Posted on January 10, 2024

Substack Wanted to Be Neutral. Its Tolerance of Nazis Proved Divisive.

Will Oremus and Taylor Lorenz, Washington Post, January 10, 2024

The newsletter platform Substack rose to prominence with a permissive approach to online speech, attracting big-name writers who felt “canceled” by the mainstream media for their conservative or libertarian rhetoric.

Criticized in December for tolerating Nazis and white supremacists on its platform, Substack doubled down, saying that “censorship” wouldn’t “make the problem go away.”

But facing a revolt from some of its writers and readers, the San Francisco-based start-up shifted course Monday, banning five obscure accounts that it said had violated its policies. The move, first reported by the Substack-based tech blog Platformer, did not affect larger accounts linked with right-wing extremism, the company confirmed to The Washington Post.

“We want to support and are committed to free expression and a free press, but that doesn’t mean there are not guardrails,” said Hamish McKenzie, one of the site’s three co-founders and leaders.


Substack’s move to take down a handful of openly pro-Nazi accounts represents a bid to stem the exodus of left-leaning writers and readers without alienating the site’s prominent conservatives. But some writers were quick to dismiss it as too little, too late.


Substack allows writers to set up their own newsletters, send them to subscribers and charge for different tiers of subscriptions, keeping 90 percent of the revenue while the site takes 10 percent. {snip}

While most Substack writers have much smaller followings, its top earners can rake in upward of $1 million per year — helping the site lure well-known pundits from much larger media organizations. While its writers span the political spectrum, some of its top earners, according to the site’s leader boards, are those who routinely criticize “woke” politics and “cancel culture.”

Even in its short six-year history, the company has sparked controversy over its laissez faire approach to content moderation. It was criticized during the coronavirus pandemic for hosting influential anti-vaccine voices, who used Substack to promote unfounded claims that ran afoul of major social media companies’ misinformation policies. The company’s founders have consistently rebuffed calls to rein in controversial views, writing in 2020, “We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity.”

But after the Atlantic uncovered “scores of white-supremacist, neo-Confederate, and explicitly Nazi newsletters on Substack,” some of which the company was profiting from, scrutiny of its content policies intensified.


In December, some 250 Substack authors wrote an open letter to the company titled “Substackers against Nazis,” calling on it to ban any accounts that traffic in “white nationalism.” Noting that Substack does appear to enforce its rules against some types of content, such as pornography, the group asked the company’s founders, “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.”

Substack’s initial response only fueled the fire. In a Dec. 21 post, McKenzie wrote, “I just want to make it clear that we don’t like Nazis either — we wish no one held those views.But he contended that censoring or “demonetizing” them — removing their ability to make money on Substack — would only make the problem worse.


Richard Spencer and Richard Hanania, right-wing voices who have larger followings and paid subscribers on Substack, were not among those banned, with McKenzie noting that they hadn’t been found in violation of its policies. {snip}

Asked whether the bans mean Substack’s thinking on content moderation has evolved since December, McKenzie said, “We don’t think censorship makes problems go away, and we’ll never think that. We also don’t reflexively take actions based on accusations, since people sometimes inaccurately assign labels to views that offend them. But we do have narrow guidelines for things we don’t permit, including explicit calls for violence.”