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Substacking Nazis

The Atlantic says "Substack has a Nazi problem." I consider the implications and discuss why I left Substack. A commitment to freedom of expression does not mean that one has to use one's own resources to platform or promote horrible speech.

Copyright © 2023 by Ari Armstrong
December 19, 2023

I'll start with the background. Substack "has become a home and propagator of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Substack has not only been hosting writers who post overtly Nazi rhetoric on the platform; it profits from many of them," wrote Jonathan M. Katz on November 28, 2023, for the Atlantic.

On December 14, various Substackers (including Marisa Kabas) published an open letter to Substack leadership, "Substackers Against Nazis." Here is part of what the letter says:

We're asking a very simple question that has somehow been made complicated: Why are you platforming and monetizing Nazis? . . . From our perspective as Substack publishers, it is unfathomable that someone with a swastika avatar, who writes about "The Jewish question," or who promotes Great Replacement Theory, could be given the tools to succeed on your platform. And yet you've been unable to adequately explain your position. . . .

Your unwillingness to play by your own rules on this issue has already led to the announced departures of several prominent Substackers. . . . We, your publishers, want to hear from you on the official Substack newsletter. Is platforming Nazis part of your vision of success? Let us know—from there we can each decide if this is still where we want to be.

For reference, here are Substack's official policies on "Hate," as of December 19, 2023, 2:55 pm MST:

Substack does not allow credible threats of physical harm. . . . Substack cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes. Offending behavior includes credible threats of physical harm to people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition.

In an article originally dated December 14 but later updated, Clint Rainey wrote for Fast Company:

Substack declined to respond to Substackers Against Nazis' letter, but directed Fast Company to a separate open letter, written by journalist Elle Griffin, that, as of Thursday, had been signed by more than 50 publishers on the platform to signal their support of Substack's current moderation policies. The list of signers included Matt Taibbi, Free Press founders Bari Weiss and Nellie Bowles, and the biologist Richard Dawkins.

Substack also gave Fast Company a statement echoing what it told The Atlantic: "Substack is a platform that is built on freedom of expression, and helping writers publish what they want to write. Some of that writing is going to be objectionable or offensive. Substack has a content moderation policy that protects against extremes—like incitements to violence—but we do not subjectively censor writers outside of those policies."

So now let's turn to Griffin's letter:

After an opinion piece was recently published in The Atlantic critiquing fringe voices on the platform, many Substack writers began calling for moderation. They want the platform to decide who can say what, and who can be here.

But I, and the writers who have signed this post, are among those who hope Substack will not change its stance on freedom of expression, even against pressure to do so.

Griffin points out, rightly, that Facebook and Twitter have struggled mightily with content moderation and often have made really bad decisions. To this list I would add Google, which for no specific reason took down from YouTube a video interview of mine with historian Robert Alan Goldberg. The topic of discussion was Goldberg's book Enemies Within, about conspiracy mongering in the United States. It was (and is) an important interview about a crucial topic, and Google acted capriciously in removing it. So I get the problem of content moderation.

Griffin continues:

There can be no doubt that there is a lot of hateful content on the internet. But Substack has come up with the best solution yet: Giving writers and readers the freedom of speech without surfacing that speech to the masses. In your Substack Inbox, you only receive the newsletters you subscribe to. . . . I am the curator of my own space [on Substack]. . . . Let the writers and readers moderate, not the social media platforms. And don't have one big town square we all have to be exposed to, have a bunch of smaller ones that we can choose to be part of.

Why I Quit Substack

A lot of people seem basically confused about the requirements of "freedom of expression." Committing one's self to "freedom of expression" means not forcibly shutting down others' speech, which they create using their own resources, regardless of how horrible that speech is (unless the speech crosses the line into direct incitement of violence or the like). A commitment to "freedom of expression" does not mean that one has to use one's own resources to platform or promote such speech.

What Substack is doing, precisely, is using its resources to platform Nazis and the like. And I, as a writer on Substack, was helping Substack to do so. Aside from that, I simply did not wish to be associated with Nazis. That is why I decided to leave Substack.

I will continue to read articles that various other people publish via Substack. I can see making the argument that content moderation is too hard, so Substackers should accept the Nazis as a cost of doing business. If you're comfortable with that, bully for you. But I, personally, did not wish to pay that price. (I very much recommend Dave Karpf's Substack post on content moderation.)

So, on December 15, I published the following note on my two Substack sites:

This Is My Last Substack Post

Substack has invited Nazis to the party. I do not wish to attend a party with Nazis. So I am leaving.

If you pretend that the principle of freedom of speech means that you have to platform Nazis or associate with Nazis (or the like), then you are just being dishonest. Freedom of speech means that government may not censor the speech of Nazis, and Nazis are free to say whatever they want using their own resources (excepting incitement to violence and the like). It does not mean that you have to invite Nazis to your party.

I will continue to produce the same sort of commentary, I will just do it elsewhere. If you want to follow my work, please join my MailChimp email list. . . .

I am turning off paid subscriptions immediately. If you are a paid subscriber, I apologize for the hassle. I hope you will consider contributing financially to my work in other ways (details to follow).

[My pubication] (on Substack) is dead. Long live [my publication, now].

Thank you for reading, —Ari Armstrong

I am reminded by this remark by Ayn Rand:

Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government—and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one's own antagonists. A "right" does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one's own effort. Private citizens cannot use physical force or coercion; they cannot censor or suppress anyone's views or publications. Only the government can do so. And censorship is a concept that pertains only to governmental action.

I recognize that some of the lines are hard to draw. Do I think that Stripe, which works with Substack to facilitate paid subscriptions, should pressure Substack to kick out the Nazis? No. To me, here is the difference: Stripe is in the business of finance; Substack is in the business of content publication. So, in my view, Subtack has a moral (not a legal!) obligation to not actively facilitate the publication of pro-Nazi content (and the like). But I can see how people reasonably can argue different sides of such lines.

I am sympathetic to observations that the "Substackers Against Nazis" are, by publishing their concerns via Substack, actively helping to promote the very platform that they are criticizing. There's something odd about that. I personally did not think that republishing the letter on Substack or begging Substack to institute "better" content moderation would do any good. Hence, I just decided to leave straight away instead. But again, I'm not going to get upset either with the "Substackers Against Nazis" or with the anti-moderation Substackers. It's a hard question on which people reasonably can take different sides.

I decided that leaving Substack was the best option for me.

Subsidiary Issues

Even before the "Nazi problem" became an issue, I was not totally happy with Substack anyway. I didn't like how little control I had over the emails or the front page. I didn't like how pushy Substack was in trying to get people's emails and promote other Substacks.

Substack also is a rather "jealous lover." I totally understand why Substack does not want people who offer paid Substack subscriptions to solicit funds for the content elsewhere. Still, I felt rather under Substack's thumb. Here is the official policy:

If you choose to charge a subscription fee for your newsletter, you agree to the following: No Circumvention: You agree to process payments from Readers only in the manner determined by us. This includes using the third-party payment processing platform ("Payment Processor") we choose, and following any other rules we specify. You may not circumvent your payment obligations to us by soliciting payment from a Reader outside of Substack or by using any alternative method to collect subscription payments. This includes receiving payments for your newsletter through links to PayPal or a separate Patreon page. You agree to notify us immediately if you receive any such offer or solicitation to circumvent your payment obligations by contacting

I completely recognize the value that Substack offers to independent writers; that's why I turned to Substack. Unlike Word Press's horrible new "block editing" default, the Substack editor works great. It's very easy to write, edit, and publish an article via Substack. Substack integrates audio and video, a huge plus. Substack seamlessly integrates an email list and allows users to export the list of subscribers (in this way Substack very much is not a "jealous lover"). And Substack makes it relatively easy to link up with Stripe to process paid subscriptions. In many ways, it's an independent writer's dream. (The ten-percent cut is a little harsh.)

Probably more than a lot of other independent writers, I had a fairly easy time moving over to other platforms. I already had my own non-Substack web site. I already had familiarity with using other service providers for fundraising. My decision to leave Substack was made easier by my relative ease of exit. I understand not everyone is in the same position.

I still have a lot of content up at Substack; eventually, I'll move all that content over to, then delete my Substack accounts.

I'm happy with my decision to part ways with Substack. I'm happy for others to make their own decisions. I do encourage people to come up with actual reasons rather than pretexts.

December 21 Update: Please also see my follow-up article, Substack Responds (Badly) to Its Nazi Problem.

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