Substack Has A Nazi Opportunity

Dealing With Nazis, Or Not, Can Be A Brand. Substack’s Monetizing It.

Substack has Nazis, because of course it does. Substack is on the internet, Nazis are on the internet, and if Substack doesn’t want Nazis it has to take affirmative steps to get rid of them. Flies don’t stop coming into the house because you want them to; they stop because you get off the couch and close the screen door. Any social media or blogging platform faces this. Substack may attract more Nazis than average because Substack has a “okay you don’t agree with me now but what if I wrote another 8,000 words about it” vibe. 2023 Nazis have a very “I didn’t have this insight until I read The Fountainhead for the sixth time, let me elaborate” thing going. Say what you want about the 1939 Nazis, but at least they were occasionally terse.

Substack having Nazis1 is currently the subject of debate. The Atlantic ran a piece about Substack’s “Nazi Problem” and recently a group of Substack writers wrote a group letter about it, asking Substack to get rid of the Nazis. They point out, correctly, that Substack authors have abandoned the platform before over its moderation choices and might again. On the other side, a bunch of Substack users offered a group letter saying they don’t want Substack to made content choices; they like a system where each writer and reader makes their own moderation choices. Substack’s co-founder Hamish McKenzie has now responded with a post confirming that it’s not going to moderate Nazis. So that seems to resolve that.

Site moderation is a big bundle of choices. As a writer and reader, I decide what’s important to me when I choose a site. Sometimes it’s about content I want to consume or avoid and fellow-travelers whose society I crave or despise. But sometimes it’s an ethos I want to endorse, or be seen as endorsing. Do I want to go on Twitter to signify that I am not a snowflake and that I am open to discussions of how the Jews created polio? Do I want to go on Mastodon to signify that I believe human perfection can be achieved through scolding? Do I want to go on LinkedIn and talk exclusively to people who hope to monetize my existence in their quest to be Deputy Assistant Regional Manager? Do I really only care if the app works on an iPad? It’s up to me and my array of values.

Site managers make choices too. What ethos do we want to signal, and what crowd will that attract, and how much money can we make from them? If we moderate content, will it turn into an expensive, thankless, all-consuming task? Will moderating some people (like Nazis) result in constant demands that we moderate a huge array of things that make people angry (like, say, posts that are either too supportive or not supportive enough of Palestinians)? Will it attract more people than it alienates? If we don’t moderate will the place turn into a notorious sewer? What’s our moderation brand?

That’s what Substack is up to: branding. They’re betting they attract more people than they repel with the “we don’t believe in Big Tech choosing what you can write or read” brand. They’re betting that the “we are the intellectual and moral superiors to the woke left” brand is profitable — and it is. They calculate that getting involved in constant disputes over what content is acceptable on their site would be a big waste of time and money and focus. Maybe they’re thinking that the Overton Window has shifted such that a substantial portion of mainstream American thought is kind of Nazi these days and that they can’t afford to lose that market.

Are they wrong?

No. As a matter of marketing, they’re not. 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.

They’re also not wrong to the extent they think that critics will never be satisfied and that getting into the business of moderating content is expensive and never-ending. It’s notable that the critics of Substack’s “Nazi problem” do not offer a specific definition of what content they’d moderate. It’s a know-it-if-you-see-it type of thing. Moreover, the critics of vigorous moderation are right about something — we are living in an area of near-constant demands to deplatform content. It’s easy to dismiss it as “oh that’s just people trying to protect vulnerable people from Nazis,” but that’s just not right. It’s often directed at less powerful people, and it’s often a tool of geopolitical disputes, as we see particularly powerfully since October 7. Demands come from humans and humans are frequently partisan, hypocritical assholes. It’s fair for Substack to complain that if they deplatform Nazis they’ll need to deal with a constant stream of other demands to deplatform content and be forced into the business of adjudicating speech about bitter disputes.

Substack’s also right that it’s built a platform that’s qualitatively different than many others. On Twitter, Nazis were constantly in my face, I had to painstakingly block them one by one, and the interface recommended that I follow them. Here I generally only encounter them if I look for them or, very occasionally, if one wanders into my comments for me to block. You can publish here and comment here and never encounter Nazis stuff here. With respect to my friend Mike Masnick, I think that makes it a bit less like his Nazi bar analogy and more like a Nazi-tolerant banquet hall. You can have your niece’s quinceañera or your parents’ 50th anniversary there and probably won’t feel much of an impact from the fact that they’re always booked solid on April 20 unless you think about it. Put another way, it’s more like selling your books or goods on Amazon if Amazon allowed lots of overtly Nazis stuff instead of just thinly veiled Nazi stuff.

So I am not inclined to denounce people who publish on Substack nor assert that fleeing Substack is the only moral choice. I think that reasonable minds can differ on the morality of renting a walled garden at an estate that also rents walled gardens to Nazis, especially when the other walled gardens on the market are all rife with their own problems. I think reasonable minds can differ on the ethos of creating a platform that makes a conscious decision not to moderate based on most content.

But that doesn’t mean I have to accept Substack’s attempt to convince me that its branding is about the good of humanity. It’s about money. Hamish McKenzie’s apologia for Substack’s approach is full of dubious (if common) arguments. Let’s address just a few.

First, McKenzie’s post consistently blurs the roles and functions of the state and the individual. For instance, he pushes the hoary trope that censoring Nazis just drives them underground where they are more dangerous: “But some people do hold those and other extreme views. Given that, we don't think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.” That may be true for the state, but is it really true for private actors? Do I make the Nazi problem worse by blocking Nazis who appear in my comments? Does a particular social media platform make Nazis worse by deciding that they, personally, are not going to host Nazis? How do you argue that, when there are a vast array of places for Nazis to post on the internet? Has Gab fallen? Is Truth Social no more?

McKenzie continues the blurring by suggesting that being platformed by private actors is a civil right: “We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power. We are committed to upholding and protecting freedom of expression, even when it hurts.” That’s fine, but nobody has the individual right, civil liberty, or freedom of expression to be on Substack if Substack doesn’t want them there. In fact that’s part of Substack’s freedom of expression and civil liberties — to build the type of community it wants, that expresses its values. If Substack’s values is “we publish everybody” (sort of, as noted below) that’s their right, but a different approach doesn’t reflect a lack of support for freedom of expression. McKenzie is begging the question — assuming his premise that support of freedom of expression requires Substack to accept Nazis, not just for the government to refrain from suppressing Nazis.

Moreover, McKenzie admits they don’t accept all speech. “Our content guidelines do have narrowly defined proscriptions, including a clause that prohibits incitements to violence.” That’s not quite right. Substack has exercised its right to make choices in what content to exclude, and bans speech that the First Amendment protects:

  • Substack’s hate speech policy says “Substack cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes. Offending behavior includes credible threats of physical harm to people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition.” That’s ambiguously broader than the First Amendment standard, under which unprotected incitement is only speech intended and likely to cause imminent lawless action. It’s also deliberately open-ended, since it says “offending behavior includes.” It means whatever Substack chooses it to mean.

  • Substack prohibits what’s commonly called “doxxing.” “You may not publish or post other people's private information (such as a personal phone number or home address) without their express authorization and permission. We also prohibit threatening to expose private information or incentivizing others to do so.” That’s fine. That’s Substack’s choice. But the First Amendment generally protects that conduct. Is it bad to find a terrible person and post their phone number so people can call and denounce them? Maybe. That’s a value judgment.

  • Substack prohibits “harmful” activities: “We don’t allow content that promotes harmful or illegal activities, including material that advocates, threatens, or shows you causing harm to yourself, other people, or animals.” That’s vastly broader than the First Amendment exception for incitement. I think Substack is aiming here at stuff like crush videos and people who promote eating disorders, but those are protected by the First Amendment.

  • Finally, the big one: “We don’t allow porn or sexually exploitative content on Substack, including any visual depictions of sexual acts for the sole purpose of sexual gratification. We do allow depictions of nudity for artistic, journalistic, or related purposes, as well as erotic literature, however, we have a strict no nudity policy for profile images.” This is perfectly fine. It’s within Substack’s First Amendment rights to choose this policy. It’s a choice about branding, about ease of moderation, and about vibe.

My point is not that any of these policies is objectionable. But, like the old joke goes, we’ve established what Substack is, now we’re just haggling over the price. Substack is engaging in transparent puffery when it brands itself as permitting offensive speech because the best way to handle offensive speech is to put it all out there to discuss. It’s simply not true. Substack has made a series of value judgments about which speech to permit and which speech not to permit. Substack would like you to believe that making judgments about content “for the sole purpose of sexual gratification,” or content promoting anorexia, is different than making judgment about Nazi content. In fact, that’s not a neutral, value-free choice. It’s a valued judgment by a platform that brands itself as not making valued judgments. Substack has decided that Nazis are okay and porn and doxxing isn’t. The fact that Substack is engaging in a common form of free-speech puffery offered by platforms doesn’t make it true.

This brings us to McKenzie’s discussion of his infamous promotion of the noxious Richard Hanania, in which he says he’s not promoting Nazis:

There also remains a criticism that Substack is promoting these fringe voices. This criticism appears to stem from my decision to host Richard Hanania, who was later outed as having once published extreme and racist views, on my podcast, The Active Voice. I didn’t know of those past writings at the time, and Hanania went on to disavow those views. While it has been uncomfortable and I probably would have done things differently with all the information in front of me, I ultimately don’t regret having him on the podcast. I think it’s important to engage with and understand a range of views even if—especially if—you disagree with them. Hanania is an influential voice for some in U.S. politics—his recent book, for instance, was published by HarperCollins—and there is value in knowing his arguments. The same applies to all other guests I have hosted on The Active Voice, including Hanania’s political opposites. 

Again, McKenzie is smuggling a host of value judgments under the pretense of not making value judgments, and it’s dishonest. There’s an infinite number of cranks and lunatics; choosing which ones to promote as plausible is a value judgment. There are people who are eagerly (if not necessarily sincerely) saying that Trump was elected in 2020 or that the Earth is flat; promoting them or not is a value judgment. We all make judgments all the time about which speech is within or without our circle of acceptable decency, speech that is worth sober debate on our own platforms. We should, at a minimum, be honest about it. If “racism is within my circle of decency and debate” is our point, we should make it openly, not evade it. 

The suggestion that Hanania was not an overt racist before his pseudonymous background was published is an argument, but a very bad one. McKenzie has a choice of whom to invite on his podcast. McKenzie could have invited David Duke or Nick Fuentes, who are also prolific contributors to the public discourse, but selected Richard Hanania. Presumably McKenzie thinks that Hanania is a plausible, within-the-Overton-window voice and the others aren’t. That’s a value judgment that Hanania’s racism is inside-the-circle, and it’s one that promotes Hanania. Moreover, McKenzie’s choice to accept Hanania’s deeply dubious confessional to “reforming” also reflects a value judgment — a judgment in favor of slack-jawed credulity, in my view.

Taking everyone at their word that they’re not a Nazi, and deciding to accept that they mean racist things in non-racist ways, is a value judgment too. It’s a decision; you can’t plausibly spin it as a refusal to make a decision. So is the sentiment that tolerance requires not just refraining from government force but refraining from private association and judgment.

I dislike McKenzie’s apologia for Substack’s policy and for Richard Hanania because it has a sort of detached, sociopathic philosophy popular with techbrahs that all differences of opinion are equal — that a dispute over whether black people are human is like a dispute over the best programming language or whether Rocky Road is the best ice cream. This, too, is a value judgment. It’s not one I share.

In short: agreeing that Substack is an acceptable place to publish or comment does not require you to accept Substack’s sales puffery about it.

What will I do about it?

I haven’t decided. McKenzie’s apologia deeply annoys me because it treats me like I’m a moron. It’s the equivalent of yelling over the wall of my walled garden “don’t worry, those guys three gardens over really just like Hugo Boss, and also they have some points on tax policy.” There’s a difference between the ethos of “we’re a platform that’s decided not to make value judgments about offensive speech, if that’s okay with you, you’re welcome” and the ethos of “we’re a victim of cultural Marxism and we see that a lot of these guys are not that bad and we’re doing a service to humanity by platforming them and listen to their guest spot on my podcast.”

Previously I was thinking of monetizing this newsletter. A primary barrier was putting in the work to post much more regularly — at least 1.5 times a week, I think - to make it plausibly worthwhile. This episode is another significant strike against deciding to do so here, or staying here. The platform is convenient, easy to use, effective, and has a good interface and has a lot of content I like. I suspect there are going to be shitty things about any platform and that any platform will have content I hate. But I’m unhappy with this, and I’m rethinking my plans.

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