Two Open Letters About Substack and Extremism
Both are worth reading, and both make valid arguments.
Last month, The Atlantic published a piece by Jonathan Katz titled “Substack Has a Nazi Problem.” In it, Katz argues that Substack’s lax terms of service (and spotty record when it comes to enforcing what rules it does have) has made the platform a go-to destination for Nazis looking to build mailing lists to distribute their abhorrent views.
At least 16 of the newsletters that I reviewed have overt Nazi symbols, including the swastika and the sonnenrad, in their logos or in prominent graphics. Andkon’s Reich Press, for example, calls itself “a National Socialist newsletter”; its logo shows Nazi banners on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and one recent post features a racist caricature of a Chinese person. A Substack called White-Papers, bearing the tagline “Your pro-White policy destination,” is one of several that openly promote the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that inspired deadly mass shootings at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue; two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques; an El Paso, Texas, Walmart; and a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. Other newsletters make prominent references to the “Jewish Question.” Several are run by nationally prominent white nationalists; at least four are run by organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—including the rally’s most notorious organizer, Richard Spencer.
And I’ve noticed this, too, calling attention a few months ago to Richard Hanania, a rising star in right-wing media.
This week, two open letters were published in response to Katz’s Atlantic story.
The first, published byat, argues against Substack taking action in response to Katz’s article. The basic premise here is that Substack already has all the tools authors need to curate a positive experience for their readers.
For the most part, I agree with this basic point. Writers can limit who can comment on their posts, and unlike other platforms, you’re not fed “recommendations” at the bottom of articles to check out other people’s work that the author you’ve actually subscribed to hasn’t approved.1
Now, let me make this perfectly clear: a lot of the people who signed that letter absolutely do not care about “free speech.” Many are “free speech” crusaders who have dedicated portions of their careers to curbing other people’s speech. (See: most of the signatories of 2020’s “Harper’s Letter.”)
But I also think this piece has some flaws, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The other open letter is “Substackers Against Nazis,” which was published to a bunch of individual Substacks today. Here’s a version byat:
Many will (willingly?) misread what Kabas and other writers are actually saying in that piece. Yes, there’s the point that hey, maybe actual Nazis who are members of actual neo-Nazi groups shouldn’t be able to “live comfortably doing something [they] find enjoyable and fulfilling” when what they find “enjoyable and fulfilling” is fomenting hatred against various identity groups. Fair point!
But this is not simply a call for mass censorship, which I think reasonable people can disagree about. There’s another point being made that I hope the platform’s founders hear, process, and respond to [bolded emphasis mine]:
In the past you have defended your decision to platform bigotry by saying you “make decisions based on principles not PR” and “will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation.” But there’s a difference between a hands-off approach and putting your thumb on the scale. We know you moderate some content, including spam sites and newsletters written by sex workers. Why do you choose to promote and allow the monetization of sites that traffic in white nationalism?
This is a good point that I hope the site’s founders consider. Guys like Hanania aren’t just posting into the void. Guys like Hanania are being interviewed (and somewhat laughably being framed as “centrists”) on Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie’s podcast. That’s a lot different than simply not banning him, obviously.
If Substack plans to make a splash in the run-up to the 2024 election, there will no doubt be a lot of thumbs on scales. The best way the platform could push back against its reputation as a haven for extremist right-wing views would be, in my opinion, to make more of a concerted effort to incorporate and promote more liberal, progressive, and leftist content.
Though I didn’t sign either, I believe that both open letters contain valid ideas and arguments, and I hope that they encourage discussion.
That’s it for me today. I’ll be back tomorrow with another edition of TPA.
This was one of the big issues I had with Medium. People would sign up to my blog there, and sprinkled throughout the experience would be “related stories” that would often be anti-trans or just horrible, generally. When deciding where to launch The Present Age back in 2021, this played a huge role. I’d been concerned about the amount of anti-trans content on Substack, and I worried that I would be inadvertently linked to hateful publications. It wasn’t until someone at Substack explained to me that the only way someone would open one of my posts and see anti-trans content would be if I linked it there, myself. There are a lot of valid criticisms of Substack. I called it a “bigot factory” because of the bad content a few years ago. Still, it’s been a mostly good experience for me as a writer. I addressed a lot of this in the very first TPA post.