Pressure builds on newsletter company Substack to stop paying Nazi writers

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One of the internet’s top platforms for independent writing is facing a growing backlash from some writers over its announcement last month that it won’t block Nazis from its services, a decision that allows them and other extremists to sell subscriptions and build an online audience.

Substack, founded in 2017 in San Francisco, has become a hub for journalism and other online writing by streamlining the process for publishing email newsletters and allowing writers to keep 90% of any sales, with the company taking a 10% cut.

But in a test of that model, a handful of writers who have used Substack to build email newsletter businesses have quit the platform in recent weeks, and more writers have said they’re considering doing so if Substack doesn’t reverse its policies and demonetize white supremacists — a step that the company argues would be tantamount to censorship.

One of Substack’s top newsletters, Platformer, which publishes tech industry news, told its more than 172,000 subscribers this week that it was considering leaving the platform.

“The Nazis did not commit the only atrocity in history, but a platform that declines to remove their supporters is telling you something important about itself,” Platformer’s editor, Casey Newton, wrote Thursday.

Substack did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

The dispute is the latest in a series of battles over how Silicon Valley handles extremist content online. While most mainstream apps like Instagram or YouTube have rules that ban violent organizations or restrict hateful content, Substack has taken a different approach: not only allowing extremist content but also paying extremist writers through subscription revenue-sharing.

As a result of Substack’s approach, concern about extremist content has simmered for years. Substack has published writers who have anti-vaccine or transphobic views.

The Nazi question came to a head in November, when The Atlantic magazine published an article arguing that Substack “has a Nazi problem.” It estimated that white supremacist Richard Spencer was likely making at least $9,000 a year “and potentially many times that” from his Substack newsletter, and that he wasn’t alone.

In response to that article, more than 240 writers with Substack newsletters signed a petition asking the company to clarify its position.

“Is platforming Nazis part of your vision of success?” they asked. “Let us know — from there we can each decide if this is still where we want to be.”

The petition added that Substack’s commitment to free speech isn’t absolute because it does remove some sex-related content. Some of Substack’s critics have also noted that the platform has moved beyond simply hosting newsletter content in a somewhat neutral way and now makes recommendations — a feature that could boost extremist content. (According to The Atlantic, Patrick Casey, a leader of a defunct neo-Nazi group who now has a Substack newsletter, uses a Substack recommendation feature to promote seven other extremist newsletters.)

Hamish McKenzie, a Substack co-founder, doubled down on the company’s policy in a Dec. 21 blog post.

“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,” he wrote.

“Given that, we don’t think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away — in fact, it makes it worse,” he wrote.

Rusty Foster, publisher of Today in Tabs, a long-running newsletter on media and tech culture, said that McKenzie’s post was the last straw for him and his readers. He said he had 40,000 people on his Substack mailing list, including 3,000 paying subscribers, and some of them began to rebel.

“People started canceling their subscriptions, and I couldn’t disagree because they said, ‘I don’t want to fund the Nazi host,’” Foster said in a phone interview Friday, referring to the company.

This week he switched to a competing newsletter platform, beehiiv. He said he expects that Nazis and other extremists will now flock to Substack.

“Once you say, ‘The door is open. We’re the place that Nazis can raise money,’ that’s what you’re going to get,” he said. “They seem to genuinely believe it’s their moral duty to provide Nazis with money.”

Marisa Kabas, a Brooklyn-based writer and a third-generation Holocaust survivor, said that Substack had alienated hundreds of people like her who don’t want to indirectly support white supremacy. She has more than 6,000 subscribers on Substack and was an organizer of the petition about Nazi content.

“They went out of their way to welcome Nazis and extremists onto the platform,” Kabas said in a phone interview. She is also a columnist for MSNBC, which shares a parent company with NBC News.

She said the hundreds of petition-signers are weighing individually what to do next and that most were undecided as of Friday.

“We each run our own individual business, basically, and we have to do what’s best for our business,” she said.

Newton, the editor of Platformer, wrote in a post Thursday that Substack had staked out a lonely position even within the tech industry.

“Until Substack, I was not aware of any major US consumer internet platform that stated it would not remove or even demonetize Nazi accounts,” he wrote.

The content above is provided by NBC.

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