I’ve always been conflicted about having Disconnect on Substack. There’s no denying it’s one of the top newsletter platforms and has important network effects that help new publications get off the ground. It also makes the logistics of it all pretty easy.
But since Substack took off (or maybe even one of the reasons it did take off) is that it’s adhered to an idea of free speech that’s taken hold among many of the Silicon Valley elite that feels people should be able to say the most vile things on their mind and the consequences shouldn’t come through platform moderation but debate in the “marketplace of ideas.” In my view, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding and misleading right-wing interpretation of free speech designed to enable the promotion of bigoted and hateful ideas that would otherwise be socially unacceptable.
I’ve written about this in the past and my disagreement with it so you all know where I stand. Even though I use the platform, I do not agree with the politics of those who run it and I have debated whether and when to jump ship because of it.
To that end, I’m putting my name to an open letter seeking direct answers from Substack leadership on why they continue to allow hateful and bigoted people — including Nazis — to use their platform to spread and monetize views that directly target marginalized people. Please find it below.
Dear Chris, Hamish & Jairaj:
We’re asking a very simple question that has somehow been made complicated: Why are you platforming and monetizing Nazis?
“Some Substack newsletters by Nazis and white nationalists have thousands or tens of thousands of subscribers, making the platform a new and valuable tool for creating mailing lists for the far right. And many accept paid subscriptions through Substack, seemingly flouting terms of service that ban attempts to ‘publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes’...Substack, which takes a 10 percent cut of subscription revenue, makes money when readers pay for Nazi newsletters.”
As Patrick Casey, a leader of a now-defunct neo-Nazi group who is banned on nearly every other social platform except Substack, wrote on here in 2021: “I’m able to live comfortably doing something I find enjoyable and fulfilling. The cause isn’t going anywhere.” Several Nazis and white supremacists including Richard Spencer not only have paid subscriptions turned on but have received Substack “Bestseller” badges, indicating that they are making at a minimum thousands of dollars a year.
From our perspective as Substack publishers, it is unfathomable that someone with a swastika avatar, who writes about “The Jewish question,” or who promotes Great Replacement Theory, could be given the tools to succeed on your platform. And yet you’ve been unable to adequately explain your position.
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?
Your unwillingness to play by your own rules on this issue has already led to the announced departures of several prominent Substackers, including Rusty Foster and Helena Fitzgerald. They follow previous exoduses of writers, including Substack Pro recipient Grace Lavery and Jude Ellison S. Doyle, who left with similar concerns.
As journalist Casey Newton told his more than 166,000 Substack subscribers after Katz’s piece came out: “The correct number of newsletters using Nazi symbols that you host and profit from on your platform is zero.”
We, your publishers, want to hear from you on the official Substack newsletter. Is platforming Nazis part of your vision of success? Let us know—from there we can each decide if this is still where we want to be.