From Platform to Publisher: Facebook, the Early American Open Press, and Alex Jones

Yesterday, Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify removed the content of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their services. Jones has gained notoriety for propagating outrageous falsehoods on topics including vaccines, school shootings, and uh, *checks notes* space vampires. These decisions to remove Jones’s content come amid a growing public conversation about the extent to which technology and social media companies should act as stewards of truth. Facebook in particular has come under scrutiny for its role in spreading “fake news” in American politics and anti-Muslim propaganda in Sri Lanka, as well as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense of Holocaust deniers’ ability to share verifiably false content on the site.

Facebook claims that it is a neutral platform, not a publisher—a technology company, rather than a media company. It doesn’t directly produce content, Zuckerberg emphasizes. It’s just a glorified community bulletin board. The implication of this defense is that Facebook is not only neutral in matters of politics, but also in matters of  truth.

Zuckerberg is not the first to make this kind of claim. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay for his Pennsylvania Gazette titled “Apology for Printers” that responded to some concerns that his readers had raised about the contents of one of his recent advertisements. As a printer, Franklin explained, he couldn’t pick sides in disputes over news or politics. “Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick,” he wrote, “and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” He would not make himself responsible for determining what was true and what was false. Inevitably, then, he would print some false things. But that was to be expected. Readers could determine what was true on their own.

These practices were common among colonial Anglo-American printers. Scholars call this model the “open press.”[1] In 1705, for example, printer John Campbell admitted that he had published some false news, but pointedly refused to apologize. He brashly asked his readers if they “have themselves now & then told a Story that needed a further Elucidation.[2] Everyone else was allowed to pass along unconfirmed rumors without remorse, Campbell seemed to suggest, so why not him? By protesting that their newspapers were mere platforms, which passively shared news without determining whether they were true, printers such as Campbell and Franklin could grasp the mantle of neutrality and resist the burden of responsibility.

The “open press” ideology remained dominant for several decades, until the Anglo-American imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s. In that era, many printers faced new pressure from readers and local leaders to excise apparent “falsehoods” from their pages. Patriots generally argued that the lies of their enemies—the British ministry, their Loyalist neighbors—were too dangerous to share. They determined whether a news item was “true” largely based on its relation to their politics. This marked the beginning of a shift away from the open press and toward a model of the newspaper that at least claimed to be a source of truth and knowledge. In 1770, for example, the New York Patriot printer John Holt admitted that while he had published “Things on all Sides” in the past, he now felt that the press should be “subservient to… the public good.” As the political stakes of news escalated, Holt eventually declared in 1775 that he would only print pieces that “support… the cause of truth and justice.”[3] Other Patriot printers also believed that the imperial crisis left them with no choice but to exercise their “right to judge” what they would publish.[4] Platforms no longer, many revolutionary-era newspapers had come to see themselves as publishers.

The American Revolution exposed the limitations of the idea of an “open press.” After all, papers such as Campbell’s and Franklin’s could never truly be neutral platforms. The material constraints of their medium ensured that they could only publish a fraction of the news that they received. As printers, they were constantly forced to decide what news was important enough to reprint, and what could be ignored. They decided what news to reprint and what to discard based on a number of factors, including by anticipating what readers might enjoy and what might anger government officials. For these reasons, most colonial Anglo-American newspapers would probably not have published an essay explaining why, for example, the French were actually a superior people than the English.

While Mark Zuckerberg does not face the material challenges of eighteenth-century printers, limited by the physical space available on a sheet of paper, his social network trades on an even more scarce resource—our attentions. Its algorithms promote and demote certain news items, largely based on how they predict we will engage with that news. By making such choices, these “platforms” abandon any claims to neutrality.

Facebook and the other tech giants have not yet acknowledged this fact. It removed Alex Jones’s pages not for his propagation of shameful falsehoods, but rather for “glorifying violence” and violating their “hate speech policies.”  (Ben Franklin had a similar policy: he  “refus’d to print such things as might do real Injury to any Person”) These are important policies to enforce. Yet they have also offered Facebook an easy way of sidestepping the challenging issue of dealing with viral deception.

While Facebook cannot, and should not, adjudicate all questions of truth and falsehood, it does have the capacity to determine that some things are demonstrably false. Unlike the Patriot printers of the American revolutionary era, whose relationship to truth was often tenuous, Facebook has the resources and the epistemic infrastructure to combat viral deception. It has willing partners in thousands of professional fact checkers, academics, and journalists dedicated to finding and promoting the truth. It should use them. The fiction of the open press began to fall away in the political ferment of the imperial crisis. Likewise, the fiction of the neutral “platform” may be starting to recede in the tumult of our present. But the longer that Facebook resists accepting its responsibility to police and remove obvious and blatant forms of deception, the more difficult its transition from platform to publisher will become.

[1] There is much more to say about the open press than I can fit into this blog post. For more, see Stephen Botein, “‘Meer Mechanics’ and an Open Press: The Business and Political Strategies of Colonial American Printers,” Perspectives in American History9 (1975): 127-228; Robert William Thomas Martin, “The ‘Free and Open Press’: The Foundation of Modern American Democratic Press Liberty” (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1997).

[2] Boston News-Letter, Nov. 12, 1705. For a fuller accounting of this incident, see Charles E. Clark, The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665–1740 (New York, 1994), 92.

[3] New-York Journal, April 26, 1770, Jan. 5, 1775.

[4] Pennsylvania Journal, August 17, 1774.

One response

  1. Pingback: From Platform to Publisher: Facebook, the Early American Open Press, and Alex Jones — The Junto – WilliWash


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