The newsletter publishing platform Substack has a Nazi problem: specifically, it publishes, promotes and makes money from actual Nazi newsletters as well as the more media-trained faces of far right propaganda. As ever, trans people have been trying raise the alarm about the platform for years: it’s where some of the most vicious, abusive and hateful anti-trans bigotry is published, with Substack taking a hefty cut of all of it. In some cases, bigots’ Substacks are the primary source of their income, generating large sums from which Substack takes a 10% cut.
As a high profile critic of the platform’s support for the world’s worst people, Jude Doyle’s writing attracted a response from the firm’s CEO – and the offer of a lucrative publishing deal if he were to stop pointing out the genuine harm Substack helps pay for. Doyle said no, telling the CEO:
If you have money to invest in me, then you have money to create and enforce a content moderation policy, stating that you do not host or fund content that promotes hate speech and/or targets marginalized groups.
But Substack has no interest in doing that. It’s making too much money from hatred.
Substack’s response to accurate and measured criticism – effectively, “we don’t like Nazis but we like their money so fuck you” – has led a lot of people to demand creators stop using the service. And while I understand why – I won’t pay for a Substack for the same reasons – I also understand why many creators are loath to leave.
The problem for many people who publish on Substack is a problem we’ve previously seen on other platforms, including Twitter. It’s enabled people to establish an audience and in some cases a career, and that means leaving could cause financial harm to people who abandon the platform. Even if other platforms were morally pure, and very few of them are, the people demanding moral purity from their newsletter creators are rarely the people who will be financially harmed by it.
In addition, many of the people being urged to quit are marginalised people – the very people who can least afford the financial hit.
I’ve experienced this myself. I quit writing for a particular publisher over its support for bigots, a decision that cost me about £1,000 in lost commissions a year. I left another media organisation for similar reasons, passing up something close to £4,000 a year. I’ve turned down work from other outlets because I don’t share their values. And I don’t have an active presence on Twitter any more, which has damaged my networking and no doubt cost me work too. And while I’m okay with those choices, it hasn’t made a damn difference to any of those platforms because I’m completely insignificant to them.
Writing on her Substack, Cathrynne Valente explains it very well.
It is exhausting just trying to exist with any level of moral consistency online nowadays. And the people who keep being handed the keys to several kingdoms don’t ever bother to worry about it. They just let us tear ourselves apart trying to do the right thing while they feast. It’s all a game to them. It’s not remotely a game to us. So there’s no equivalence.
Take social media for example. If you leave Twitter for a smaller social network, abandoning the network you may have spent more than a decade building, where do you go? Threads? Its current moderation is just as bad as Twitter’s, enabling nazis and transphobes to abuse people without consequence. Bluesky? It doesn’t have a Nazi problem purely because it’s too small so far, and it’s very clear that the platform creators aren’t very interested in protecting their users from bad actors. And so on.
So for many creators, it’s far more complicated than “this place is bad and you should quit”: if almost everything is a bad choice, then by removing your voice from a particular platform you’re letting the bigots win. The bigots thrive, the platform continues. The only person who suffers anything negative is you.
I don’t want to support the Badness by being here. And yet, if I go, does that not just abandon another space because bad people are also here, handing them control of yet another hugely-recognized platform, control they could never achieve on their own just on numbers and popularity, while the people who have any moral compass whatsoever have to continually start over from scratch?
Which one helps the goblin horde more, staying or going?
There’s a famous cartoon in which a man says “we should improve society somewhat” and another man pops up to say “Yet you participate in society! Curious! I am very intelligent.” And that’s a pretty good description of the discourse around some of this stuff.
There are lots of things that are very wrong with tech platforms. Facebook has been complicit in genocide; Instagram (owned by the same company) in the rise of the anti-vax movement. Twitter, pre-Musk, was instrumental in the rise of the far right and in stirring up racial and anti-LGBTQ+ hatred. And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s not impossible to work only on ethically pure platforms. But it’s close to impossible if you want to be where most people – your friends, your colleagues, your readers, your listeners – are and communicate with those people.
Like Valente, I don’t know what the answer is on an individual level: in the absence of group action, we’re powerless. For now I’m comfortable with the choices I’ve made, because I’m in the fortunate position of not having to choose between having a conscience and having a roof over my head. But I also realise that that’s a luxury that others don’t necessarily have. Many of us think we should improve social media somewhat, yet have to participate in social media.
Update, 9 January: Substack now says it will remove some, but not all, Nazi newsletters. Reports on social media suggests the total number of removed newsletters is… five.