Tireless Busybodies Again Target Substack
Substack faces another deplatforming campaign, triggered by a clarion-call from America's flagship of suck, Atlantic Magazine
Substack is under attack again. The crusade is led by a site contributor, Jonathan Katz, whose style might be characterized as embittered-conventional, i.e. toting the same opinions as every mainstream editorialist, only angrier about it. There’s been more of this genre on offer here as staff positions for talking-point-spouters dry up in legacy shops, but hey, it’s a free country. If you want braying about fascism, Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk, the lab leak theory, and other #Resistance horrors you’d hear about if you just left MSNBC on in a corner — or feel deprived of headlines like “What Ron DeSantis and a Norwegian mass murderer have in common” — Substack’s got you covered. It’s not my idea of what alternative media’s for, but fortunately, nobody asked me. Why should I care what other people read?
Katz does. Though this site is a true content free-for-all, where you can find everything from serialized graphic novels to Portuguese “dark storytelling” to bagel bites recipes, a microcosm of the old Internet where the randomness of being able to hop from Bigfoot to Buddhism is a key part of the free vibe, Katz believes he’s detected a malicious pattern. He aims to put a stop to it, by deplatforming Substack contributors he doesn’t like. A group letter is being organized, demanding action, following Katz’s stern argument in the Atlantic, “Substack Has a Nazi Problem.”
As an aside: a big reason people read Substack is because of the terribleness of magazines like The Atlantic, which is edited by a guy, Jeffrey Goldberg, who won a pile of awards for blowing the WMD story in spectacular fashion for years on end, making him a walking, talking symbol of the failing-upward dynamic in corporate media. If that magazine wants people to read Substack less, it might consider not filling its pages with exposés about the Alfa Server fantasies or plaintive defenses of the Steele dossier or other transparent propaganda, instead of demanding deplatforming here.
Like a prosecutor introducing an adverse witness early, Katz in his piece concedes a numerical observation about the “white supremacist” problem on Substack:
These are, to be sure, a tiny fraction of the newsletters on a site that had more than 17,000 paid writers as of March, according to Axios, and has many other writers who do not charge for their work…
Really he should stop there, but trudges forward. There are 16 whole sites, he says, that deploy some variation of a swastika on Substack, and despite these being both legal and a complete non-factor in the national discussion, their existence cannot be tolerated. After explaining his real gripe, that “Substack’s leaders proudly disdain the content-moderation methods that other platforms employ,” Katz comes to the moment — inevitable in this humorously consistent genre of diatribe — in which he threatens to pick up his Substack ball and go home:
The question is what kind of community Substack is actively cultivating. How long will writers such as Bari Weiss, Patti Smith, and George Saunders — and, for that matter, me — be willing to stake our reputations on, and share a cut of our revenue with, a company that can’t decide if Nazi flags count as hate speech?
The first time someone tried this, Bari was on the other end of the dynamic, listed as one of the Substack evils supposedly inspiring decent folk to leave. In March 2021, Jude Ellison S. Doyle announced his/their intention to walk out because Substack wouldn’t kick the likes of Graham Linehan, author of the very funny Irish sitcom Father Ted, off the platform. The concept then was a transphobia panic, i.e. Substack was home to a burgeoning anti-trans movement, spearheaded, Doyle claimed, by Linehan and… and… well, there had to be a second really bad example, so Doyle somehow settled on Jesse Singal, perhaps the single most inoffensive personality to have ever carried a New York magazine byline. Nonetheless, Doyle identified the duo of Linehan and Singal as “harassment influencers,” meaning those engaged in “naming individual trans people who then get swarmed by their followers.”
Substack survived an “exodus” of about five writers in that episode. A year later they went through another campaign, this time over the “anti-vaccine sentiment” threat supposedly posed by Dr. Joseph Mercola, Steve Kirsch, and Alex Berenson. The legacy campaign gained steam when the mighty Center for Countering Digital Hate, claimed Substack was earning millions from anti-vaccine content. The CCDH stat spurred more panic headlines in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair, among others.
How dishonest were these stories? The Times was writing about “growing pains” on Substack, and Mashable about its “exodus” of writers, just after the company announced in late 2021 that it passed the threshold of 1 million paying subscribers, or quadruple the amount for the previous year. That number is now over 2 million, meaning the “community” has doubled in size again since last year. Most corporate outlets would blood-sacrifice half their staff for “growing pains” like that.
In an age when censorship and deamplification are big factors for journalists tempted to say something unpopular (Katz, destined to be eulogized as a parrot on the shoulder of Received Wisdom, will not be sympathetic), moving to a platform that’s proven it won’t buckle is crucial. People like Substack CEO Chris Best and co-founders Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi have proven they won’t let outside groups dictate to them about content. This is why contributors like me, who have a lot to worry about on this front, are loyal. It’s also why people seek out content here: they know they’re getting a far less filtered version of reality than they’re seeing on platforms like Facebook and YouTube, where deamplification, strikes, and outright removals have become routine.
What’s the value add for Substack if they start bouncing sites at the behest of groups like the CCDH or the ADL or even writers at The Atlantic? The minute they take a step in that direction, the site just becomes a miniature version of the giant attitude-grinding machines you find across the rest of social media, from whence everyone fled here in the first place. Why does the world need another such platform?
Of course, one could ask, why does anyone need “Andon’s Reich Press,” one of the sites that’s drawn Katz’s ire? One doesn’t, necessarily, unless you believe in free speech culture. Hate speech isn’t illegal in America for a variety of reasons that Katz — who might someday enter into the Guinness Book for writing the most words about the ACLU’s defense of neo-Nazis at Skokie without understanding the subject at all — doesn’t see. The logic of defending Nazi speech then and now is obvious, and has nothing to do with indulging Nazis. David Goldberger led the ACLU’s legal team in the Skokie case and as he put it, “The power to censor Nazis includes the power to censor protesters of all stripes and to prevent the press from publishing embarrassing facts and criticism that government officials label as ‘fake news.’”
Nearly 50 years later, this is exactly what we’ve seen with the Twitter Files, the CTI League, the Virality Project I just wrote about, and innumerable other “content moderation” projects. They start off promising to stop clearly offensive or ridiculous posts, like about microchips in vaccines. Quickly however the purview expands to include anything that “promotes hesitancy,” contains “anti-Ukraine narratives,” or too closely overlaps with the “information ecosystem” of, say, Russia. This is how Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya or the Green Party’s Jill Stein end up deamplified on Twitter, and how Aaron Maté ended up on a list of accounts passed to the FBI by Ukrainian intelligence.
With censorship, it’s always about who gets the power to evaluate, not what’s being censored. The choice isn’t between getting rid of a few obvious Nazis, or not. It’s between giving someone like Jonathan Katz, or a bunch of Jonathan Katzes, sweeping power over content or not. Americans have always understood the second danger to be scarier, for good reason.
People like Katz aren’t worried about the negligible impact of a couple of volleyball teams’ worth of creepy accounts amid tens of thousands. They’re fighting for a principle which does matter, namely making sure there isn’t even one small platform allowed to make its own decisions about content. It’s incredible how determined they are to bring everyone under the same heel. Of course, leverage is limited. Katz is threatening that he and others might take their acts elsewhere if demands aren’t met. The loss of such dazzling content would of course be an ordeal to bear, but one guesses that with effort, Substack would find a way to recover.
Where do these people come from, and how did they come to be so entitled? Are parents still doing their laundry? It’s amazing, in addition to being infuriating.