Substack Doesn't Have A Nazi Problem. It Has A "Deplatformers Won't Accept They Lost The War" Problem.
They also like money and friendship. They certainly don't care about antisemitism.
I’ve avoided writing this post because I assume most of my subscribers don’t care, but this has reached a level within the “Substack community” that I feel obligated me to write an actual post.
The following many words will be about Substack’s internal speech policies. If you don’t care about that—and there is no reason you should care about that—then stop reading and have a nice weekend.
For the last six months or so, several leftist Substackers have been complaining on Substack’s internal Notes “social network” about the company’s hands-off speech policies.
How shall I describe these policies? Well, basically, they’re hands-off. You can read them for yourself. You can’t use racial slurs or try to incite violence or whatever, but other than that and some other rules, they’re hands-off.
While this might be, in part, a true soulful commitment to free speech, it also is an economic reality: scaled moderation systems are expensive, and Substack is still a startup that—I don’t know this for sure, but I’m pretty confident—is still losing lots of money every quarter.
How We Got Here
After Trump won in 2016, everyone marched for a few days and demanded he resign. Then he didn’t resign, and they said, “But we’re still angry. What other institutions can we vent these frustrations at that might be more susceptible to our pressure?” And so they decided that the New York Times was to blame. Rabble, rabble, rabble! If only Maggie Haberman had used the word LIE. Etc. One of the other institutions they set their sights on was Facebook. They had a great deal of success with pressuring Facebook, which in 2015 was one of America’s most admired companies, but by 2017, was tarred and feathered and blamed for all the indignities of daily life.
Facebook was shaken by this. They were scared on a business level, but also, internally, their own employees bought into the narrative that they had been naive and caused the world to fall, just like the New York Times.
The NYT—and the liberal media at large—fell for this because it fed into their own professional narcissism. Immediately. By Trump’s inauguration, democracy was dying in darkness, etc.…
Facebook took a little while longer. It’s a bigger company. It moves slower. But eventually, they made a series of moves to respond to this. Things were banned, ads were banned, speech policies were tightened, newsfeed algorithms were tweaked to reduce polarizing content, etc…
This had many effects. One of the effects is that, ironically, the changes they had demanded ended up destroying the reach of news publications. (That’s a post for another time.) But, also empowered the nascent movement of left-wingers who thought that platforms should default to heavy moderation instead of the previous default, which was as hands-off as the law permitted.
Emboldened by the success of finding institutions they could force to respond to their pressures, this group of lefties went hunting for more censorious victories. And they found them. All the companies accepted that words were the devil, and the companies, reluctant though they may be, had to protect the stupid pigs from being exposed to the beguiling charms of bad speech.
This went on for four years, during which time the ideological project of de-platforming as a concept became sacrosanct in many left-of-center circles. By 2020, it was dominant in the liberal media. You can read James Bennett’s 20,000-word Economist story about what this looked like at the Times. But it wasn’t until January 6th that this illiberal project truly reached its peak. For months and years, activists had demanded that Trump be banned from Twitter and Facebook, but the companies had found squirrely ways of getting out of that since regardless of whether Trump had, in fact, violated terms of service, it just would have been a big change that pissed a lot of people off.
January 6th changed that. It was so bad, and everyone was so mad that they all fell in line and said, “Okay, suspended/banned/etc.”
That was the height of this movement. Every day since, it has been in retreat.
There are many reasons for that! For one thing, this entire idiotic idea, though led by true believing leftists, was given oxygen and momentum by normie liberals, who stopped giving one fuck about anything when Trump stopped being president.
Also, a lot of the people who had been bullied into going along with the radical whims of their self-righteous staff felt regret about it once the pandemic was over, and they started taking Zoloft again.
Summers of Terror only last a season.
“Deplatforming,” as an idea, stopped being so sexy, just like DEI and just like “single payer now.”
They were weird, unpopular ideas that were briefly popular because 75 million normie democrats were just anti-Trump, and then Trump left office, and those people went back to living normal lives and remembered that they don’t believe in radical change.
But the true believers didn’t stop. They kept believing. They still believe. Like the Japanese, who kept fighting WW2 on some islands until the 1970s, they kept at it. Because, on a personal level, it was now part of their identity, and in some institutional ways, these formal roles had been funded by foundation grants for years.
But in reality, the moment had passed, and people stopped giving much of a shit anymore.
And even if that weren’t true, come 2023, the final knife came for the throat: Trump came back anyway! It didn’t matter that he was deplatformed. It meant nothing. The vast anti-speech overreach, which had been so successful for five years and six years, had failed at its one goal.
When I started at Mother Jones in 2013, Facebook still let pages have this whole other page turned on where followers could post whatever they wanted, without it even having to be in the comment section of a particular post. Mother Jones had it on, and on my first day, I had to go through it. It was just people calling each other Nazis over and over. The first thing I did was turn on word-specific bans for the comments. You couldn’t say “Nazi” and you couldn’t say a couple of other inflammatory words. But a week into this, I just killed the entire ability of people to post like that because I didn’t want to check it, and by letting some things exist while stopping other things from existing, I was tacitly lending my endorsement to the other things.
Much easier to just nuke the whole thing.
This is exactly the value proposition that traditionally led these companies to take such a hands-off approach to everything. Moderate a little and you have to moderate a lot. For a few years, the moral speech panic was such that the value proposition changed and it was better to accept that they were in some small way in the moderation game. But it didn’t get them anywhere. They didn’t win over any fans. People still blamed them for everything. And it opened the door to a whole new world of headaches because the moderation was imperfect, as it was always destined to be.
Scaled moderation and proactive censorship caused a baker’s dozen or so Bad Instances, like banning the Hunter Biden laptop story or censoring some contrarian views about COVID. These embarrassed all the companies involved, and the whole project went to pot.
This now brings us to today, the hot and humid nights of December in the Lord’s year 2023.
Deplatformers Lost. But The True Believers Are Still Fighting.
Twitter is now owned by someone who is actively against the left-wing deplatformers. He, like Trump, enjoys negging them. (He, like Trump, is also a total lunatic, but that’s sort of irrelevant.) Meta has decided that they don’t give a shit about this anymore because it just created headaches. Every news organization in America is ashamed of how they let a bunch of twentysomethings bully them into deconstructing their entire business plans.
So it’s hard out there for the deplatformer! The champagne has dried up. The strawberries have gone rotten.
But then there is the island of misfit toys: substack. Smaller scale. It is dominated by young writers, which is to say dominated by the very ideologues who have lost purchase in corporate America, and again, they are on the hunt for an institution they can pressure.
There are some substack writers who are fucking idiots. Lots of them! Some of them have very bad ideas indeed! Richard Hanania is one of them. Some dumbass conservative troll with a popular Substack. In the first half of this year, this idiot had some posts that weren’t obviously crazy and were shared by lots of people. Matt Yglesias got dragged into this because he linked to one of his posts. But also Substack THE COMPANY had him on a little-listened-to, now-defunct podcast and featured him in one of the many weekly newsletters they do highlighting content. By this time, Hanania was a name. One of the bigger substacks! They were talking to one of their stars.
And then, a little bit later, it came out that he had a history of vile white supremacist comments on the internet from a few years ago. He was already an idiot, but this was really bad, and—though I doubt it was true to his heart—he ended up writing a post about how he had learned from his mistakes and was sorry.
I genuinely believe that thought crimes should be forgiven just because the convict repents, but Hanania is and always has been an idiot. I don’t give a shit if you forgive him or don’t. He’s not someone who has interesting thoughts. Whether he is evil or not is irrelevant to me.
But this adds fuel to the fire. Substack had been yelled at for years for being the last salvation of the canceled (like yours truly). In 2022, a bunch of trans authors left because Jesse Singal was allowed to be on there. So this added to all of this, and six months ago, Jonathan Katz, who is a friend of mine and I had on a podcast when I was still doing podcasts, started this vendetta against Substack.
Audience Capture 2023
Jonathan and I both were part of the Substack Pro program, which is/was a thing where we were given a year’s worth of funding to join the platform. I don’t know if it still exists. Both of our deals ended long ago. The way it worked is you were given a lump sum of varying amounts, and for that first year, the ratio of substack to writer profits was flipped. Right now, Substack takes, I think, 15% of my subscription revenue. For that year, they took, I think, 85%. Etc… This program was a huge win for Substack the Company when it came to people who became huge stars, but when it came to the vast majority of people who they made that deal with, people like me, it was a massive financial loss. (Maybe it was worth it in terms of PR. I don’t know. But they definitely gave me more money than they got from the subscribers I gained.)
A problem with this program, at least for me, was that once you realized you weren’t going to be the Biggest Substack In The World, for that first year, you’re a bit lackadaisical. I didn’t post as my life depended on it because the majority of the revenue wasn’t for me. I was also doing something I had never done before—write on my own, without the helpful support system of colleagues to shoot ideas off and be inspired by. Again, I don’t know what is true of Jon’s experience. When my deal ended, I didn’t have enough subscribers to live on. Far from it, in fact. I had to get all these 0% interest credit cards, which I’m still just paying the minimums on. I have about six more months to find the money before the promotional rate periods end. But anyway, so the deal ends, and you go, “Jesus, I need to get real about growing subscribers here.”
And like everyone who has ever had that thought, you end up captured by an audience. Not just your own, but by the promise of the audience to come.
It’s only for my own mental illness that I’m not more committed to this. In a truly real world, I should be looking at the subscribes and unsubscribes daily, and giving the people what they want. I don’t do that because I’m stupid and sick in the head.
I’m going to assume that Jon is saner. Six months ago, I saw him on Notes posting about how Substack had not done enough deplatforming. And those Notes, they done numbers! He and Noah Berlasky were constantly just going back and forth in ways that were, even if, by accident, something, the audience developer in me would have tipped my hat to. They were cross-promoting and gaining each other’s subscribers.
Maybe they never noticed the direct financial effects of that behavior. I have no idea what is in their heads. But in my experience as a writer, an editor, and an audience development director, people notice it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lying about anything. It just means you’re playing the hits. Shakespeare wrote for money. This is fine. I am not accusing anyone of being evil.
Other people got in on this business. That’s what happened with social networks. They turn into in-groups, and people subscribe to cohorts. I know this well. A lot of my subscribers probably subscribe because they see me fucking around with Josh Barro and Sonny Bunch and Nate Silver, and a zillion other people. That’s just how it works. Nothing evil about it.
But once you realize there is gold at the end of that rainbow, you can’t help but call for the rain! You can’t help but seek it out. I am sure that I have become more like Matt Yglesias, not only because I already agreed with him about most things but because people who don’t bitch about him every day also don’t bitch about me every day. And the people who do bitch about me constantly bitch about him.
That’s just a fact. That’s how socialization works.
So Jon and Noah and Marisa Kabas, who I’ve known for real in real life for a decade and has always been a bit further to the left than me but is a perfectly lovely person, all got together and doubled down on all this deplatforming nonsense, Jon wrote a story in the Atlantic recently, which was typically well-researched since he’s a smart guy, and they all reached out to their Rolodexes (ask your parents) and started to work on this open letter to demand that Substack kick off the three actual Nazis who are on the platform and then the idiot repentant shmuck Richard Hanania who actually has followers but for all his sins is not a Nazi.
I want to reiterate this: I am not accusing any of these people of dishonesty or propaganda. This is just how human brains work. We all have a zillion contradictory beliefs in our addled heads. One day, you realize that some other people also share one of those beliefs. You then start talking about it more and more because it brings you closer to that group, and if you’re a writer in the subscription business, all of this behavior is supercharged by very real financial aspects.
I have no doubt that they are at play in my noggin as well. I have never liked the de-platforming stuff or cancel culture, but as these debates took on more salience and I found myself making common cause with people who also didn’t like them, I also started to humanize them more and identify with them more, and one two three, it became a belief of mine that I felt stronger than I felt other beliefs, and I talked about it more often than my other beliefs.
I joked once in another post on this Substack that this is how politics, unfortunately, leads people to become more extreme. You disagree with libs about one thing, you end up in these vicious battles over it, they totalize everything, you are made more extreme by them, and the next thing you know, you’re searching for Jews under floorboards in France.
While that’s a true directional description of the process, it’s also a self-deprecating joke about me becoming more right-wing. Me becoming a Nazi.
In reality, I didn’t become a Nazi. I was not moved to the right by Nazis. Nazis have no particular relevance to my belief system (beyond the fact that I’m not a fan).
These People Don’t Give A Shit About Antisemitism (Which Is Sort Of One Thing The Nazis Are Known For)
But the people making this argument—Jon and Marisa and hundreds of others—are not using it like that. They are being serious. They are saying that Substack is letting actual Nazis run rampant on here and that it presents some serious threat to the American way.
That’s ridiculous. And it’s offensive to the many ancestors Jon, Marisa, and I all have that died at the hands of Nazis. Quite bad, Nazis! Did a lot of killing of Jews! What made the Nazis so singularly terrible in both fact and memory was not that they had bad beliefs. It was not that they were antisemitic even. What made them quite so bad was the death camps.
There are certainly people in the world today who believe in the extermination of Jews through violence and gas—perhaps those three fellows Jon found with collectively a thousand followers—are some of them. Richard Hanania, the big fish, the one they have to hang all the arguments about how Substack is making money off of, isn’t. He’s a racist. Or a repentant racist. Or a pretend repenant racist. Or whatever. I’m certainly not going to ask him to be my son’s godfather, but it’s not the same.
I know it’s not the same because we actually are in this moment of quite severe rampant antisemitism. Ever since October 7th, the Nazi accusations have mostly been flung in the other direction because so many left-wingers have allowed their totalizing view of colonialism to lead them the way of minimizing Hamas. Or downplaying the dumb kids on college campuses who actively like Hamas.
I have written a lot over the past two months about how much I hate the left response to October 7th. I think that a lot of them—but not all, not a majority—are, in fact, antisemites. But unless we’re talking about actual Hamas members, I really don’t think it’s fair to accuse people of being the equivalent of Nazis.
But, it does make these claims from the left about de-platforming Nazis particularly ridiculous at the moment. Most of the people who signed that open letter demanding Substack deplatform racists are sort of doctrinaire internet leftists. (Not all! But most.) A lot of them have spent the last two months retweeting the Quds News Network, which is run by Hamas. Many of them were blaming Israel for all of this on October 7th.
This is not a group deeply invested in combatting antisemitism! This is a group of people who are deeply invested in leftism and the illiberal project of deplatforming. Because they have sort of coincidentally used the anti-nazi vocabulary for so long, they are now in the somewhat hilarious position of complaining about how Nazis on substack are a huge threat requiring intervention while also arguing that everyone is overreacting to students calling for the destruction of the state of Israel, people defending a terror group that beheads Jewish babies, or those who just come out and say, for instance, that Cypriots shouldn’t sell land to Jews because they’ll come to regret it.
I don’t know that anything has made me more annoyed by this debate than last weekend when I saw an earnest, relatively offline, old Jewish writer make the mistake of thinking that the “Nazis on substack” open letter was using the term “Nazi” in any way that had to do with their understanding of the term. They were sad and scared and horrified! But also confused and looking for an explanation. They hadn’t seen any of the people who had killed their parents here.
I didn’t respond to them because I have a horse in this race and felt like someone who is as earnest as they and more unbiased than we should help them out. But what I would have told them is: don’t worry. They don’t mean actual nazis. They mean unreconstructed conservatives who could have any number of beliefs.
That isn’t how that dude understood the term “Substack Nazis.” That dude thought there were real popular Nazis on here putting Jews in camps.
He didn’t know what I knew, which is sometimes people just say shit because it is catchy, taken for granted in their in-group, and will make them get some followers.