Substack is wrong about moderation

Notes will challenge its right-wing framing of free speech

Substack is wrong about moderation

For years, it seemed like Twitter was inescapable. While it didn’t have the massive user bases of Facebook or Instagram, it did capture the attention of journalists, politicians, and some other influential groups, making it the best place to keep up with what was happening in the world. But since Elon Musk took over the platform six months ago, a series of bad decisions have eroded Twitter’s position and created an opportunity for another platform to fill that void.

We’ve seen waves of interest in Mastodon, Post, Cohost, Blue Sky, and, most recently, Substack Notes. I could say a lot about all of those and Musk’s response to them, but I want to talk about Notes and Substack more broadly because in moving to try to capture some of Twitter’s market share, Substack has opened itself to a new wave of criticism.

On Thursday, The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel released an interview with Substack CEO Chris Best that probably didn’t turn out how Best was expecting. The clip that immediately circulated around the web was one where Patel asked Best a pretty simple question about content moderation, but Best refused to engage, said it was a “gotcha” question, and restated his commitment to “free speech.” I’ve included an excerpt from the transcript below.


Our host Nilay asked Substack CEO Chris Best the tough questions about whether racist speech should be allowed in their new consumer product, Substack Notes. #techtok #technews #substack #ceo

♬ original sound - Decoder with Nilay Patel
I just want to be clear, if somebody shows up on Substack and says “all brown people are animals and they shouldn’t be allowed in America,” you’re going to censor that. That’s just flatly against your terms of service.

So, we do have a terms of service that have narrowly prescribed things that are not allowed.

That one I’m pretty sure is just flatly against your terms of service. You would not allow that one. That’s why I picked it.

So there are extreme cases, and I’m not going to get into the–

Wait. Hold on. In America in 2023, that is not so extreme, right? “We should not allow as many brown people in the country.” Not so extreme. Do you allow that on Substack? Would you allow that on Substack Notes?

I think the way that we think about this is we want to put the writers and the readers in charge–

No, I really want you to answer that question. Is that allowed on Substack Notes? “We should not allow brown people in the country.”

I’m not going to get into gotcha content moderation.

This is not a gotcha... I’m a brown person. Do you think people on Substack should say I should get kicked out of the country?

I’m not going to engage in content moderation, “Would you or won’t you this or that?”

For anyone not familiar, this is a line that Substack has been using for a long time. They argue that they have a responsibility to protect free speech, which is why they need to have a very loose approach to content moderation. In the interview, Best tries to contrast moderation with censorship, and argues there’s been an experiment in social media censorship over the past five years that has completely failed while refusing to outline how Substack’s approach to “moderation” really works.

But here’s the problem with that: Best, and Substack as a whole, are using a framing of free speech developed by the political right as their politics have become even more extreme and they’ve sought to find ways to legitimize their opposition to many issues — like racial equality, same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and even the rights of trans people — that are quite widely supported, counter to what they might claim. Previously, some of their interventions would have been considered unacceptable, if not even rising to the level of hate speech, but by reframing free speech as the expectation that people on the right should be able to say whatever they want, regardless of how vile and bigoted it is and face no consequences, it makes it easier for those views to spread. And that’s exactly why Substack has received waves of criticism over its platforming of people with very extreme right-wing views that actively seek to undermine the rights of various groups in society.