Elise Thomas, of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue:
Malone is not the only high profile anti-vaccine advocate currently building his brand – and his bank account – on Substack. As of January 11th, 2021 Substack’s list of top paid political newsletters features prominent COVID-19 misinformation spreaders Alex Berenson at number 6, and Steven Kirsch at number 19.
At number 13 was Joseph Mercola, who has become infamous as one of the most influential voices spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines during the pandemic. While it is not clear exactly how much money Mercola is making from Substack, the platform indicates he has ‘thousands of subscribers’ paying $5 a month (Image 1).
Mercola is a particularly egregious example — the guy thinks eyeglasses are harmful. But it is not like Substack is unique in its mainstreaming of fringe and crackpot ideas: a subsidiary of HarperCollins publishes his books.1
The migration of users who have been banned on other platforms to Substack appears to be playing out in other contexts as well. The QAnon conspiracy community, banned from most mainstream platforms, is developing a growing foothold on Substack.
White nationalists who have been banned from other platforms are also making a home for themselves. In October 2021, white nationalist group Europa Invicta posted excitedly that, “What we like most about Substack is that we can now communicate with you directly… Our ability to bring you more is amplified now – new and multiple types of content can be shared and accessed all from one place” (Image 3). And in November 2021, Patrick Casey, formerly a leader of white nationalist group Identity Evropa, also began actively using Substack.
What Europa Invicta actually wrote, after the ellipsis, is that there is “no middle-man platform”, which is obviously untrue: Substack is a platform. It can choose what to permit and deny just as much as any other service provider.
Should it? Should HarperCollins, for that matter, or any of the other number of companies involved in spreading views ranging from deliberately misleading to explicitly hateful? It seems to depend on the issue. A recent literature review by the Royal Society suggests that deplatforming hate groups is a viable means of minimizing their influence, but doing the same for health misinformation leads some people to seek it out at increasingly fringe parts of the web.
Besides, it is not as though this is solely an online phenomenon. Tucker Carlson, the most popular host on the biggest cable “news” channel in the United States, regularly spreads lies either personally or through guests like Alex Berenson. This is not new behaviour for Fox hosts, and it is not isolated to health misinformation.
The marketplace of products and services has mechanisms to handle fraud, but the marketplace of ideas does not.2 Nobody is punished simply for lying to someone else, not without some direct material consequence. On the contrary, liars are among the most successful broadcasters around. That is not something platforms can moderate away. But one wonders if Substack is comfortable hosting information its executives must know is truly harmful.
HarperCollins also published O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It”. ↩︎
One notable exception is the alternative health and wellness product category. Even when the capsules in a bottle of supplements match what is on the label, they often do not have the desired effect suggested on the label or in mass media. I dislike this visualization, but it gives some sense of popular supplements and how effective they may be. ↩︎