advised Zuckerberg to focus on the nature of the content, rather than its “authenticity.” He also likely would have worried about Facebook’s business model as an inducement to poor decisions, in contrast to Twitter.

In November, 2019, Twitter banned all paid political advertising on its site. In reality, the platform still serves as a major vehicle for candidates to promote their campaigns, but still the profit motive to accept harmful content is far reduced. Facebook, in comparison, expects to earn about 400 million dollars in 2020 from its sales of political advertising. It is not surprising therefore that last year, Facebook made the controversial decision to exempt political ads from fact-checking protocols it applies to other sources of information, and to continue allowing the micro-targeting — and therefore the polarization — of voters.

On this score, Franklin very likely would part ways with Zuckerberg, and specifically Facebook’s business model. Rather than forming a monopolistic corporation during his own career, which he easily could have done, Franklin innovated a business model much closer to franchising. He trained and financed young printers whom he admired and respected in other colonial towns, who thereafter remunerated him with a share of their profits. At the height of his career, Ralph Frasca writes, Franklin “established a network of associates that included eight out of the fifteen newspapers in North America and the West Indies.” These printers exchanged their newspapers and reprinted each others’ stories, extending their reach much in the same way an item shared over and over on Facebook equally increases its influence.

Franklin never attempted to control the editorial content shared within this network. In contrast in 2018, Monica Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management for Facebook described the goals of its content moderation guidelines as follows: “We try to make sure that our standards are sufficiently granular so that they don’t leave a lot of room for interpretation . . . Reviewers are [going to] have different ideas about what level of nudity is offensive or what level of graphic violence is something we should take down. Or, should you be able to use certain words? What constitutes an ethnic slur? We have very specific guidance, so that if the person is in the Philippines, in India, in Texas they are [going to] reach the same decision.”

Franklin likely would have viewed this ideal of unitary authority to shape speech as enormously dangerous in comparison to a network of individuals making a variety of independent decisions, rooted in the values of their local communities. Franklin spent his life bringing people together, but never for the purpose of ‘groupthink.’ As Walter Isaacson writes, “Franklin’s most ‘fundamental ideal’ was a ‘faith in the wisdom of the common citizen that was manifest in an appreciation for democracy and opposition to all forms of tyranny.’” And he not only espoused that view, he actively worked to make it true, founding and supporting educational institutions, and an exchange of ideas, that would build the wisdom necessary for a people entrusted with the highest power in government.

Facebook’s playbook for regulating the speech of over 2.6 billion users likely would strike Franklin as a dangerous opportunity for tyranny, particularly in light of the fact that the profit motive so strongly favors the speech of wealthy customers, rather than citizens.

In a final thought experiment, I would like to imagine what Benjamin Franklin would advise Mark Zuckerberg to do now at the age of 36, and I can sum that up in one word: retire. In 1748, at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin signed a co-partnership agreement with his foreman, David Hall, and retired from business. Next, Franklin moved on to the life he dreamed of — as a scientist, philanthropist, and statesman. In 1750, Franklin explained his choice, by asserting that he wanted to be remembered for living “usefully” rather than dying rich. Twenty years later, Franklin bemoaned the single-minded pursuit of profit: “the Sight of so many Rich wallowing in superfluous Plenty, whereby so many are kept poor distress’d by Want.” Franklin’s fervor for personal industry was never for the trappings of wealth that hard work might bring, but rather for the comfort provided to those who contributed hard work and honest dealings to civil society.

As my final thought on what Franklin would advise Mark Zuckerberg, I suggest that he would have tactfully coaxed him to dismember Facebook for the greater good, perhaps into multiple autonomous franchises, led by trusted and thoughtful leaders, like the printers Franklin trained and established. Franklin would remind Zuckerberg that tyranny can be the product of an overly-powerful company, as well as a king or president. With power shared more broadly, so too would the potential for conversations likely to produce new knowledge, ideas, and yes, wealth. Franklin knew that we cannot wish away the difficult responsibility to adjudicate the balance between freedom of speech and the health of the nation. In his world, many more individuals shared that burden — why not in ours?

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Amy Werbel

Author of Lust On Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (Columbia University Press, 2018).