A Continual Christmas

Ed Zitron 9 min read

Editor’s note: Platformer has announced it will leave Substack and be moving to Ghost next week. Casey did the right thing.

The following story ran January 11 2024.

At the end of a newsletter back in 2022, I retold a story shared by Michael B. Tager about a situation in a crust-punk bar, where he watched somebody get thrown out almost immediately on entering:

The patron, a pleasant-seeming guy wearing what seemed to be regular punk gear, was told to get out before he could order a beer, and the bartender revealed that the patron in question was wearing nazi memorabilia. The bartender explained that once one tolerates a “nice” nazi, they bring a “nice” nazi friend, and suddenly you have a bar full of nazis because they were, at one point, pleasant to you. And once they’re entrenched, it’s very, very difficult to remove them.

The “nazi bar” scenario is a fairly simple one — you are what you allow. If you allow nazis to exist and flourish on your platform, you can (and will) become a platform for nazis.

And sadly, that’s exactly what Substack has become. In December, 247 different Substack publications published an open letter titled “Substackers against Nazis,” which asked why Substack was platforming and monetizing nazis following a late-November story in the Atlantic about Substack’s nazi problem. The article (and letter) detailed the disgraceful growth of nazis using the platform, with a few receiving “bestseller” badges in the process.

Sidebar/Announcement: I can’t find a neat place to put this in the newsletter, but Where’s Your Ed At will be permanently leaving Substack, aiming to be fully migrated by the end of January. I will likely publish on here a few more times while the migration to Ghost takes place. It’s a fairly contrived move, one that comes with both upfront and ongoing costs. I will be putting 15 Minutes In Hell on hiatus until I’ve got the newsletter moved.

This will not require you to do anything else, other than (eventually) expect this newsletter to come from a different email address.

It’s also worth adding that I do not monetize this newsletter, and thus I am not making any direct revenue for Substack. I realize that there is an indirect benefit to the company in having me on here, and I will be doing all I can to move as swiftly as possible.

Substack was eventually pushed to take action by Casey Newton of Platformer, one of the largest newsletters on the platform, and banned “several” of the accounts that Newton flagged to the company. To be more specific, Substack has banned five publications, which can — and should — be read as saying that there are some nazis that are just fine to keep on the platform. Substack is not changing or adding to any of its policies, nor is it proactively removing Nazi content.

Newton has now stated that Substack has “resolved” his primary concerns, meaning that Platformer will stay on Substack, a pathetic response to a half-baked resolution to a much larger problem where Substack has, on some level, said that some nazis are permissible on the platform. In reality, Substack has done nothing. It hasn’t changed its policies, or committed to changing the platform, or banned every nazi, and it has made it clear it will continue to allow nazis to grow their audiences on Substack.

Platformer should walk from Substack unless it commits to banning nazis outright. And frankly, I believe they should do so regardless of what Substack chooses to do.

Substack has chosen a path of appeasement and harm, one that empowers and monetizes hate. As a private company, it is fully able to ban whatever and whomever it wants to, and by extension its acceptance (and monetization) of any nazi content is a tacit validation of nazi beliefs and nazi users. This isn’t about “freedom of speech” or any kind of wrongheaded interpretation thereof — it’s a statement that these views are acceptable, and that sustaining the ability of Nazis to disseminate information is more important than protecting the safety and freedom of those that they wish to repress.

To commit to real, consistent policies around hate speech is a thankless and expensive job, and is inherently part of the deal when you expand from providing infrastructure for content delivery to providing recommendations and becoming an outright social network. Yet Substack doesn’t even have the moral clarity to blame this situation on the difficulty and cost of moderation — it just believes that nazis should have the opportunity to make money online like everybody else.

This situation really is quite simple. It's the beginning of a slippery slope where fascists are given more freedom to operate than those they marginalize to protect "freedom of speech," and it’s a path of laziness and cowardice. It is time for Substack to grow a fucking conscience and fight for something rather than rolling over and asking future Hitlers to rub its belly.

Its policies claim to forbid using the platform to “publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes,” which is, I’d argue, one of the cleanest descriptions of what a nazi is and does. Every time you accept one of these disgusting pieces of shit onto your platform and fail to slam the door in their face, you give them breathing room to spread their noxious, harmful views. Every dollar of monetization that you allow (as Casey Newton wrote, the appropriate amount of money you should make from a nazi is $0) is a dollar that you are feeding into an ideology that killed members of my family and millions of other Jews, people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ people, and numerous kinds of political prisoners.

Allowing nazis onto the platform is the opposite of freedom of speech — it’s an endorsement of an ideology that narrows and marginalizes speech to an incredibly specific genealogical point. There is no “robust debate” to be had about the nazis, no “consideration” or “discussion” to be had. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that Andreessen Horowitz is one of Substack’s lead investors, and that Substack appears to be following the techno-libertarian bent of Andreessen himself, who named right wing academic Nick Land as a “Patron Saint of Techno-Optimism” and volunteered that he was reading a lot of books on the right (including two comprehensive biographies on Hitler) in 2022.

The broken logic of “sunlight being the best disinfectant” is that it assumes that there is something else to hear from Nazism — that analyzing their views somehow gives more people a chance to dislike them or reject them, rather than allowing nazis more opportunities to manipulate and radicalize people. We know exactly what nazis believe. We know what they want, and who they want to do it to. Those that seek to protect and platform nazis under the guise of “free speech” and the “marketplace of ideas” are either ignorant, acting in bad faith, or outright agree with them, and if the end result is “giving nazis money and power,” it doesn’t really matter which it is.

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Let no pleasure tempt thee, no profit allure thee, no ambition corrupt thee, no example sway thee, no persuasion move thee, to do any thing which thou knowest to be evil; so shalt thou always live jollily; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas - Benjamin Franklin

One of the greatest frustrations I have with any media property (be it a newsletter, a newsletter platform, a social network, or a news outlet) is that many of them seem, at the most important times, to eschew their responsibility to the reader. They choose to act — or not act — based on the idea that their readers can “make their own decisions,” as if none of the property’s previous decisions or statements have informed or swayed the reader in any way. Substack may or may not support nazis on a moral level, but by choosing to do nothing, it chooses to empower an illiberal, authoritarian, and explicitly genocidal ideology responsible for the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. .

Casey Newton of Platformer, in claiming that his concerns were “resolved” despite Substack not actually resolving anything, has endorsed Substack’s policy that the platform can have a little nazi content — and irresponsibility titled his piece “Substack says it will remove Nazi publications from the platform,” suggesting heavily that there was some sort of policy change. Newton used his massive platform and influence to achieve absolutely nothing, dumping the responsibility onto his readers by asking them if their concerns are alleviated, lacking the courage to state what The Verge could — that Substack was actually removing five nazi newsletters — and to move Platformer as a result.

While readers are not inert sponges, they are influenced by people like Newton, as I imagine (though to a much lesser extent) they are influenced by me. They are educated and informed by the content they consume, and their opinions and actions are changed based on the statements and actions that media properties take. Newton is at the very front of the Substack nazi situation, and seems to have been the only person capable of influencing its decision-making, making his acceptance of its half-assed “resolution” all the more offensive. By accepting this framing, Newton is also telling his readers that, on some level, a little nazi content is okay, as long as it fits into the terms and conditions of a website. If he doesn’t feel this way, he needs to say so and take action as a result.

Substack did the bare minimum hoping that Newton would buy it, and he did — hook, line and sinker. A report from Insight Threat Intelligence published on January 9 (a day after Newton’s piece) identified 75 different nazi publications still on Substack. Researcher Travis Brown posted on Bluesky that there are still “at least a couple dozen accounts with explicit Nazi content on Substack, and dozens more that are explicitly fascist.” And because of Newton’s sloppy headline, other outlets are now trumpeting that Substackwill remove pro-nazi content,” and even though the body of the stories might mention it was only 5 publications. Yes, people do just read the headline of a piece and move on with their day.

This is a situation where, more than likely, the mythical force of “objectivity” comes into play. While one can try and be as objective as possible, it is ridiculous to assume that any writer sits down and puts their conscience or beliefs in stasis, or that an editor would do so in finalizing the product.  Newton has failed to call attention to the fact that a venture-backed media company has categorically failed to take a stance against nazis and bigots, despite Platformer abandoning Twitter to avoid providing a “respectable backdrop against hate speech against [Newton’s] fellow LGBTQ people, or Black, or Jewish, or any other people.” I don’t think he’s done so out of any malice, or hatred, or hypocrisy — I just believe he’s giving Substack the benefit of the doubt at precisely the time it shouldn’t be given it, perhaps to “see if it’ll improve.”

It’s at these times that truly disgraceful acts happen. Now that Substack has got the clearance of having banned (some) nazi content, nazis now have a playbook to follow to avoid scrutiny going further. In seeking fairness, Newton has created the conditions for hate speech to grow, (potentially) because he has feared that seeming biased may be seen as some sort of corruption of his journalistic duties.

And that makes sense. His style is clean, informative, interesting, and at times funny, while still sticking to fairly rigorous journalistic standards — until something like this happens. This is the time to make a stand, to grow a conscience, and to say “this sucks and we’re taking action.” Newton is in a difficult position where Substack isn’t being as transparently vile as Elon Musk, making criticizing its respectably-delivered approval of nazism that little bit harder to do. After all, it’s doing something, even if that something isn’t remotely enough. Then again, Newton’s former outlet The Verge doesn’t seem to be pulling any punches.

The difficult dance of objectivity is always one that harms the reader, and is routinely weaponized by bad faith actors to intimidate journalists, like allowing billionaires to pressure outlets when they publish stories they don’t like. As we enter yet another democracy-threatening presidential election, I deeply fear that we will see modern journalism fail to fully decry the horrors of Donald Trump, framing the capitol insurrection as a “political rallying cry” rather than an outright insurrection, or refer to Trump saying racist and xenophobic things as vague “statements” rather than actual thoughts and feelings that a former (and potential) president has.

Failing to say what is actually happening for fear that you won’t be “objective” is failing your audience. Accepting that humans are biased, thoughtful, and terrible creatures, and that writing for humans requires a clarity of message and spirit, is necessary to fully communicate what is happening around us. Journalism is not objective, has never been objective, and never will be objective. It can seek balance, but overall it should seek clarity and be aware that any editorial team, board, or writer has a set of morals that it abides by.

I will likely publish two more times following this post, and then Where’s Your Ed At will fully decamp from Substack. I appreciate your patience as we transition.

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