We got Substack to admit its Nazi problem

The founders' astonishing response, and the responses to the response.

At an event in New Hampshire Wednesday night, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was asked a simple question by an audience member: What was the cause of the Civil War? And in her rambling response about government infringement, she somehow failed to use the word slavery even once. 

An unforced error? Perhaps. But her response and the ideology belying it has become the story—as has been the case with Substack leadership this past week. 

As you might’ve heard, Substack has a Nazi problem. A big group of Substack publishers—nearly 250 of us, which now includes “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood—had a big problem with that problem, and published a letter to the founders two weeks ago saying as much.

In the end, our efforts prompted this staggering response from co-founder one week later on Substack Notes:

“I just want to make it clear that we don’t like Nazis either—we wish no-one held those views. 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.”

In the week since this statement was posted, I’ve watched as the headlines rolled in: “Substack Says It Will Not Ban Nazis or Extremist Speech,” the New York Times declared; “Substack says it will not remove or demonetize Nazi content” wrote The Verge; “Substack Turns On Its ‘Nazis Welcome!’ Sign” Tech Dirt announced. 

I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond as an organizer and as a writer: Should I express my horror that they couldn’t just say the easiest possible thing—that Nazis have no place on Substack? Amusement at them assembling a team of right-wing reactionary avengers to publish a letter of their own before ours even came out? Incredulity in seeing them not only confirm Nazis exist on their platform, but that they knowingly make money from them? A victory lap for even getting a response? 

I think writer and fellow organizer in this effort put it best:

“The Substackers Against Nazis letter got what we asked for: a response. Remember that there was no ultimatum given or action we said we would take. We wanted an answer to our question and we got that. From that lens, the letter was a success.”

Pausing to consider my own response has allowed me to read as many pieces as possible about the situation in which us Substack publishers now find ourselves: Sharing revenue with three men who have explicitly said they are comfortable with Nazis earning a living on their platform. 

“Maybe he [McKenzie] does genuinely think that the ideal way to facilitate free expression is to put gender-queer scholars and street-fighting Nazis on the same platform (but not sex workers or pornographers, they’re still banned), and have them hold an essay contest to see which minorities get to live,” wrote Jonathan Katz, author of the Substack , writer of The Atlantic piece that unearthed the Nazi problem, and my esteemed fellow organizer. “Yet even then, even if you subscribe to that very specific understanding of free speech and censorship, how on Earth does that lead to the conclusion that you need to white nationalists fundraise.” 

, a writer who was actively recruited by Substack in its early days and whose newsletter Culture Study has become one of its biggest success stories, weighed in on the Nazi problem earlier this week. 

“So here is what I can promise you, reader: that I will continue to be a thorn in the side of Substack’s leadership when it comes to this issue,” Peterson wrote. While she didn’t say anything about leaving the platform at this point, she promised to “continue to use my power as one of its initial writers…to hold them to account. That I will try to make this particular home better and safer, because we are all so weary of building new homes only to have the Nazis (and anti-Trans assholes) show up once again and drive us to the fringes - which is where they belong.”

And I can certainly relate to the fatigue of constantly rebuilding. Twitter’s recent descent from the world’s most important social network for news into a eugenicists playground cut particularly deep for writers, many of whom made professional connections, received story assignments and got great exposure via the platform. It sucked to feel booted out of my online home, forced to learn a new network with new rules.

But you know what? It’s fine. I found another place (Bluesky) to share all my most profound and idiotic thoughts, to chit chat with strangers, to publicize my work, to learn new things. It’s a helluva lot smaller than Twitter and I have a fraction of the followers, but the quality of the engagement is light years ahead. And above all, my mental health is better for it. I’m no longer seized with fear every time I get a notification that I’m about to read the meanest thing anyone’s ever said to me. 

When we become so convinced that there is only one true platform, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: We excuse the flaws and forgive bad behavior from the people in charge. And we just accept that this is as good as it’s going to get. We can tell ourselves that “Sure, the founders have rolled out the welcome mat for Nazis, transphobes and other extremists, but things are good for me here.” 

I get the sense from some that they’re angry for being forced to contend with this inconvenient and maddening reality. After all, searching for a tech utopia in a world run by techno-fascists operating under the guise of free speech probably sounds like a fool’s errand. But when we express the belief that better things are not possible, that is when we’ve truly admitted defeat. 

As Margaret Atwood wrote on her Substack, , Wednesday night:

“No, Substack: You can’t have both the dystopian nightmare and ‘Flopsy Bunny’s Very Busy Day. You can’t have both the terms of service you have spelled out and a bunch of individual publishers who violate those terms of service. One or the other has got to go, and hiding under the sofa and pretending it isn’t happening will not make your dilemma go away. Nor will some laudable rhetoric about free speech – not when you yourselves have clearly stated that not everything is allowable, including threats of ‘violence’ and ‘physical harm’ to ‘protected classes.’” 

And she’s absolutely right.

The other day, I decided to do a quick test. I typed in “great replacement” in the Substack app search bar and looked through the results. The third return was titled “Cheering for White Extinction,” written by a man who bemoans in the second paragraph that he “never signed up to be a crusader for White rights. I don’t like sounding like a white nationalist, whatever that is. But someone has to do it.” 

But the really troubling parts were in the hundreds of comments on the post. “Im so tired and frustrated with the state of the planet,” one commenter wrote. “We whites…Were [sic] done, so done. Where are our angry, concerned fellow whites? We should be setting up camps in Wyoming or Alberta by now. What more will it take to forego our old lives and start a new nation of Euro Christian values.” Another wrote, “Every time I see a Black person in an ad that just looks ridiculous, because in real life one would not see this, I feel a surge of rage...realizing it is meant to be a signal to Whites, that we are being replaced.”

For just $5 per month or $50 per year, all this content and more can be yours.

Did I have to seek this person out, as some have argued as a defense of platforming Nazis? Yes. Was it hard? No. As Substack star Casey Newton recently wrote: “The correct number of newsletters using Nazi symbols that you host and profit from on your platform is zero.” And the number of clicks away from Nazi content should be zero. In this case, however, it was three.

As for my future on Substack: stay tuned. I ask that you stick with me here until I figure out what comes next, which I’m carefully considering along with many of my fellow Substackers Against Nazis. If you want to financially support my work without giving money to Substack, I accept payments via Venmo.

Regardless of where it lives, The Handbasket will go on, and I want to make sure you’re able to stick with me through any transitions. If you must go, I completely understand. But I’ll just say this: The most valuable thing Substack has given me is this community of subscribers, and I would hate if their shortcomings resulted in me losing you.


Thank you for reading The Handbasket. This post is public so feel free to share it.

Join the conversation

or to participate.