Substack Backs Out of the Moderation Game, but Can It Stay Impartial?

Substack Backs Out of the Moderation Game, but Can It Stay Impartial?
Photo: Stringer, Getty Images

Substack, the popular mailing list platform that is purported to be the next big thing in media, is talking about content moderation and bias, and it’s going about as well as you’d expect.

Substack started out as a simple email service. I created an account when it first launched in 2018 and still use it to share updates about books I like. I’m sure many of its 100,000 paying users saw it the same way I did: as a simple app to send mass emails without paying for MailChimp. It’s motored quietly along since then with few controversies (except when it accidentally exposed thousands of emails), but as it gains a reputation as a right-leaning mouthpiece, that seems to be changing.

Further, the service is pivoting towards paid newsletters in order to pay creators. And it’s working. Steve Hayes, the creator of the conservative newsletter The Dispatch, announced $US2 ($3) million in revenues from the service, and many of the top writers are bringing at least a few thousand dollars a month. Many also claim that the service gives them enough cash to survive while still others are thriving by producing right-leaning political content. However, it’s still not clear whether this tendency of Substack’s users to pay for politics is a smack against so-called leftist bias or the general willingness of readers to pay for fire-and-brimstone punditry.

To add to this, the team at Substack is coming out against moderation and censorship, and their arguments are sound if a bit naive. They write:

Today’s dominant social media platforms dictate to a large extent what you see, pushing content to people in news feeds. The content that appears in these feeds is filtered and ordered by algorithms that have been designed to maximise engagement. For billions of people, these engagement-optimised feeds have replaced newspapers, magazines, and TV news channels in being the main deciders of how timely information finds its way into our brains. But with Substack, readers choose what they see. A reader makes a conscious decision about which writers to invite into their inboxes, and which ones to support with money.

Their point is simple: People actually pay for these newsletters, so they vote with their dollars. Twitter and Facebook have to be robotically curated because of the sheer volume of fast-moving dross that spews out of the social media fire hose. Substack, its team argues, is an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.

“When engagement is the holy metric, trustworthiness doesn’t matter. What matters more than anything else is whether or not the user is stirred. The content and behaviours that keep people coming back — the rage-clicks, the hate-reads, the pile-ons, the conspiracy theories — help sustain giant businesses,” they write.

Again, they have a point. Unlike Parler, which allegedly became a source for child sex abuse imagery, Substack creators enter into a one-to-many broadcast relationship with readers, and the readers can cancel their subscriptions at any time. This model has been around for decades, and there are still numerous Wall Street investment newsletters whose primary revenue comes from hoping that the big banks forget why they’re paying a random publishing company a few grand a month for “research.” The same can be said for any of the creator payment platforms, including Patreon and even the various app stores: the best customers are the ones who forgot they signed up for the service in the first place.

But Substack, like Coinbase and any other Valley company with strict libertarian views, will eventually bump against the trolls, the grifters, and the perverts. For example, Substack doesn’t strictly ban erotica (just porn), and they won’t accept any hate speech, at least according to their terms of service, but in this era of disinfo, deepfakes, and dog whistles, can the company really figure out what those things even mean? Instead of coming down on any side, Substack is sitting out the conversation.

“Ultimately, we think the best content moderators are the people who control the communities on Substack: the writers themselves. On our platform, each publication is its own dominion, with readers and commenters who have gathered there through common interests. And readers, in turn, choose which writers to subscribe to and which communities to participate in. As the meta platform, we cannot presume to understand the particularities of any given community or to know what’s best for it,” they write. And that’s fine. After all, everyone starts out with zero subscribers, and true jerks won’t break single digits.

But censorship online means many things to many people. Substack hasn’t hit many landmines yet, and no one is upset, say, that Glenn Greenwald is selling his thoughts for $US5 ($7) a month any more than they care that you can pay 4 quid for a recipe newsletter. That’s the benefit of paid broadcasting, and it could, in the end, save Substack from true scrutiny.

But the internet is the internet, and we all know that won’t happen. While the co-founder’s decision to come out in praise of free speech and anti-censorship is noble, the results could get rough if one or more of the writers takes things to places the internet usually takes them. That hasn’t happened yet, and that’s good. But when it does, expect a backlash that no anti-curatorial hand-waving can whisk away.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.