Substack is a writing website that enables writers to publish to email and the web from one place. Each writer can make a newsletter which readers will pay for if they wish to read the writer’s work. Substack has a blog post in which it described its view of content moderation. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that it will work out the way Substack hopes it would.
One big concept in Substack’s blog post is that readers are in full control of what they see. Readers make a conscious decision about which writers to invite into their inboxes and which ones to support with money. This gives Substack writers the potential to earn money for their writing. Any writer can choose to leave Substack at any time.
The other big concept is an emphasis on a style of content moderation that does not include censorship.
From the start, we have set out to encourage a broad range of expression on Substack. In most cases, we don’t think that censoring content is helpful, and in fact it often backfires. Heavy-handed censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have enjoyed, and at the same time it can give the content creators a martyr complex that they can trade off for future gain. We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity.
That said, there are some limitations. Substack does not allow porn, spam, doxing or harassment. They also have content guidelines that will evolve as Substack grows. According to Substack: “There will always be many writers on Substack with whom we strongly disagree, and we will err on the side of respecting their right to express themselves, and their readers’ right to decide for themselves what to read.”
I can see some potential problems with the “hands off” content moderation that Substack is choosing. Those who want to write misinformation about COVID-19, vaccines, elections, voting rights, or specific politicians they happen to dislike, might decide that Substack is the place for them since it won’t censor (most) topics. Substack could quickly be overrun with the worst content that appears on social media sites – and the worst conversations that go along with it.
Substack appears to hope that their content moderation policies will attract writers of a wide variety of viewpoints and political persuasions. Perhaps that will happen. Or, Substack could be overwhelmed with a very lopsided mix of writers – who systematically push off the ones that they don’t agree with.