Trolls Have Always Trolled: What Ben Franklin Can Teach Academics About Social Media
Benjamin Franklin is perhaps best known for signing the U.S. Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Pennsylvania, and proving the existence of electricity in his famous kite experiment. But he also used his printing press to demean his political opponents, harass his business rivals, and stoke anger in pre-revolutionary times. Franklin, in today’s terms, might be called a “troll”: a ringleader in the so-called Pamphlet War of 1764 and other searing debates that led to the American Revolution.
Sure, Franklin’s behavior can be seen as a precursor to the kind of ugly online discourse that we sometimes see today amongst academics on Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms - especially when it comes to masking, vaccines, immigration, and other hot topics. Trolling, dog-piling, harassment, and even threats can lead to university interventions, safety planning strategies, and crisis response.
And yet, despite feeling brand-new, this war-of-words is actually a tale as old as time: political or scientific debate gets heated and researchers ruffle feathers in terms of conventional wisdom, often leading to counter-attacks. What’s actually new about exchanges over social media are their speed, reach, and viral nature. These three factors distinguish our social media environment from the pamphlet wars of Franklin and his peers.
First, speed. Franklin distributed his diatribes in the timeframe of a day or two. In 1764, Franklin took to his printing press to raise awareness of the Conestoga Massacre, or the extra-judicial killing of Indigenous people in the Philadelphia area, and to condemn the activities of the so-called Paxton Boys, an unauthorized militia group. Franklin criticized the pro-British vigilantes for flouting the rule of law, using satire and cartoons to make his points.
I like to think about the mechanics of Franklin’s work: setting the metallic type upside down and backwards, swabbing the letters with ink, squeezing the paper over the press’s coffin, hanging the sheets to dry. Each step would have been a chance for Franklin to reflect on whether he really wanted to go through with it, whether he really wanted to send out that insult or caricature using his own proto-social media. Nowadays, it feels like we don’t have too many chances for such second thoughts. We hit “tweet” or “post” in a dopamine-fueled nanosecond using the miniature, digital printing presses at our fingertips.
And it’s not just speed, but reach, that calls attention to today’s online flare-ups. Like Elon Musk with Twitter, Franklin saw the profit potential in stoking this kind of discourse. He churned out broadsides about issues like colonial rule and local elections, selling them at quite a clip.
However, Franklin’s audience was primarily his local community in Philadelphia, where his printed booklets sold for mere pennies. Old-timey op/eds like these gradually crossed the colonies to make the case for and against the war with England. They were shared from house to house, and read by town criers on street corners. Today, a tweet can cross the ocean and end up halfway around the world in a matter of seconds - sometimes setting off a PR crisis before a post’s author is even aware of what is happening.
Some of the colonists, like Franklin himself, became viral sensations as news and opinion spread this way. His counterpart Thomas Paine sold 120,000 copies of Common Sense in three months in 1776, making the case for the American Revolution into a reality. Copies of Paine’s and Franklin’s pamphlets were found up and down the eastern seaboard, circulating across the colonies in the run-up to war.
Nowadays, that revolutionary potential feels stunted by the dust-ups we witness in our doom-scrolling. For example, the phenomenon of “going viral” looks quite different from Paine’s noble pursuits. Just a few months ago, a meme video of Kevin Hart and The Rock slapping each other with tortillas garnered tens of millions of views in a matter of mere hours: certainly a far cry from the world-changing debates hammered out by 18th century printing presses.
So, what can we in higher ed today learn from Benjamin Franklin and his fellow ink-stained “trolls”?
Critics often point to Twitter and other online platforms as hotbeds of incivility, grievance, or unjustified indignation. But this kind of tone-policing and “techno-pessimism” are a distraction. We easily forget that Franklin and his peers weren’t civil all the time, and they certainly had plenty of legitimate grievances to keep their presses churning with indignant tracts that changed the course of history. While Franklin eventually lost the Pamphlet War in 1764 (as well as his seat in the Pennsylvania assembly), he had laid the foundation to later realize his renegade ideals through the very same means of print media.
That same foundation for change exists in academia when it comes to social media if we take account of the unique characteristics of these platforms. I for one am going to reflect on the speed, reach, and viral nature of the tools at my disposal. This means returning to the values of intellectual life, and perhaps even imagining myself an apprentice in Franklin’s print shop from time to time.
Like the careful laying down of metallic type, I am going to slow down the speed of my online replies and retweets or reposts. This means disrupting the dopamine responses engineered into today’s smartphones and social media platforms. Using tools like mindfulness exercises, taking phone breaks, and choosing who to follow with care, I hope to reduce the knee-jerk impulse to share information without digesting it.
Although I am not an academic myself, I am also going to think more about why I am engaging in social media. A scholar himself, Franklin studied some subjects - like anatomy, law, and technology - in great depth, losing himself in experiments and treatises. His life as a printer and political satirist was intertwined with these research pursuits, much like faculty and students today are immersed in educational projects while also active on social media.
Social media is relational and public by definition - like Franklin and his pamphlets, we can ask ourselves: what is my goal in engaging with these forms of communication? What do I want to say to my audience or the world at large? In this way, all of us could consider developing a personal social media strategy. This could take the form of a journal entry about your own individual boundaries and interests, or a fuller creative brief about your professional and personal profile online.
Finally, I am aiming to focus more on messages’ content rather than retweets or impressions. One way to do this is to look for content that makes me think about something - even a deeply held belief - in a new way. Rather than amplifying entrenched ideas or sharing posts as a sign of support, is there a way to use social media as higher education professionals in order to find avenues for constructive disagreement? To do this, I am following scholars and administrators who address polarized conversations with longer threads on Twitter, or who post visually creative content on Instagram to disrupt more mundane ways of seeing the world.
In the end then, perhaps Benjamin Franklin wasn’t a troll after all. And like his pamphlets, perhaps the coursing river of today’s academic social media posts, tweets, blogs, and chats contain the kernel of ideas that will lead our society to transformation. As higher ed professionals, we may find – just as those pamphleteers of yore – that more careful deliberation leads us to discovery, learning, and even revolutionary change.
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