On Substack’s Nazi Problem, and Ours
Happy New Year! We are off to a depressing start with a reflection on how to navigate the moral quandaries of social media extremism – and a plea to my readers to stick with me through it all
On December 21, Substack acknowledged that there are indeed literal Nazis and white supremacist extremists using this platform to make money off disseminating their violent ideology. And Substack leadership made it clear that they are ok with that. In fact, in a post, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie explicitly justified the decision to platform Nazis – and profit from platforming Nazi extremism – as a heroic act of defending free speech. It’s all quite disgusting, really.
Mckenzie’s public statement came in response to public pressure ramping up after Jonathan Katz, who writes an excellent Substack newsletter himself, published a big piece in The Atlantic at the end of November, titled “Substack Has Nazi Problem.” Katz documented how Substack was platforming and monetizing self-identified Nazis, people who dream of Aryan world domination.
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In the wake of Katz’s Atlantic piece, an open-letter campaign – “Substackers Against Nazis” – organized by journalist Marisa Kabas tried to get Substack to explain how the company planned to handle the issue and demanded it take action. The response by Hamish McKenzie has made it clear they will not. The reasoning he outlines in his post is not only dumb, but properly insulting.
McKenzie wants to claim the mantle of a free speech defender. But in doing so, he makes the category error of discussing Substack’s obligations as if it were the state. But the matter at hand is not one of the government restricting speech, but of a private company moderating content. How it should go about that is actually a difficult question. The problem is that Substack is not willing to tackle it honestly, instead choosing to hide behind disingenuous platitudes and a bunch of disproven claims.
McKenzie wants us to believe that his decision has nothing to do with the content he is platforming, but is all about defending the noble principle of free speech. It is the position that all self-proclaimed “free speech” warriors like to take – until they come across speech they don’t like, in which case they have no problem calling for censorship. Everyone agrees there are limits to what is acceptable public speech: The real question is always where those are, and who gets to define them. In fact, Substack is not actually taking a completely neutral, value-free position on what to platform. In an excellent essay, Ken White detailed how Substack already prohibits speech that is allowed by the First Amendment, including pornography and sex work. McKenzie is making value judgments all the time, and he is making one here as well, deciding not to act against Nazis.
Moreover, Substack is also actively pushing certain content, certain people, by making recommendations to its users. Those come in different forms – via the Substack app, via a weekly email digest, and via the founders’ own preferences. Infamously, Hamish McKenzie hosted far-right pseudo-intellectual Richard Hanania on his podcast in June, praising him as an “enlightened centrist.” It was revealed shortly thereafter that Hanania had been writing for white supremacist websites under a pseudonym. But even long before McKenzie pushed him, Hanania had been easily identifiable as an overtly and aggressively racist and sexist extremist. He has also not changed one iota since the revelations of the summer: Seriously, spend a few minutes on an extended Twitter search with “black” as the search term for Hanania’s Twitter. Just unabashed white grievance, non-stop raging against affirmative action or “black-on-white crime.” There’s nothing subtle about this guy. It has always required a tremendous amount of work to present him as anything but a vile bigot. And yet, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie still thinks he did the right thing hosting him on his show, thereby actively legitimizing and normalizing him.
So, clearly, Substack is already in the business of moderating content, of suppressing and prohibiting some forms of speech while actively elevating others. Why not do something against open, self-identified Nazis then? Here’s where McKenzie offers some extremely foolish claims, and I don’t know enough about him to judge whether he is naïve and ignorant enough to believe them himself or just cynically using them as a shield. Censoring extremist views, McKenzie claims, makes the people who hold those views worse. Worse as a societal problem? The opposite is true, as we have ample evidence that deplatforming actually works. Worse as in: it radicalizes them further? Where is the evidence for that? Are self-identified Nazis becoming more moderate because Substack lets them use their platform? Lol. Come one.
And then there is, finally, McKenzie’s claim that extremists must not be censored, but defeated in the marketplace of ideas. Not only does this completely ignore that there is no “marketplace” in which ideas are being judged purely by their intrinsic quality, but there is power, and status, and access. It also implies that there is something worth considering, still worth debating about Nazis, something that has not been defeated yet – as an idea, as a way to order politics and society. But, look, no ideology has been studied more, and the first half of the twentieth century actually happened: We know what these ideas lead to in practice. They have been defeated in every way you can imagine, including on the literal real-world battlefield. There really is no need to take anyone seriously who believes Nazis need to be defeated in debate clubs, or that their ideas will organically go away once exposed to the public.
So, what now?
As Substack has made it clear it will not act against Nazis using the platform, the crucial question becomes: What should we do? We who use Substack to disseminate our writing, we who use it to access the work of writers? In direct reaction to Hamish McKenzie’s disastrous statement, some prominent Substackers – like the historian Kevin Kruse, for instance – have declared they will leave more or less immediately; several others have announced they are on the way out and looking for alternatives. This has contributed to creating an expectation among some of my readers that everyone who opposes rightwing extremism must leave Substack without further delay. I have received messages from people asking me when and where I was taking Democracy Americana; some have voiced their disappointment that I haven’t left yet; and quite a few people have evidently decided they will no longer tolerate anything that is delivered to them via Substack: Over the past ten days, since McKenzie’s statement, well over 100 people have unsubscribed from my newsletter. If you know anything about how much work it takes to grow an audience for independent work, you can imagine that this hurts quite a bit.
I have been very reluctant to chime in on this Substack Nazi business, and I still am. This is undoubtedly an important matter. But I am not sure I have anything new or innovative to add to the discussion that goes beyond what other people have already outlined in extremely thorough, smart pieces. I encourage you all to read what Ken White, John Ganz, and Radley Balko have had to say about this whole affair and what to do about it – I am singling them out because I very much agree with the stances they take. So, initially, I didn’t think I was going to write about this myself. But as the questions – and cancellations – from my readers won’t stop coming in, I realize that I should address this issue that is, understandably and rightfully, of great concern to at least some of you. I have also come to think that this is one of those issues where it is important to have my own thinking, my own position on record.
Let me start here: I understand wanting to punish Substack and not wanting to have anything to do with people who are ok with monetizing Nazis. I very much share that general sentiment. But I disagree that abandoning Substack, and doing so immediately, is the only acceptable choice, morally and politically.
First of all, the situation on Substack is not as bad as what’s been happening on/to Twitter since Musk took over. On Ex-twitter, far-right trolls and aggressive extremists are omnipresent, they are going after people in swarms, and it is impossible to use the platform for any kind of political content without constantly getting attacked by them. Over here, I generally don’t encounter any extremists. Very rarely has some rightwing asshole showed up in my comments – I’ve so far had to block fewer than ten people, I believe. I’m assuming most of my readers share that general experience – most probably don’t interact with Substack as a platform at all, aside from receiving newsletters in their email. On Ex-Twitter, the guy in charge is himself a rightwing extremist: Musk sees himself as a brave crusader against the dangers of “wokeism” and is working tirelessly to make Twitter a more hostile environment for those he perceives to be on the “Left.” I have very little sympathy for the Substack leadership, the tech bro world in general, the worldview that animates them. But Substack is not Twitter.
However, in an important way, the challenge for all of us who are using Substack is similar to the one we have faced since Musk took over Twitter: There are only bad options left on the table. Which is why I find it best not to lecture anyone. I understand completely if the Substack Nazi affair – and the experience of the past year or so more generally – has convinced a lot of people to completely give up on all of social media as a means of engaging in the public political discourse. But that step comes at considerable cost. Here on Substack, I have found some of the smartest, most incisive, most thoughtful political and cultural analysis and commentary that exists. And much of it is coming from writers, academics, and activists who have no or little traditional backing through a big institution and instead depend on a place like this to find an audience. If they all abandoned social media entirely – if we all did – the balance of power would shift dramatically away from smart, critical, leftwing and progressive perspectives. The result would be a political discourse entirely shaped by the people at big mainstream media outlets on the one hand and by reactionary centrists like Nate Silver and Matthew Yglesias as well as a lot of proper rightwingers on social media platforms on the other. That’s a spectrum, a political imagination, that ranges, roughly, from the far-right to about Ezra Klein on the leftmost flank, which isn’t left at all. That’s bad.
If we agree that losing all those valuable perspectives currently accessible via Substack would be a tremendous problem, them why not offer them somewhere else? Why don’t we all leave Substack behind and use a different platform? Here’s where I believe things are quite a bit more complicated than some people seem to think. The first and most important consideration is that a lot of the writers, commentators, and analysts who are using Substack depend on the income the platform generates for them. This isn’t just all fun and games. Not only do people invest an enormous amount of time and effort into providing valuable perspectives, which is tenable only if that work finds a decent audience; we are also in a lot of cases talking about the actual livelihoods of people.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my own situation and the significance of this newsletter for me. Since it is relevant here, as it shapes my thinking about this issue, and because I want to be maximally open about where I am coming from, I will briefly reiterate what I outlined in much more detail in that piece: As of right now, I am very fortunate to have a well-compensated job as a history professor at Georgetown University, which means I am not among those whose income depends on their public writing. Not yet. But my situation is going to change rather soon. I am not tenured and not on a tenure track: I have a fixed-term contract that ends in mid-2025 and, for complicated reasons that have nothing to do with me or my performance, won’t be up for extension or renewal. What comes after is uncertain, but I am very likely approaching the (at least preliminary) end of my university career. The academic job market is a mess. And let’s be honest: purely in terms of academic advancement, putting all this time and effort into this newsletter and my other public work is not very smart.
I have also set certain red lines for myself that I am not willing to cross to keep my academic career going. For sixteen years I’ve held teaching positions – and full-time positions for the past nine years. I couldn’t even tell you exactly how many short-term contracts and appointments I’ve cycled through: I crossed into the double digits many years ago. And that has meant a lot of anxiety, while the system, in return, asks for maximum flexibility and a lot of work with uncertain outcome. If you want to have a shot at becoming a tenured professor at a university, you have to apply for everything, anywhere, seek out whatever might be out there, and follow jobs and positions across the country – or, in my case, even across the Atlantic. At age 41, and as the father of two little children, I am simply not willing to do that anymore. I am not going to ask my wife to consider her career, her professional and private aspirations, as somehow secondary. I am not going to uproot my little boys several more times. My six-year-old has already moved across the Atlantic three times and lived in five different places, gone to five different schools. They deserve much better. My wife is far more likely than me to be offered a great job once our current contracts run out. And so, the only chance to make it work for us as a family, as we are not willing to place my academic pursuit above all other aspects of life, is very likely for me to change course and start relying on my public-facing work, my writing, in order to contribute my share.
And so, what I have been trying to do is to build an audience – both in terms of numbers and in terms of trust – that could actually, when that day comes soon, make a career as a writer, independent historian, and political commentator a viable option. As an additional hurdle, I have to do that while not earning a cent from any of my public work. The newsletter is free and, as of right now, does not have a paid subscriber option not because I am so generous (I am not) or couldn’t use the additional income, but because as a German citizen who lives in the United States on a work visa, I am legally precluded from accepting compensation that is not coming from my employer, meaning Georgetown University (I can occasionally request authorization for specific exceptions, but the newsletter is not among those). I am not thrilled about that, and it adds a lot of extra uncertainty: Until the day I am out of contract (you could also say: unemployed and without a job), I simply will not know if there are enough people among my subscribers who would be willing to support my work with a paid subscription.
In this situation, abandoning Substack and migrating to a different platform is not only a lot of work. It comes with serious risk. There are many unanswered questions: To begin with, no one seems entirely sure where to go. There are other social media services that can host a newsletter, of course. But none is as established as Substack or has a comparably large readership. This matters, because a not insignificant portion of the audience growth results from recommendations by other newsletters, and it is much easier for people who are already reading a Substack newsletter to subscribe to more. As far as I know, every other platform also comes with extra cost: They make you pay to write a newsletter, which Substack does not, and the more subscribers you have, the more you have to invest. As long as I am not allowed to monetize the newsletter in any way, this isn’t really tenable. And then there’s also the big elephant in the room: What if it turns out that those other platforms have similar issues? I believe some competitors do indeed not engage in *any* content moderation: They platform whatever the First Amendment allows. At least that makes them more consistent than Substack. But it also suggests there are or will be extremists using their services. And in general, I’d say the chances that the people who found and operate these social media companies have what I would consider good (small-d) democratic politics are slim, certainly not if they have emerged out of the tech bro / Silicon Valley culture.
I understand all this might read like an attempt to relativize away the specific moral and political quandaries that using Substack inevitably entails. That is not my intention. I really struggle with this. And I get the impulse to leave it all behind. But I worry: about my own future, the future of my public work; and about what were to happen if we all stopped writing and/or reading. I worry that we would be going back to what the political discourse was like before platforms like Substack helped grow an audience for independent work. It was significantly less diverse, less interesting, less innovative, less daring, less challenging, less smart. It was worse. And until the situation here becomes entirely untenable for democratic perspectives that favor egalitarian multiracial pluralism, or until a really viable alternative platform emerges, I believe the costs of getting out immediately outweigh the benefits.
Many of you will subscribe to at least a few Substack newsletters – which means you will have been receiving versions of what I have outlined here nonstop for the past ten days or so. As it is an important matter with far-reaching implications, I came to the conclusion I had to do what many of my fellow Substackers have done and address the Substack Nazi problem explicitly. But it also sucks, because it takes so much oxygen away from the fundamentally important issues that are happening out there, that are determining the future of this country.
I am really grateful I get to share my thoughts on these issues with interested, interesting people. It’s cathartic. And if you subscribe to Democracy Americana, I hope it’s because you see value in those reflections too, which means a great deal to me. I am determined to keep working as hard as I can to offer something valuable – and for now, I will keep offering it here. If an alternative emerges that is truly viable, that’s where I will go. Until then, I can only ask you to stick around, not “stick with Substack,” but stick with me, and with the other writers who have done enough to earn your trust.
Finally, let’s end the first post of the new year on a more hopeful, more positive note. Last week, we took the kids to a cabin deep in the woods of the Shenandoah Mountains for three days. It is probably impossible to fully escape American politics: In rural Virginia, the threat to democracy was never far, as we saw a lot of houses decorated with Trump flags and pickup trucks displaying fascistic symbols. But most of the time, it was just us, hiking, enjoying nature, spending every second with the boys. This was my first break from work since mid-August. And even just a few days make a huge difference: I feel better now than a week ago, a little calmer, a little lighter, not quite as worn out. 2024 will be a grind, and I am dreading it already. But I am also reminded that there are other things than politics and history, ways to ground myself, recover, gain perspective. In that spirit, I wish all of you a Happy New Year: Take care of yourselves, and remember to find rest and joy, whichever way you can.
Cover illustration: iStock / Credit: jukeboxhero
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