In January 2022, the Center for Countering Digital Hate accused Substack of allowing content that could be dangerous to public health, estimating that the company earned $2.5 million per year from the top five anti-vax authors alone, who have tens of thousands of subscribers. Presumably in response to press inquiries, the three founders affirmed their commitment to minimal censorship in a blog post.
Dear Chris, Hamish & Jairaj,
We’re asking a very simple question that has somehow been made complicated: Why are you platforming and monetizing Nazis?
“Some Substack newsletters by Nazis and white nationalists have thousands or tens of thousands of subscribers, making the platform a new and valuable tool for creating mailing lists for the far right. And many accept paid subscriptions through Substack, seemingly flouting terms of service that ban attempts to ‘publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes’…Substack, which takes a 10 percent cut of subscription revenue, makes money when readers pay for Nazi newsletters.”
As Patrick Casey, a leader of a now-defunct neo-Nazi group who is banned on nearly every other social platform except Substack, wrote here in 2021: “I’m able to live comfortably doing something I find enjoyable and fulfilling. The cause isn’t going anywhere.” Several Nazis and white supremacists including Richard Spencer not only have paid subscriptions turned on but have received Substack “Bestseller” badges, indicating that they are making at a minimum thousands of dollars a year.
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.
In 2020, popular platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube began restricting or removing accounts that they claim spread COVID-19 misinformation, which violates those platforms’ content policies. Some prominent authors accused of spreading misinformation have moved from those platforms to Substack. The Washington Post mentioned Joseph Mercola, whose content Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, called “so bad no one else will host it”, and Steve Bannon, whom Elizabeth Dwoskin, writing for The Washington Post, accused of spreading “violent rhetoric and false claims about the election in the weeks leading up to the Capitol siege on Jan. 6“, as “conspiracy theorists”, who have moved their online presence to Substack.
In the past, you have defended your decision to platform bigotry by saying you “make decisions based on principles, not PR” and “will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation.” But there’s a difference between a hands-off approach and putting your thumb on the scale. We know you moderate some content, including spam sites and newsletters written by sex workers. Why do you choose to promote and allow the monetization of sites that traffic in white nationalism?
Your unwillingness to play by your own rules on this issue has already led to the announced departures of several prominent Substackers, including Rusty Foster and Helena Fitzgerald. They follow previous exoduses of writers, including Substack Pro recipient Grace Lavery and Jude Ellison S. Doyle, who left with similar concerns.
As journalist Casey Newton told his more than 166,000 Substack subscribers after Katz’s piece came out: “The correct number of newsletters using Nazi symbols that you host and profit from on your platform is zero.”
We, your publishers, want to hear from you on the official Substack newsletter. Is platforming Nazis part of your vision of success? Let us know—from there we can each decide if this is still where we want to be.
Substackers Against Nazis