Substack says it will ban some Nazis

My POV as an organizer.

Last night, Substackers Against Nazis received some encouraging news: Company leadership decided it would actually enforce its terms of service and said it planned to remove a handful of accounts in violation. 

Since the news broke, there’s been no shortage of opinions about it, ranging from “this is huge!” to “you did absolutely nothing.” After more years online than I care to admit, this is hardly a surprise. But I wanted to take this moment as one of the organizers of the effort (which remains ongoing) to clearly lay out what’s transpired and what this latest development means for the group and for me.

Here’s a brief timeline of the latest organizing effort to hold Substack to account:

November 28 - The Atlantic publishes Jonathan Katz’s piece “Substack Has a Nazi Problem”. A group of Substack publishers are disturbed by the details and begin to organize a response.

December 13 - Substack hears about the organizing and gets one of their writers to pen a preemptive response in the form of an open letter, despite not actually knowing what the Substackers Against Nazis planned to write. The “Substack shouldn’t decide what we read” letter addresses censorship in the broadest sense, and not deplatforming Nazis. About 100 publishers add their signatures.

December 14 - Separately, more than 100 other Substack publishers share a collective letter across their respective Substacks asking founders Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi a simple question: Why are you platforming and monetizing Nazis? In the coming days, that number would balloon to nearly 250 publishers. Some modest media coverage rolls in.

December 21 - McKenzie posts a statement on Substack Notes (the platform’s version of Twitter) on behalf of him and the other founders acknowledging the Nazis and saying they don’t like them either, but had no plans to deplatform or demonetize them. In fact, they wrote, doing that would only make the problem worse. Domestic and international media coverage grows, Substack publishers start switching to other newsletter platforms, and users cancel paid subscriptions en masse in protest.

January 2 - Casey Newton, publisher of one of Substack’s biggest newsletters, announces he’s considering leaving the platform as a direct result of the organizing by Substackers Against Nazis, and is building a database of extremist platforms based on Katz’s research. He also says he’ll meet with company leadership to discuss, and if they don’t reverse course, he’ll escalate it to their payment processor, Stripe.

January 4 - Newton says he met with Substack leadership earlier in the week to implore them to remove Nazi content violating their terms of service, and says he’d be meeting with them again the following day to discuss what comes next. 

January 8 - We learn, via a post from Newton, that Substack has agreed to remove a handful of Nazi accounts as “the result of reconsidering how it interprets its existing policies.” They will not, however, proactively enforce the policies, but will remove content that includes “credible threats of physical harm.”

My first reaction to Monday evening’s news was to post “WE DID IT,” because I felt that even though the victory was quite narrow, it should not go unnoticed. The “it” here is eliciting an acknowledgment from Substack leadership that they had a content moderation issue, and they were forced to publicly change course—something they have never done before; The “it” is getting them to even acknowledge our organizing efforts; The “it” is not saying we’ve accomplished our mission or that the work is done. Far, far from it.

Substack is still not protecting its publishers and users against dangerous white supremacist content, and it’s certainly not protecting them against transphobic content—an issue that was raised by a group of trans publishers two years ago. As Newton put it yesterday, “this issue has raised concerns that go beyond the small group of publications that violate the company’s existing policy guidelines,” and he says he’s still considering what comes next for him. 

Writer Melissa Gira Grant put it best:

There were many forces at play that resulted in this tiny, incremental change. And it’s important to look at the match-up: As of last March, Substack was valued at more than half a billion dollars; the Substackers Against Nazis and the previous organizers are small independent publishers, a vast majority of whom do not make their primary income on the platform. And after weeks of encouraging larger publications to join our efforts, one thankfully did.

If Substack is willing and able to make one concession, that means they’re able to make two—or more. I understand the people who want to stay and fight, and I understand the people who feel cold comfort in these new developments and still plan to leave. I’m somewhere in between: I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, I believe the work needs to continue, but I no longer have interest in doing that work from the inside. I don’t need to fight leadership while giving them 10% of my revenue.

Despite organizing being collective, this is a “to each their own” situation in the truest sense.

To my amazing subscribers: I’ll be announcing my new home later this week, but rest-assured that all paid and free subscriptions will be migrated over, and you won’t have to do a thing on your end. I ask that you don’t change your subscription before then and stick with me through this transition. It’ll be the same ol’ Handbasket with a lot less baggage. And I’m excited to refocus on my actual writing and reporting. 

If you want a non-Substack way to support my work in the meantime, you can use this link:

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