Substack Co-Founder Gives Surprise Response to Criticism of ‘Fringe Voices on the Platform’

December 22nd, 2023 12:32 PM

A co-founder of Substack rejected efforts that seek to punish egregious content that is otherwise protected by the First Amendment, delivering a rebuke against widespread censorship plots to thwart free speech.

Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie authored a Dec. 21 article announcing that the newsletter and article-hosting platform would not demonetize nor de-platform “fringe voices.” The move came in response to over 200 Substack authors pressing the platform on why “Nazis” are allowed to publish content. However, McKenzie wrote that he — along with Substack co-founders Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi — “have been listening to all the views being expressed” concerning “fringe voices on the platform (and particularly, in this case, Nazi views).” McKenzie further wrote that censorship will not make the “problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.”

McKenzie added, “We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power. We are committed to upholding and protecting freedom of expression, even when it hurts.”

MRC Free Speech America Vice President Dan Schneider hailed Substack’s move: "Nobody despises Nazis more than I do, but I cherish free speech even more. Hamish is spot on; the way to defeat terrible ideas is by rebutting them with better ones, not by using fascistic censorship tactics.”

Substack’s free speech position directly contrasts those of writers who issued a “collective letter” posing the following question to the company’s founders: “Why are you platforming and monetizing Nazis?” 

The concerned Substack writers cited a report by The Atlantic accusing Substack of becoming a “home and propagator of white supremacy and anti-Semitism.” The Atlantic named as examples in its allegations AndKon’s Reich Press and white supremacist site White-Papers, both of which have amassed a scant few dozen likes on some of their posts. 

McKenzie declared that he does not agree with the views spewed by these alleged “Nazi” Substacks, but he rightly cautioned that censorship is not the proper solution. By contrast, McKenzie warned, “history shows that censorship is most potently used by the powerful to silence the powerless.”

The Substack co-founder said that the platform already has guidelines that prohibit incitement to violence, which is notably not protected by the First Amendment. “We will continue to actively enforce those rules while offering tools that let readers curate their own experiences and opt in to their preferred communities,” he added. “Beyond that, we will stick to our decentralized approach to content moderation, which gives power to readers and writers.”

In 2022, McKenzi wrote that Substack would position itself as an alternative for the free exchange of ideas, directly criticizing social media platforms for making it “almost impossible for productive, civil discourse to take place there.” On its “About” page, Subtack touts its “hands-off approach” to content moderation. “A free press and free speech are fundamental to a trustworthy media system,” the platform notes.

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