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Substack Responds (Badly) to Its Nazi Problem

Private content moderation is not censorship.

Copyright © 2023 by Ari Armstrong
December 21, 2023

When last I wrote, I discussed why I left Substack over its toleration of Nazis and the like. I explained that I not wish to be associated with Nazis and that a commitment to freedom of expression does not mean one has to spend one's resources to platform or promote horrible speech.

Now Hamish McKenzie of Substack has replied. Unfortunately, McKenzie's response demonstrates that Substack's leaders either are deeply stupid or, far more likely, deeply dishonest. In either case, McKenzie's reply makes me even happier that I've already chosen to leave.

McKenzie conflates (probably intentionally) private content moderation with government censorship. Specifically, he writes, "[W]e don't think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse." By that "reasoning," if I don't allow a Nazi parade in my living room then I am "censoring" the Nazis.

But McKenzie is totally wrong. Although we can use "censorship" loosely in other contexts, in the main it refers to forcible actions by a government (or other dominant group) to remove commentary from the marketplace or to threaten people with force for producing some sort of commentary. For example, government banning a book is censorship. Government threatening to imprison people for articulating the "wrong" viewpoints is censorship. Me telling Nazis to get off my lawn is not censorship.

A cynic would point out here that Substack takes a ten-percent cut from Substackers' paid subscriptions, so McKenzie has an obvious and direct financial incentive to muddy the underlying issues to rationalize making money off of Nazis.

At this point I wish to bend over backwards to emphasize that McKenzie and Substack have every right, legally, to make money off of Nazis. Just as I have every right to leave Substack over Substack's idiotic policies. At issue here is not what McKenzie and Substack are legally obligated to do, but what, in my view, they are morally obligated to do. Those are two very different issues. In my view, McKenzie and Substack (arguably) are acting immorally by platforming Nazis, and they have every legal right to platform Nazis. See how easy it is for any honest person to clearly see the difference between censorship and private content moderation?

Notably, in his post, McKenzie does not make the only argument that I would have considered reasonable: that content moderation is too difficult or costly to implement. I would have had a lot more respect for McKenzie if he had just said something like, "Look, it sucks to have Nazis using our platform to spread hate speech and make money, but we just don't want to spend the resources to implement content moderation or to deal with the inevitable difficult marginal cases. So letting the Nazis on our platform is just the price that we are willing to pay and that we ask our other Substackers to accept." I still would have been happy to have left Substack, but at least I would not think of McKenzie as a dishonest toad.

McKenzie does weakly attempt another argument: Restricting Nazi speech is bad. He writes, "[H]istory shows that censorship is most potently used by the powerful to silence the powerless." Okay, but . . . again, we are talking about private content moderation, not censorship. Yet Ted Gioia, whom McKenzie cites for this point, is talking about things like "the Spanish Inquisition to the French Committee for Public Safety to the Soviet gulags and beyond." Yes, disallowing Nazis on your private platform is just like running a Soviet gulag, you might say if you are a complete moron or a dishonest hack.

We could ask a subsidiary question of whether private content moderation to keep out Nazis is a bad thing. Well, do you think the New York Times or CNN or any other serious news outlet should give "equal space" (or any space) to Nazis to express their views on Jews? Or do you think that would be obviously stupid? If you do not think the local newspaper is "censoring" Nazis by not paying (or asking) Nazis to write a regular column for that publication, then, if you are a reasonable person, you also do not think that Substack would be "censoring" Nazis by disallowing pro-Nazi content on its platform. Come on now, people. Let's be serious.

You might argue that Substack is substantially different from a newspaper, and so Substack, unlike a newspaper, should not exercise (much) private content moderation. Fine. Make that argument. Just don't hide behind the bogus claim that private content moderation is censorship.

Ken White and Elizabeth Nolan Brown also have reasonable things to say about all this.

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