Another Free Speech Platform Cannot Bear the Sting of Mild Criticism

A little subgenre of news story I really dig is when platforms promoting themselves as some sort of unique bastion of free speech find their limit. This happens all the time because of course it does. Every platform figures out there are things unworthy of being hosted or broadcasted on its service. Substack has loudly trumpeted its free speech bonafides, permitting all sorts of nonsense — from pseudoscience health quackery to outright white nationalism — on its platform. Substack also hosts and promotes newsletters from totally normal and great writers, too.

Spencer Ackerman was one of them. Last month, he transitioned his excellent Forever Wars newsletter from Substack to Ghost after a yearlong grant expired:

I got paid, and I got Sam paid. [I bought MANY Transformers toys. Also food for my child.—Sam.] Substack, however, wouldn’t pay me what I asked for, which was their right, but was also an issue since I was splitting the grant. Not for the first time, I swallowed my pride and took the money. But once that happened, I made up my mind to stop using the platform as soon as I was no longer contractually obligated. This is why you’ve seen me make repeated references to publishing 100 editions of FOREVER WARS in the span of a year.

This is one of those totally normal posts you would expect to read to explain a change of platform. There is nothing incendiary in here; nothing that really throws Substack under the bus or burns any bridges. Ackerman points out that some of the other writers on the platform made it a little harder for him to get paying subscribers since Substack would be getting a cut and some people did not want to support that. Nothing wild, no big deal, right?

Sam Thielman, editor of Forever Wars:

In July, Spencer took this blog off Substack immediately after his contract with the newsletter company expired. He explained his decision in what can only be reasonably described as a mild post, which I edited, here. Substack responded by ending my contract to edit their other freelance writers, telling me, in writing, that they were doing so because of Spencer’s explanation. Twice.

Substack will not draw the line at white nationalists or anti-vaccine extremists or super transphobic commentary. But if one of its contract editors also edits the newsletter of a guy who left the platform, that crosses the free speech line. Again, this is an editor; his name is not really attached to Ackerman’s newsletter. And now he is out of a job because one of the people he works for decided — to repurpose the words of Substack’s Hamish McKenzie — to “serve readers above all else”.

Update: McKenzie responded:

We ended the freelance contract that Substack was paying on behalf of the writers, but that’s all. Sam wasn’t banned from the platform or anything like that. […]

Having reflected on this and spoken to Sam, I do think we fucked up here. It’s on me. We’ve talked to Sam and we’re paying him the full value of the affected contracts. We’re sorry to Sam for overstepping.

Thielman may not have been banned from the platform, but his income from it was terminated in a seemingly retaliatory measure. Again, from that earlier post by McKenzie:

The writer we spoke to today prized independence. They’d seen several journalistic enterprises come and go; their friends in and then out of work. But even as those outlets disappeared, readers kept following the writers they trusted. This writer felt that a subscription–based publication they alone controlled — where they owned the content and access to the audience — provided an unmatched sense of stability. For a writer, that is life-changing. Everyone else gets to benefit from stronger work that seeks not to foment conflict but to build understanding.

Substack deprived Thielman of stability when the company terminated his contract. Somehow, Joseph Mercola is able to keep publishing on Substack — the company will happily take its cut from his subscribers and permit people to pay him through its platform — but working for someone who publishes on a different platform crossed a line. Mistake or not, I would not trust Substack to deliver the stability and independence it claims. Substack really is just another platform.