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Substack’s moderation battle: all the latest news

Since launching in 2017, Substack has emerged as a publishing platform for writers looking to monetize their work through paid newsletters. However, as the platform has grown, so has its content. In November 2023, a report from The Atlantic revealed that while Substack’s approach to content moderation banned pornography and spam, it allowed Nazi-supporting and white supremacist newsletters on the platform, including some with paying subscribers that generated commissions for Substack.

These findings led more than 200 Substack authors to sign an open letter asking why the platform is letting those newsletters publish and monetize that kind of content.

Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie wrote a response saying it wouldn’t remove or demonetize Nazi content. But after Platformer founder Casey Newton raised questions about Substack’s approach to content moderation, it ended up taking down five Nazi newsletters, all while refusing to make any changes to its policies.

Here’s the story so far.

  • Substack says it has a million more paid subscribers than last year.

    There are now more than 3 million paid subscribers on Substack. It’s a bright spot for the company, which has lately been in the news for a Nazi problem — leading several big-name newsletters to decamp, including my former colleague Casey Newton’s Platformer.

    The Axios story says nothing about Substack’s biggest problem: keeping its costs under control. (That’s kind of a pattern!)

  • Maybe Substack has several problems!

    There’s ongoing discussion about a Nazi problem. Is there a business model problem as well? Joshua Brustein at Bloomberg thinks so:

    The writers largely handle their own distribution and retain control over their subscriber lists. It’s not a big problem for them to migrate to other newsletter publishing services, some of which are more cost-effective.

    There is something bigger at play: a leadership problem. Hamish McKenzie’s response to the outcry around extremist newsletters triggered the exodus. Who made the design call to make it easy to leave? Leadership! What about Substack’s spending choices? Hm!

  • Substack now has a report button in its app.

    You can report posts and publications from the app, according to Substack update notes spotted by Chris Messina. (It appears you’ve been able to report things on the web for at least a few months.) But for people who are unhappy with Substack’s moderation policies, as Messina says, it might be too little, too late.

  • Substack keeps the Nazis, loses Platformer

    An illustration of the Substack logo.
    Illustration by The Verge

    Platformer, the tech newsletter started by Verge alum Casey Newton, is leaving Substack over its policies around and response to pro-Nazi publications using the platform.

    Newton notes that after identifying seven Substack publications “that conveyed explicit support for 1930s German Nazis and called for violence against Jews, among other groups,” the platform removed one on its own along with five others on the list. The other thing that happened was that the platform’s co-founders asked to keep their conversations off the record and then leaked those conversations to another publication.

    Read Article >
  • Substack is going to remove five Nazi newsletters

    An illustration of Substack’s logo.
    Illustration by The Verge

    Just a couple of weeks after Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie defended the company’s decision to continue allowing Nazi content, Platformer reports that Substack will now remove “some” publications that express support for Nazis.

    McKenzie’s December post was responding to a letter from over 200 Substack authors who cited, among other things, a recent report in The Atlantic that pointed out over a dozen newsletters with overt Nazi imagery, as well as many more with evidence of extremist views. Some newsletters have left Substack over the last couple of weeks for other platforms like Ghost or Beehiiv, and Platformer notes that it has seen many paying customers quit, saying they do not want to contribute to a platform that they see as supporting extremism.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Dec 22, 2023

    Adi Robertson

    “Agreeing that Substack is an acceptable place to publish or comment does not require you to accept Substack’s sales puffery about it.”

    Legal blogger Ken White (aka Popehat) isn’t outright ditching Substack over its decision to keep monetizing Nazi content. But he finds its claim of being a principled upholder of free expression, rather than a company pulling a widely recognized branding trick, a bit risible:

    The brand is effective and lucrative. The “we’re the noble defenders of civilization, upholding free thought from the onslaught of the woke hordes” sells these days. It sells even when free thought is actually under more profound assault from cynical and powerful and absolutely not woke forces. It sells even though — as I will get to in a minute — there’s a difference between tolerance and platforming.

    Substack Has A Nazi Opportunity


  • Richard Lawler

    Dec 21, 2023

    Richard Lawler

    Substack says it will not remove or demonetize Nazi content

    An illustration of Substack’s logo.
    Illustration by The Verge

    More than 200 Substack authors asked the platform to explain why it’s “platforming and monetizing Nazis,” and now they have an answer straight from co-founder Hamish McKenzie:

    While McKenzie offers no evidence to back these ideas, this tracks with the company’s previous stance on taking a hands-off approach to moderation. In April, Substack CEO Chris Best appeared on the Decoder podcast and refused to answer moderation questions. “We’re not going to get into specific ‘would you or won’t you’ content moderation questions” over the issue of overt racism being published on the platform, Best said. McKenzie followed up later with a similar statement to the one today, saying “we don’t like or condone bigotry in any form.”

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  • Alex Heath

    Dec 18, 2023

    Alex Heath

    “Substackers Against Nazis” want the company to explain itself.

    More than 200 Substack authors have signed an open letter to the company’s leadership asking them to explain why they are “platforming and monetizing Nazis.” From the letter:

    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. 

    Yikes! Meanwhile, Substack is pointing other outlets to this open letter supporting the company:

    We are still trying to figure out the best way to handle extremism on the internet. But of all the ways we’ve tried so far, Substack is working the best.

  • Jay Peters

    Apr 24, 2023

    Jay Peters

    Substack co-founder says ‘we don’t like or condone bigotry,’ doesn’t explain how Notes will moderate it

    An illustration of the Substack logo.
    Illustration by The Verge

    Substack CEO Chris Best may have not really answered Nilay Patel’s Decoder questions about whether racist speech would be allowed on its new Twitter-like Substack Notes platform. But last Friday — more than a week after Best’s interview on the Decoder podcast — co-founder Hamish McKenzie shared a firmer statement in (where else?) a Substack Note.

    “Last week, we caught some heat after Chris didn’t accept the terms of a question from a podcast interviewer about how Substack will handle bigoted speech on Notes,” McKenzie said. “It came across poorly and some people sternly criticized us for our naivety while others wondered how we’d discourage bad behaviors and content on Notes. We wish that interview had gone better and that Chris had more clearly represented our position in that moment, and we regret causing any alarm for people who care about Substack and how the platform is evolving. We messed that up. And just in case anyone is ever in any doubt: we don’t like or condone bigotry in any form.” (Emphasis ours.)

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