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Substack said it removed some newsletters after criticism about Nazi content

Prominent Substack users waged a pressure campaign that preceded the decision.

The newsletter publisher Substack said Monday it had removed five publications that included incitements to violence, after weeks of pressure from writers who threatened to quit the platform over its refusal to remove Nazis and other white supremacists from its roster. 

Substack said that after a review, it had decided that the five publications had violated the company’s existing content rules, which prohibit content that incites violence based on protected classes.  

“If and when we become aware of other content that violates our guidelines, we will take appropriate action,” the company said in a statement signed by its three co-founders: Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie and Jairaj Sethi. 

They added: “We are actively working on more reporting tools that can be used to flag content that potentially violates our guidelines, and we will continue working on tools for user moderation so Substack users can set and refine the terms of their own experience on the platform.” 

Substack did not name the five publications or their authors. 

The review of the publications was prompted by a separate Substack newsletter, Platformer, a tech news publication that had begun investigating extremism on the app and that threatened to leave Substack for a competing publisher if the company didn’t take action against Nazis. Platformer, which also did not name the publications, reported that they had endorsed “Nazi ideology.” 

Substack, founded in 2017, has grown in influence as a hub for independent writers online. It offers a streamlined process for setting up an email newsletter and allows writers to charge for subscriptions, of which it takes a 10% cut. Its stable of writers includes political journalists, historians and business columnists, among others. 

There were more than 17,000 writers earning money on Substack as of March 2023, according to Axios, with thousands more writing for free.

But that popularity was threatened by a growing rebellion among some writers concerned that Substack was too lenient in enforcing its rules about hate and violence. In November, The Atlantic reported that some Nazi and white supremacist writers were using Substack to build subscription businesses, and more than 240 writers with Substack newsletters signed a petition asking the company for an explanation. 

A handful of Substack writers had quit by Friday, and others including Platformer said they were considering following suit. 

The three Substack co-founders wrote that they appreciated the writers’ input. 

“Relatedly, we’ve heard your feedback about Substack’s content moderation approach, and we understand your concerns and those of some other writers on the platform. We sincerely regret how this controversy has affected writers on Substack,” they wrote. 

But it’s unclear how far-reaching Substack’s new approach to content moderation will be if and when it reviews other newsletters for alleged incitement to violence. The company said it wasn’t changing its content guidelines as they’re currently written. 

According to Substack, Casey Newton, the editor of Platformer, sent Substack six potentially problematic publications for review Thursday evening, and later, Substack concluded that five of the six had violated its rules. 

The Substack co-founders said the five newsletters in question weren’t popular. 

“None of these publications had paid subscriptions enabled, and they account for about 100 active readers in total,” their statement said. 

But Platformer reported Monday that there were many more than five or six extremist newsletters on Substack. 

“We’ve now reviewed dozens of active, monetized publications that advance violent ideologies, including anti-Semitism and the great replacement theory,” Platformer said. It added that Substack’s features related to recommendations and social networking meant that such fringe publications could grow quickly. 

A Substack spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Platformer’s count. 

One of the organizers of the writers’ rebellion, Marisa Kabas, said she considered Substack’s announcement a victory for those concerned about pro-Nazi content. 

“As a company, they have never once admitted to any sort of content moderation issue,” she said in a text to NBC News. “But because of collective organizing, they were forced to reckon with the issue. No matter how they phrase it, they changed course, and our efforts were successful.” 

Kabas, a third-generation Holocaust survivor, is also a columnist for MSNBC, which shares a parent company with NBC News.