Substack’s Nazi Problem

Substack hits a new low as a media venture, and risks losing it all

Update: The Monday after this post was published, Substack reconsidered, and decided it will pull Nazi publications from its platform.

When Substack started, Hamish McKenzie, one of the founders, told me in an interview:

[Chris Best and I] both cared a great deal about how the breakdown in the media business was having negative consequences in society, so we decided to try do something about it. We created Substack to change the incentives for writers, so they could get paid by their readers instead of advertisers. We wanted to flip the attention economy on its head. . . .

Substack is intended as an antidote to the prevailing media environment. . . . and the rise of tech platforms . . . in which it was more profitable to spread sensationalism, outrage, and divisiveness than it was to spread truth . . .

Since then, Substack has lost credibility. First, it became a host to multiple Covid conspiracy theorists and anti-vax proponents, defending itself for allowing this by retreating behind the tired “we don’t censor” trope to explain their lack of standards as a media platform.

Now — as Casey Newton reports in his “Platformer” newsletter on Substack — Substack has come out to explicitly state — in a blog post by McKenzie — that even Nazis can use Substack to promote their views.

This is a shocking dereliction of duty for a media company, especially now, but also always. Fascism, hate, and anti-Semitism are not acceptable views to promulgate, much less amplify and help monetize, full stop. In fact, they are dangerous views to amplify and monetize. For technology purveyors to play dumb about the fact that they are also running a media company — and therefore shoulder media company responsibilities — is unacceptable.

For Substack to take 10% of the money generated by newsletters promoting Nazi viewpoints is beyond the pale.

Commissions like this are the flaw in the Substack business model. Ghost, the platform I’m using now, charges an annual hosting fee. There’s an upfront cost, and no direct payola to the platform for every subscription I receive. The commission model makes starting a Substack newsletter a no-cost venture, and makes Substack richer anytime a newsletter gets a new subscriber, even if that newsletter is run by Nazis or liars. It’s the advertising model in disguise.

One core feature of Substack — and every other technology platform that has become a media company — is the recommendation feature. This feature has helped spread anti-vax conspiracies on Substack. As Newton writes:

Recommendations might appear on their surface to be innocuous, and in most cases they are. In three years on Substack, I’ve been recommended plenty of boring posts, but no openly Nazi ones. My experience of them has been unobjectionable.

But turning a blind eye to recommended content almost always comes back to bite a platform. It was recommendations on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube that helped turn Alex Jones from a fringe conspiracy theorist into a juggernaut that could terrorize families out of their homes. It was recommendations that turned QAnon from loopy trolling on 4Chan into a violent national movement. It was recommendations that helped to build the modern anti-vaccine movement.

The moment a platform begins to recommend content is the moment it can no longer claim to be simple software.

Newton is considering leaving Substack. Subscribers are canceling subscriptions to his newsletter, and to others, because the platform has taken this stance.

This marks a new low in the public platforming of content.

I’m also very aware I am writing this just before the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol — an insurrection that platforms, recommendation engines, and abdications of responsibility all made possible.

It’s time for more writers to move on from Substack. I’m glad I did years ago.