Substack, Spotify, Speech

On Wednesday, I linked to an analysis, from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, of Substack’s hosting of fringe and extremist publications. I had been sitting on that story for a week or so as I was trying to gather some thoughts. Conveniently, similar research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate was being shown to publications like the Washington Post around the same time — stories which Substack tried to preempt:

This point rings true to us. That’s why, as we face growing pressure to censor content published on Substack that to some seems dubious or objectionable, our answer remains the same: we make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation. While we have content guidelines that allow us to protect the platform at the extremes, we will always view censorship as a last resort, because we believe open discourse is better for writers and better for society.

This position has some uncomfortable consequences. It means we allow writers to publish what they want and readers to decide for themselves what to read, even when that content is wrong or offensive, and even when it means putting up with the presence of writers with whom we strongly disagree. But we believe this approach is a necessary precondition for building trust in the information ecosystem as a whole. The more that powerful institutions attempt to control what can and cannot be said in public, the more people there will be who are ready to create alternative narratives about what’s “true,” spurred by a belief that there’s a conspiracy to suppress important information. When you look at the data, it is clear that these effects are already in full force in society.

Every time I read a paragraph like the latter above from a platform justifying its light touch approach to moderation, I understand it as a way to grow first and solve harder problems later. Facebook and Twitter and YouTube have gone through this exact same learning curve; those “free speech” Twitter clones are just as favourable to moderation as any of the giants. The differences lay mostly in what is permissible on each platform: users on Twitter are prohibited from spreading most popular conspiracy theories about COVID-19, but there is no similar prohibition for Substack publishers.

Lulu Cheng Meservey, Substack’s vice president of communications, defended this position in a Twitter thread, part of which read:

If everyone who has ever been wrong about this pandemic were silenced, there would be no one left talking about it at all.

I think this is where I started thinking I had to write about this, because this position entirely misrepresents how writers like Alex Berenson and Joseph Mercola use their platform. Nobody reads Mercola to get a more well-rounded explanation of the side effects of vaccines. They read his stuff because they want to feel justified in refusing to get vaccinated by soaking up his entirely fictional claims. These writers are not trying to be right and failing; they are trying to counter all available facts and succeeding — and Substack is happy to help them out.

But Substack is also the platform that hosts great newsletters like Katelyn Jetelina’s Your Local Epidemiologist. Does that mean the two writers look at similar data and make different but equally valid conclusions?

Of course not.

Jetelina carefully explains the latest figures, research, and science involved in this pandemic. Berenson distorts and misreads statistics to discourage vaccination because that is what he has built his base around. Berenson and those like him are not miseducated; no proof of vaccine efficacy or safety will ever be enough. Readers who have no intention of getting vaccinated and want to feel reassured in their stubbornness are a huge market, so many pay Berenson for giving them what they crave — and Substack takes its cut.

You can see this eagerness for community reinforcement in the comments for both newsletters. Jetelina’s evidence-based articles have, like Berenson’s daily dose of misinformation, “tens of thousands” of subscribers. But even on her most popular post — a November entry explaining the then-unnamed Omicron variant — has just 52 comments, many of which are precise questions about sequencing and testing. Meanwhile, any random Berenson post has thousands of comments, many of which delve into doomsday cult conspiracy theories and pandemic denial. This is the audience each has cultivated.1

At any time, Substack could implement editorial policies that could help curtail the inventive but baseless theories espoused by some of its more prominent writers. It could require that medical information — that is, information about medicine itself or medical practices — is written or edited by professionals in the field chosen by Substack for this purpose. This process would certainly slow down publishing, but it would reduce the spread of inaccurate information on Substack and improve the platform’s overall quality. This is not censorship. Anyone who believes in building opinions from facts should welcome a better quality of information. Advice about human health deserves a greater degree of scrutiny from its publishers.

Substack is also home to a newsletter from Patrick Casey, an unabashed white supremacist who only publishes half of each article on the platform and directs users to a Patreon-like paywall to read the rest.

I do not see a particularly good moral case for Substack’s continued distribution of this nonsense, but I do see a good business case. I am not arguing Substack is primarily motivated by its cut of subscribers’ payments. But I do think it wants to be the biggest tent, its brand synonymous with the concept of paid email newsletters. An independent bookstore carry a diverse range of opinions without stocking a single copy of one of Mercola’s books; many of my local bookstores do just that. But that strategy works less well if you want to be Amazon.

Concurrent with COVID concerns at Substack are similar worries about Spotify, and political censorship in U.S. schools. The first is about the real-life Jonny Edgelord that is Joe Rogan. In May 2020, months into this pandemic, Spotify decided to give him one hundred million dollars for exclusive distribution rights to his wildly popular show. Rogan interviews a lot of different kinds of people, and some of those discussions are enjoyable. But he also likes to chat with the small number of loud doctors who contradict widely-accepted advice. In a ten minute video, Rogan leaned heavily on their credentials to rationalize why he invited them on the show, and how he is “interested in finding out what is correct”. But one does not invite onto their massive platform — of tens of millions of listeners per episode — someone like Peter McCullough, who claims that COVID-19 was a “planned” pandemic and reliably misuses VAERS data. That is not broadening listeners’ understanding of this pandemic or vaccines, it is undermining it with fictions. Spotify, meanwhile, was not content with merely indexing Rogan’s editorial judgement — it wanted to own his show.

Elizabeth Spiers:

I’ll stipulate first that because Spotify is paying Rogan to air his show on their platform exclusively, they are acting as a publisher. This isn’t the case for everything they distribute. If they’re simply allowing a podcast to utilize the platform for distribution, they’re more akin to a social platform. But in Rogan’s case specifically, they can’t argue that they’re not invested in the specific content he’s producing, because they literally are.

Ryan Broderick:

This isn’t content moderation. It isn’t censorship. It’s an editorial choice. [Spotify] paid $100 million to be Joe Rogan’s publisher and this is what that entails.

Neither Spiers nor Broderick are making a legal argument, but they are making a sound ethical one. Spotify owns this podcast and the resulting consequences.

Neither of these questions are meaningfully comparable to the book bans sweeping school boards across the U.S., even though some are drawing a connection. For one, deciding to make the editorial boundaries of specific platforms more fact-based is more-or-less the opposite of making it harder for children to learn about historical events.

Another difference is that those books are being banned or withdrawn from the curriculum not because they are wrong, but because they are politically inconvenient. The primary messages spread by Mercola on Substack and the disgraced doctors Rogan brings onto his show are not facts that have failed to gain appropriate attention, but misleading and inaccurate claims.

Timothy Caulfield, in an editorial for the Globe and Mail:

The conspiracy theorists aren’t constructively questioning the science – which is what good scientists do daily – they are denying the science. To put an even finer point on it: those pushing misinformation about these topics are either wilfully ignoring the mountain of relevant evidence, or they are lying.

If Rogan were indeed the noble truth-seeker he claims to be, he would call out the red flags in his interview subjects. When Robert Malone was on the Experience in an episode recorded in December 2021, he claimed that “probably half a million excess deaths” occurred just in the U.S. because those with COVID-19 were not given a cocktail of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. That is well over half of the total deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19, but you have to do some sketchy math and overstate even the most optimistic efficacy estimates of those drugs — to a level not borne out by reputable studies — to arrive at that number. Surely, even without knowing those specifics, Rogan could press Malone to prove such an audacious claim, which Malone uses as a launching point for other conspiracy theories. Or he could have edited the show to either add a dispute, or to remove things later found not to be true.

But Rogan did neither of those things. He just let Malone ramble on making claim after claim. Malone recycled the claim debunked in April 2020 that hospitals get $30,000 in extra funding if they say someone has COVID-19. He Gish Galloped his way through the entire interview, with Rogan asking mostly perfunctory questions to try to clarify Malone’s position or data. This is one of the reasons why media outlets generally edit interviews before they are broadcast, and it is because people are not always correctly relaying facts, whether deliberately or accidentally.

It is real easy to get stuck in the details of stuff like this. A Rogan interview can run for hours and guests can make dozens of individual claims. If he were responsible, Rogan would not be publishing these interviews in their entirety. And if Spotify were being a studious broadcaster, they would catch these things too. But neither party wants to take responsibility for the outlandish and often easily-disproved claims guests make: Rogan says that he is just having conversations, and Spotify wants to pretend that this is similar to Facebook’s moderation problems.

Substack’s position is somewhat different, since it is a platform where anyone can publish. It does not have the editorial responsibility that ought to be carried by Spotify in the distribution of its own media. But Substack has been made aware of the cranks using its platform, and it has every right to act against them if it wants to.

We are never going to get rid of people who make a living by broadcasting things they know are not true to an eager audience. In the words of John DeVore, there are few things as satiating as “being told by someone with a microphone that you are right, that your angst is special, that they’re totally 100% out to get you”. But perhaps we should not indulge them through readymade platforms and lucrative contracts.

If the quacks were kicked off Substack tomorrow, they could always run their own paid newsletter system on their own website. The conscience of Substack’s executives could be clearer, and its platform could not be used for discovery. If Spotify disassociated itself from Rogan’s show, he could go back to running things on his own terms.

Better still, in all cases, would be for these platforms to exercise greater editorial discretion, particularly when it comes to health topics. Information about COVID-19 may be changing frequently and things may be contradictory, but it is long past time to be honest about who is trying to find overlooked or buried truths in research, and who is exploiting this pandemic for their personal gain.

Update, February 6: In a town hall meeting, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek sought to create a division between the company’s full control over its in-house podcast studios — like Gimlet and the Ringer — and Rogan’s podcast. I call bullshit. A company does not get to put $100 million behind a creator, demand exclusivity, and still have editorial distance.

  1. I cannot view the comments on Joseph Mercola’s almost entirely paywalled Substack, which I am also prohibited from linking to without his permission, according to the terms and conditions. Oops. ↥︎