Substack Has a Nazi Problem

I’m leaving Substack.

Why? Substack has a Nazi problem.

See UPDATE

The real problem is, they have decided not to do anything about it. Substack, which is a publishing platform like Medium but with a robust and useful email sending capability built in, has chosen to draw their “free speech” line in such a way that they exclude “adult” content, but include Nazi content.

It’s not like they haven’t had time to think about it. First, The Atlantic wrote about it (non-paywall link) in late November. Hundreds of the publishers they host urged them in an open letter to redraw their line. Substack literally announced they didn’t intend to do so. That refusal was December 21. I needed to publish the next day, so I slept on it and made my decision.

Me Message to My Substack Readers

What follows is an expanded version of what I wrote in True’s Substack edition on 22 December 2023.

Dropping Substack? I had already noticed a burst of cancellations of [True’s] Substack edition, and one of the departing readers clued me in as to why. Not that he didn’t like my content (he was upgrading to the full Premium edition to replace his subscription here), but rather he doesn’t like Substack due to its newly announced position. Specifically, he sent me this link to an article at The Verge: Substack says it will not remove or demonetize Nazi content.

In response to significant criticism, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie — who is who personally invited me to bring True to to his platform — announced that while “we [Substack] don’t like Nazis either,” he posits that “subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power.” I absolutely do believe that concept has some validity, but that’s not why such content is there. To provide a platform and a way to make money on such content certainly doesn’t “strip bad ideas of their power,” and I’m extremely uncomfortable in continuing to participate in the platform.

I have to give my reader kudos for also simply choosing to not participate in helping Substack make money — and to not even ask me to, let alone insist that I, move away from Substack. Hell, he didn’t even suggest it.

So what I did for him is provide a “rebate” for what he paid in the form of a discount on his Premium subscription, especially since his Substack subscription renewed just last month. If the situation disturbs you and you also want to move on, by all means do follow your conscience. If you would also like to switch to True’s regular paid version (“Premium”), let me know and I’ll send you a $10 coupon toward a year’s subscription; send me a note from your Substack-registered address with the request. Bottom line is this is fair notice: over the next week or two I will be winding this edition down and leaving Substack. [Which was competed 8 days later on 30 December 2023]

I’m not demanding that Substack “do” anything, but rather I suggest that staying the course they are on will cost them a lot more money than it would have cost to draw a line and refuse to make money from that kind of content.

[End of Substack Editorial. Now comes the expanded part.]

The “Nazi Bar” Scenario

@IamRageSparkle on Twitter (he has since left that platform for similar reasons) posted a story there in 2020:

I was at a shitty crustpunk bar once getting an after-work beer. One of those shitholes where the bartenders clearly hate you. So the bartender and I were ignoring one another when someone sits next to me and he immediately says, “No. Get out.”

And the dude next to me says, “Hey, I’m not doing anything. I’m a paying customer.” And the bartender reaches under the counter for a bat or something and says, “Out. Now.” and the dude leaves, kind of yelling. And he was dressed in a punk uniform, I noticed.

Anyway, I asked what that was about and the bartender was like, “You didn’t see his vest but it was all nazi shit. Iron crosses and stuff. You get to recognize them.” And I was like, Oh, OK, and he continues.

“You have to nip it in the bud immediately. These guys come in and it’s always a nice, polite one. And you serve them because you don’t want to cause a scene. And then they become a regular and after awhile they bring a friend. And that dude is cool too.

“And then THEY bring friends and the friends bring friends and they stop being cool and then you realize, oh shit, this is a Nazi bar now. And it’s too late because they’re entrenched and if you try to kick them out, they cause a PROBLEM. So you have to shut them down.”

And I was like, “Oh damn.” And he said, “Yeah, you have to ignore their reasonable arguments because their end goal is to be terrible, awful people.”

And then he went back to ignoring me. But I haven’t forgotten that at all.

So yeah: now it’s too late. Substack is a Nazi Platform. Not because there’s a Nazi there, but the first one brought a friend, and then another friend, and they all brought other friends, and “oh shit, it’s a Nazi Platform now.”

Will They Change Their Mind?

Maybe they could change their mind, but it really is too late. It’s not just that the bartender — er, Hamish — didn’t throw the Nazis out. The company actively promotes the Nazi newsletters.

Why would they do that, especially if they “don’t like Nazis either”? Because the way Substack makes money is to take 10 percent of all subscription fees off the top. So when a Nazi gets $50,000 in subscriptions, Substack gets $5,000 — and since the Nazis bring “friends” who publish there too, it’s not “just” $5,000, but who-knows-how-many times that.

One can’t condemn their actions and participate in their platform, making them money, so I won’t publish there; I won’t add to their profits. Yep, it’s costing me Yet Another Four-Figure chunk of income. But that’s OK: I don’t want to be on a Nazi Platform no matter how much I make there.

My income was building on Substack. Maybe someday I would have gotten to $50,000 too, with their “network effect” that is quite effective. But I won’t play the game to find out: the network is more and more tilted to Nazi content, not my “think more to improve the world” content. Nazism is antithetical to my kind of thinking, full stop.

At least, so far, two of my paid Substack readers have moved over to Premium, in addition to the original reader who clued me in (thanks, Mark in Texas!), taking me up on my coupon offer: only $132/year gross so far, but at least it’s honest money.

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” —Karl Popper, Austrian-British philosopher, academic, and social commentator.

Update

NBC News reported that Substack said it removed some newsletters after criticism about Nazi content, but it’s a fairly tepid move.

In response to ever-growing criticism, Substack removed five publications, agreeing that the publications had violated its existing rules which prohibit content that incites violence “based on protected classes”. (So it’s still OK to incite violence against regular people who are not “protected classes.”) Substack added it has no plans to change their content guidelines (aka rules).

Apparently, then, Substack agrees that it was hosting Nazi content from at least five publications. “We are actively working on more reporting tools that can be used to flag content that potentially violates our guidelines, and we will continue working on tools for user moderation so Substack users can set and refine the terms of their own experience on the platform,” Substack told NBC News.

What does that mean? That “you can’t currently report comments directly to Substack: only writers receive your reports,” replies Platformer, which has also left Substack for the same reason I did — and they’re a lot bigger than True.

NBC noted that “A handful of Substack writers had quit” Substack. The thing is, True chose not to republish the open letter to Substack that several hundred publications there did. And there is no way to count the number of publications that have quit in protest, such as True. And, more recently, the excellent 7 Takeaways, which I have promoted a few times.

The level of damage from Substack’s actions, or lack of action, is hugely underestimated and underreported.

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21 Comments on “Substack Has a Nazi Problem

  1. I never understood doing anything buying premium True directly.

    There’s cost to a publisher for any solution, including my own, but my own has the lowest cost. I do understand that people just get tired of Yet Another Account somewhere, so I try to have alternatives. -rc

    Reply
  2. Guess that ends my idea of publishing there. Seemed like a decent platform — until now. Thanks for the info.

    And the Popper quote is apropos to many current issues.

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  3. Oh for crying out loud. There’s something seriously the matter with reasoning these days. I really don’t get the noxious argument that in order to be fair or democratic you have to invite in the Nazis. Hey #Substack take an effing adult stand already.

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  4. I follow a writer who is trying to replace the income from his newspaper gigs with Substack because his specialty is deep-dive investigative articles, which are difficult to monetize effectively outside of established journals. He apologized for staying — for now. He’s trying to find another site to jump to, because Nazis scare HIM, too (which seems to be the reason that most of people attracted to it LIKE it, I’m afraid). He’s seen his income start to plummet already.

    I’m hope an acceptable alternative starts taking business from Substack very soon so I can stop scratching the hives it’s given me.

    I too hope there’s a viable alternative SOON for the superb journalists who are counting on getting the support they need to continue their work. It’s tough to do, but it just takes one billionaire to say “This needs to be done.” -rc

    Reply
  5. Great work as is usual for you. Fixing our society is a constant exhausting up hill battle that will never be won. I still can’t stop myself from trying.

    Yeah, either can I. I’m heartened that so many who are expressing their support are already Premium subscribers, putting your money where my mouth is to help me keep going. Including you. Thank you! -rc

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  6. Whoa. Thanks for posting this. Been too occupied otherwise to notice and using a different platform more frequently lately. Time to migrate my meagre following over there.

    And extra thank you for that quote at end of editorial portion. A very interesting conversation from my very interesting married past had me asking an in-law “How do you tolerate intolerance?”

    They’d suggested tolerance as a way for *me* to deal with my lack of comfort finding myself living in middle of overt unashamed racial prejudice a move to Georgia had thrust right in my face.

    My mind was boggled. WTH?
    #onlyInCanadaEh

    Reply
  7. I strongly disagree with your argument suggesting that people stop using Substack because it takes money from Nazis.

    Firstly I should state that my mother’s family were in Poland at the start of the World War 2 and most of them were wiped out in concentration camps, so I have no sympathy with Nazism. However there are a number of problems with this modern-day approach to censorship which I think are becoming dangerous in a democracy.

    The first problem is who is to determine who is or isn’t a Nazi? Obviously in some cases it is obvious: they call themselves Nazis. But suppose you suspect someone is a Nazi supporter although they don’t say so? Who is going to be the arbiter? Someone is going to have to make the decision that they should be banned and if they deny they are Nazi sympathisers the general reading population is not in position to decide because they are unable to read the articles. It’s a doorway to allow censorship of anyone who a group of un-elected individuals have decided to ban.

    Following on from this we should ask: why just Nazis? We saw in Covid that anyone who questioned the orthodox opinions on Covid or the Covid vaccines was banned. I was banned from Medium because I wrote an article quoting the CDC’s own figures and showing that their own narrative contradicted the data. Many people — even highly qualified immunologists — were taken down from YouTube because they questioned the official view.

    The Atlantic, who published the original article, is a propaganda sheet that pushes left-wing ideology and pays scant attention the truth, so it is fitting that it should try to enforce censorship of any views that it disagrees with — and obviously it sees banning Nazi ideas as a way of bringing this about.

    I’m not in the USA but I see that many people equate support of Donald Trump with racism. IE they claim that all Trump supporters are racists. Logically the argument is absurd but the next step will be to ban Trump sympathisers from publishing anywhere because they are racists, and because people are unable to read what they actually say they will believe it. Personally, I believe that The Atlantic is pushing in this direction. That remains to be seen but even without that the move towards censorship is a dangerous one.

    You seem to say that Substack shouldn’t be making money out of Nazis and by withdrawing support you’re hoping that that will cause them to rethink their view. In other words, you think they should put money before their integrity. And why shouldn’t they make money out of Nazis? Should a store find out the political leanings of its customers so that don’t inadvertently make money out of Nazis. Or racists. Or anyone else who The Atlantic decides?

    The piece you published about the kid with Nazi symbols I think emphasises the difference between your approach and mine. The bartender didn’t know the kid’s actual political opinions and didn’t bother to find out. The bartender could have sat down and talked to him. He may have been a naive kid who didn’t even know what Nazism was. Maybe he was a Nazi sympathiser because his friends were. Maybe he hated Jews because he had bad experiences with them or conversely maybe he hated Jews because he had never met one. The bartender had an opportunity for replacing perceived hate with understanding and he simply used violence and intimidation instead. That is where the world is heading. As to the bar becoming a Nazi hangout, he can face that problem if it seems to be happening. He is quite within his rights to refuse entry to people to his bar. The analogy is not a good one. Substack is hardly going to become a pro-Nazi hangout unless anyone who is not a Nazi leaves — which is precisely what you are encouraging.

    I will continue to support substack. Not that it matters but all my articles are free so Substack doesn’t make any money off me, nor me from them.

    I didn’t argue nor “suggest” that others should stop using Substack. I didn’t even suggest Substack had to. Rather, I admired my reader in that he did “not even ask me to, let alone insist that I, move away from Substack. Hell, he didn’t even suggest it.” As for Substack itself, “I’m not demanding that Substack ‘do’ anything.” So to attempt to put words in my mouth when my clearly stated points are right above is silly.

    Everyone needs to make their own decisions, preferably with knowledge. I made my decision, you made yours. “In other words, you think they should put money before their integrity.” You didn’t read very carefully. “Should a store find out the political leanings of its customers so that don’t inadvertently make money out of Nazis. Or racists.” Should a store suggest their shoppers give money to the gang dressed as stormtroopers? That’s what Substack is doing; that’s all I’m pointing out. I trust my readers to make their own reasoned decisions, even if such decisions conflict with mine. -rc

    Reply
    • It’s not illegal censorship if a private website or, to use Randy’s analogy, bar to kick out someone who is writing Nazi material. The First Amendment only bars the government from defining orthodoxy in the public square. If a Nazi comes into my house spewing his venom, the First Amendment protects my right to kick him out. And as the bartender said, if you don’t kick them out, others will come and continue to push the envelope until it looks like a Munich beer hall in the 1930s.

      Reply
  8. I’m on a different social platform (definitely anti-nazi!) but some of the “regular” posters there always add their invitation for readers to follow them on their Substack account. Until your post, I had no idea about the nazi content there, and I think more people on my chosen platform should be aware of what Substack is/does. May I link to your blog page when I come across these otherwise-nice writers who are trying to make a living via Substack?

    The vast majority of publishers on Substack are not Nazis, and I’d guess most are anti-Nazi, so suggesting others follow them there isn’t an indication that those commenters are. But you’re welcome to link to this page for anyone you think might want to read it. -rc

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  9. Well done, Randy. I am delighted to continue to be a long term subscriber to a person who does more than just talk about ethics, but walks the walk!

    And I’d also like to thank you for the quote at the end of your editorial: I think I’ll be using that myself in the future. 🙂

    Yeah, it’s appropriately thought-provoking. -rc

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  10. The only link that worked on this page was the one to your December Substack post. The others (linking to owowi) came up as not found.

    From your Substack post, I was able to successfully access the other links.

    THANK YOU for that. I started publishing on Substack last August, and had heard a little about the Nazi thing, but hadn’t dug into it yet. Now I have a beginning for my digging.

    You’re most welcome. Odd that my link click counter isn’t working for you: I just checked the links using “incognito mode” so it wasn’t influenced by my being logged in, and they worked fine. Glad you found your way anyway, and that you’re doing your own digging. -rc

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  11. Randy, as so often before, I get to thank you for having principles and acting on them. I do get tired of pointing out logic lapses, and have come to believe that ethics lapses are related.

    BTW, I teach Ethics to Certified Financial Planners and leaven the (somewhat) dry official texts with real-life examples — many gleaned from the N.Y. Times Magazine’s wonderful “The Ethicist” column. And now, your story, and the perfect quote, will be part of my presentation.

    Regards from Palo Alto.

    I am pleased that anything that I’ve published is used as fodder in ethics (and/or thinking) class materials! Thank YOU for helping me to continue publishing, Curt. It’s much appreciated. -rc

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  12. And again, I have to say, Learn about the ‘Paradox of Tolerance’ and apply it here.

    A post I saw, possibly on your page, said, ‘Tolerance is a social contract. Those who practice intolerance have already violated that contract and thus need to NOT be tolerated’ (paraphrased, and emphasis is mine).

    Reply
  13. Someone could maybe use this:

    Another newsletter I read, moved from Substack to Beehiiv.

    Hope you all find a home where free speech doesn‘t allow everything.

    Reply
  14. So, Randy, you’re asying there is a use case for zero tolerance after all.

    I’ve always said that the response has to be proportional to the transgression. Feel free to review past posts on the subject. -rc

    Reply
    • I think I have read pretty much all your ZT stories at some time or another, and have yet to recall any reference to proportional response — only zero tolerance for zero tolerance — which is why I was somewhat astonished at your support for the bartender story.

      Yes, I realise you aren’t advocating for ZT on reddit, but taking a stance _against_ reddit, and boycotting it, and telling everyone about it, is tantamount to the same thing and it sure _looks_ like it.

      Oh come on: did you even LOOK? The very FIRST page I opened just now spells it out:

      School principals have always had the responsibility to make and enforce rules, and punish accordingly when those rules are broken. “Zero-Tolerance” laws take that responsibility away. They mandate certain responses that can be way out of proportion to the rule violation in question. That is what these stories are “about.”

      and

      What happened to the punishment fitting the “crime”? … Most cases call for, at most, a stern talk in the principal’s office — not suspension, expulsion, police involvement or press conferences.

      (All emphasis from the original.) That page is from 1999, and there are many more examples of this sort of language through the site’s ZT pages. You need to pay attention and actually read, which will also help you understand that this isn’t about Reddit. Yours is the first use of the word on this page. -rc

      Reply
  15. I subscribe to you directly, Mr. Cassingham, so it’s not a practical issue for me. I love your work, and have for years (decades!), and even if you say something that ticks me off (it happens), I just remember: we’re grown ups, we can disagree — and this man writes great stuff, and not liking every single opinion he has is the non-monetary price I pay as a grown-up to share all is ideas.

    Having said that (and in that spirit I hope): I absolutely disagree with you — and seemingly most else commenting here — about your decision to leave Substack.

    This at base makes _absolutely_no_sense_, practically or philosophically.

    Another, much more talented writer (on Substack! — still subscribed, no intention of leaving) than I put it thusly:

    Most of the people engaging in this boycott have not explained _either_ how this actually will solve/control opinions they hate in the real world, _or_ how all their choice of alternative platforms are supposedly better or not subject to contradiction of these supposed ideals.

    If someone whose opinion you hate uses Wordpress, or hosts Wordpress on their own server — or uses some other alternative that’s decentralised and unmoderated — for example, then by definition if people choose to abandon Substack for these platforms, this is a blatant contradiction — _but_this_indeed_is_what_people_are_doing_ on a not insignificant level.

    Substack absolutely does _not_ funnel every opinion algorithmically tailored to press your buttons emotionally — unlike TwitX or Facepage or whatnot — in the name of Pavlovian “engagement” that actually means provoking angry reaction in the service of advertising; which is also why many people like myself prefer it. (I do not regard the attempts by people to deliberately game results so as to create shock-horror search results as honest or credible, and that only proves the point — you have to go looking for it)

    And you’re all going to yell “but, monetization!”, and I’m going to point out that this has been or is going to be the implicit or explicit argument for every censorious, authoritarian heart across the political spectrum to seek out and ban every utterance that offends them in the intoxicating pursuit of control: books and magazine articles that pay their authors, credit cards and banks whose primary purpose to is to facilitate transactions between private individuals – this won’t stop ultimately until people made homeless can’t get refunds on returned cans and bottles without a social-credit score that they haven’t held unsanctioned opinions in the previous 3 months.

    You think I’m exaggerating — not by much. Some of us grew up in countries within living memory where — either because we were considered too sympathetic to radical/subversive “left-wing” or “right-wing” wrongthink, jobs could be lost, basic services or opportunities or advancement could be severely curtailed, at the expense of oneself, ones’s family, one’s friends. And that’s the nicer places where you didn’t wind up in a gulag or dropped out of a helicopter. This isn’t abstract idealism for some, it’s a direct response to — how do they put it nowadays? — “lived experience”.

    You are all clapping each other on the backs for being such great people, and actually you’re just supporting the construction of a high-tech hangman’s scaffold for free speech that you all assume your opinions will never appear on. Just wait. The wheel of history turns, political and cultural regimes change — or didn’t you notice you live under governments that are occasionally elected by people whose opinions you don’t like, and who really don’t like yours?

    I’m not falling out with you over this — still going to read you (and your commentors occasionally). But I’ll be damned if I’ll be guilt-tripped or lectured by the latest iteration of finger-wagging little old ladies with blue hair trying to root out dirty books in the library.

    I’ll read whatever I want — or not — because I’m an adult. I suggest you all apply the same practical philosophy, rather than trying to police everyone else’s reading material. This is the price we pay for being able to share ideas.

    I can only repeat what I said to another comment above:

    I didn’t argue nor “suggest” that others should stop using Substack. I didn’t even suggest Substack had to. Rather, I admired my reader in that he did “not even ask me to, let alone insist that I, move away from Substack. Hell, he didn’t even suggest it.” As for Substack itself, “I’m not demanding that Substack ‘do’ anything.” So to attempt to put words in my mouth when my clearly stated points are right above is silly. … I trust my readers to make their own reasoned decisions, even if such decisions conflict with mine. -rc

    P.S.: For those who choose to quote someone else rather than write your own arguments, please make it very clear where their words end and yours start up again.

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  16. Never been on there and never will.

    Understand. The shame of it all is, there is a lot of good stuff there. But the company has damaged those publishers by defending (and promoting!) the Nazis, understandably causing publishers and readers alike to flee, and that’s very sad. -rc

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  17. A drop of wine in a barrell of swill won’t turn the swill into wine, but we accept the converse is true.

    Remember the Red Scare? The fear that a single Communist in Hollywood would turn us all Communist.

    Maybe there are Nazis on Substack. But leaving the platform is akin to leaving the bar because there’s a kid wearing a vest with Nazi insignia. Perhaps you can stick around, support the establishment, ask him why he’s advertising those ideas, and get him to change his ways, or persuade him that this is not a welcoming environment.

    In your example, the bartender made the argument. But wouldn’t it be better if the patrons made the argument?

    Here’s a different analysis of the situation.

    Hey, if you want to drink shit-contaminated wine, be my guest — but I won’t be close enough to smell your breath. Here’s the lede of the “different analysis” you cite: “As some of you know, there’s presently a debate raging about the fact that Substack will not automatically ban Nazis who pop up on this platform.” Absolutely incorrect, and what’s the point of reading the rest with obliviocy as the premise? I say why right on this page: “It’s not just that the bartender — er, Hamish — didn’t throw the Nazis out. The company actively promotes the Nazi newsletters.” (emphasis from original)

    NO ONE has suggested that they “automatically ban” content. NO ONE here has even suggested that Substack be penalized. Rather, as has been pointed out in other comments that you obviously didn’t bother to read before you posted YOUR comment that you expect others to read:

    I didn’t argue nor “suggest” that others should stop using Substack. I didn’t even suggest Substack had to. Rather, I admired my reader in that he did “not even ask me to, let alone insist that I, move away from Substack. Hell, he didn’t even suggest it.” As for Substack itself, “I’m not demanding that Substack ‘do’ anything.” So to attempt to put words in my mouth when my clearly stated points are right above is silly.

    And just look at you now. You don’t look silly, you look stupid. Get out of my bar and don’t come back. -rc

    Reply

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