June 25, 2024

The popular newsletter platform Substack launched its short-form content feature, Notes, in April. Meta rolled out Threads via Instagram in July. Predating these was Mastodon, which had for years already provided the more technically inclined with a decentralized, server-based network for discussion. And there was Bluesky, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s reskinned, “distributed” version of  Twitter—the O.G. of short-form platforms.

As the dust settles, it’s become clear that Substack Notes is the most important platform in this new group of look-alikes. It relies less on the top-down content-moderation methods that have led other sites into censorious and repressive territory. With its founding user base of writers and journalists and its reliance on subscriptions rather than ads, it is making a distinction that has long been absent on social media: that between journalism and mere posting. With the guidance of its founder and CEO, Chris Best, it has been upholding this crucial distinction with a remarkable care for the free expression of its users.

Substack benefits from being first and foremost a website for original writing, not necessarily social networking. For years, top newsletters and writers have been earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, on the site annually, entirely from direct reader-to-writer subscriptions.

At this point, there should be no doubt about Substack’s immense journalistic value. The platform has quietly enabled some of the most significant reporting produced in the last five years, and many of its big players—Matthew Yglesias, Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, Alex Berenson, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, Seymour Hersh—are refugees from mainstream print and digital media outlets that in one way or another began to stifle their expression.

Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who famously uncovered pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly’s malfeasance in marketing the schizophrenia medication Zyprexa. In 2006, his reporting contributed to a federal criminal investigation of the company, which later agreed to pay the largest corporate criminal fine in history. In 2021, Berenson was banned from Twitter for claiming on the platform that the novel mRNA Covid vaccinations prevented neither spread nor transmission of the disease. He was ridiculed in many major outlets for these assertions. That the mRNA vaccines do not meaningfully prevent spread or transmission, and in the best-case scenario act only as a therapeutic for vulnerable individuals before infection, is hardly controversial today. Two years later, Berenson’s newsletter is among the twenty highest-grossing on the platform, and much of his dogged Covid reporting has been vindicated. Without Substack, this reporting would have been marginalized, if not invisible.

Berenson is one of many who have found and profited off the independence that Substack’s model allows. Andrew Sullivan moved to the platform after his high-profile break with New York magazine over race and gender issues; Bari Weiss founded the Free Press on Substack after her departure from the New York Times, which she publicly blamed on bullying from her more progressive colleagues; Glenn Greenwald left The Intercept, which he co-founded, for Substack in 2020 after his editors there allegedly suppressed his Biden-critical reporting. When Pulitzer-winner Seymour Hersh wanted to write and publish a story about the bombing of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines, on a tip that the U.S. government had played a crucial part in the sabotage, he knew that the politics of the ongoing war in Ukraine meant that no editor at an institutional outlet would touch it. So he published it on Substack.

Social media collapsed the divide between journalists and the reading public. The downsides of this democratization have been put into sharp relief in recent years. Professional, academic, and journalistic content on Twitter was increasingly treated like the casual pontifications of a layman. Stanford professor of public health Jay Bhattacharya, for one notable example, was shadow-banned on Twitter in 2020 for articulating his expert opinion that Covid lockdowns were likely to cause more harm than good. (Bhattacharya now operates his own successful Substack, Illusion of Consensus, with journalist Rav Arora).

Then, of course, there was the catastrophe in the run-up to the 2020 election, when the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden’s laptop was effectively censored off popular social platforms. This censorship was detailed in the Twitter Files (most of which get published, unsurprisingly, on Substack).

Substack and its Notes feature may prove to be the most important intervention in the crisis of internet journalism. Substack is now the first social media platform for which writing, rather than posting, is the point. The shift is subtle but palpable. Memes feel out of place. Ridicule feels meanspirited rather than warranted, and trolling is seemingly nonexistent. Organizing a social network explicitly around the long-form content its users produce feels revolutionary.

Chris Best has been outspoken about his commitment to principles of free expression. In a recent interview with Nilay Patel of the Verge, Best resisted an easy answer to Patel’s question about whether he would ban users expressing racist sentiments on Notes. “I’m not going to engage in speculation or specific ‘Would you allow this or that’ content.” The point, of course, is not that we should defend racism or expect to endure it online; it’s that blanket commitments to disallow certain types of speech are ineffective and easily exploited for illiberal ends. As Best himself put it, “I think we’ve run, in my estimation over the past five years . . . a grand experiment in the idea that censorship successfully combats ideas that the owners of the platform don’t like. And my read is that that hasn’t actually worked.”

Best has also declined to act against Richard Hanania, a popular Substacker recently revealed to have written ugly and racist blog posts under a pseudonym while he was in his 20s. While Hanania offered up a compelling denouncement of his past writings, Christopher Matthias at the Huffington Post, who broke the story last month, has publicly called for Substack to punish Hanania for his former writings. It’s unclear on what grounds Matthias expects Hanania to be punished, as Substack has clear Terms of Use that were not violated, given that the offending views were published on other websites a decade ago.

This attitude toward content moderation befits a site that does not rely on advertising. With its subscription model, Substack conveniently evades the growing threat of the so-called “disinformation” industry, comprised of organizations like NewsGuard, the Global Disinformation Index, and the Center for Countering Digital Hate, all of which wield undue influence over the advertising revenue of websites whose politics they disfavor, sometimes doing so with financial support from the federal government. If we’ve learned anything from the recent history of social media, from Hunter Biden’s laptop to Covid, it’s that top-down mandates on what constitutes legitimate or worthy information should not be trusted.

One of social media’s great failures has been to treat everyone, and therefore no one, as an expert. This has produced a contempt for genuine expertise and a willingness to dismiss, ignore, and ban it when its findings are not to one’s liking.  Substack Notes looks poised to reassert the fundamental difference between journalism and casual opinion, between a month of arduous reporting and an hour of hasty online research. In doing so, the website doesn’t just protect the circulation of free journalism on the internet. It exalts, enables, and rewards it.

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