People want an apology from Facebook for its role in the 2016 election — a real one this time, skeptics say. Just as they wanted one last year from Google for allowing ads to appear alongside offensive videos on YouTube.
But the apology that might best inform the country’s anguished debate over free speech and the spread of false information — which found a focal point this week in efforts to limit the platform enjoyed by Alex Jones of Infowars — is the one issued by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. The giant of colonial-era publishing might just be the intellectual lodestar missing from the 21st century reckoning with “fake news,” a term that has been reduced to a rhetorical bludgeon.
“Apology for Printers” was the response of the polymath and founding father to the public outcry over his decision to print an advertisement for a ship sailing to Barbados that seemed to denigrate the clergy. Franklin was no stranger to the condemnation of his readers, he said. He was so familiar with public censure that he had long considered drafting “a standing Apology,” which he could republish every time he ruffled someone’s feathers. He never got around to it, instead issuing the lone apology to quiet the most recent flap.