The Substack Question

What it means to share a platform with writers who have free rein to publish hate speech.

Substack is currently embroiled in controversy. I chose to publish on this platform because it is low-cost, the interface is pleasant to use and fairly customizable, and it allows me to manage all aspects of my newsletter in one place. Writers of all stripes have also used Substack for many of the same reasons that I do. There are plenty of arguments out there debunking the individual financial sustainability of the independent newsletter, but the platform’s perpetuation of that myth isn’t what I have a problem with.

There is a contingent of “journalists” who use Substack for their personal crusades, free of consequence or accountability from the publisher. A few of these “journalists” in particular have been permanently banned from other sites for their continued breach of the platforms’ terms of service that prohibit hate speech. I use scare quotes because, in my opinion, these individuals sully the reputation of legitimate journalists whose mission is to report and analyze facts rather than to incite their followers to enact violence. The subjects of these attacks in this case? Trans people.

Grace Lavery, a professor at UC Berkeley, wrote a piece this week in her own newsletter that outlines in no uncertain terms Substack’s role in allowing its writers to breach the terms of service, and goes on to discuss how it has affected her. Lavery, who is trans, has been outspoken about the threats and repugnant personal libel she has experienced as a result of the platform’s unwillingness to apply their rules equally among all users. I will not be recounting any specific examples here, since they are both horrific and traumatizing.

In a follow-up essay, Lavery also outlined why she not only continues to publish on Substack, but also accepted a six-figure contract with them recently:

[S]ome trans writers expressed their disappointment that I had chosen to accept the terms of a Substack Pro deal, at a time when a number of other trans writers are discussing a possible boycott of the platform. Some were disappointed at what they saw as a lack of solidarity on my part; others were concerned that my accepting the deal weakened their case against Substack; still others were concerned that I would be tokenized and positioned as evidence that Substack does not have a problem with trans people. Other writers––notably including Jude Doyle, for whose grace and generosity I was very grateful––refused to criticize my decision, saying that the problem with Substack was the lack of solidarity demonstrated by cis writers, and that dividing trans people against each other would not help. Other people, including some trans writers whom I consider friends, asked me for an explanation of my decision. 

[…]

The [Substack Pro] offer was substantial. I was, of course, suspicious that I was being given this offer as a kind of pink-washing, and I still think that’s true––though I have also known [Substack founders] Hamish, Chris, and Jairaj for a few years, and I believe that they admire my work, which feels encouraging. The money would solve a couple of the problems: first, it would actually compensate me for the financial losses I have incurred over the last year or so [in response to real-life threats stemming from online harassment]; second, it would empower me to consider a broader range of options in my attempt to reduce the damage that [anti-trans activists are] able to do.

It’s her opinion that there’s no precedent, nor is there necessarily a need, to ban those who use the platform as a repository for their simply ignorant or ill-conceived opinions. That’s not the issue here. There is a growing group of Substack users who have problems with trans people, and that disposition will continue in any online environment they happen to be in. That includes any new publications that might crop up in the hypothetical situation where they as a group are banned from their current platform. It’s the writers (and their most ardent followers) whose mission it is to harass and threaten trans writers (and their most ardent defenders) who pose the biggest problem. It’s those most malicious users with whom Lavery takes issue.

“The difference between a journalist whose formulations are imprecise and prejudicial, and a monster like [serial abuser Graham] Linehan, is a line worth holding,” she says. Even in the context of independent online publishing spaces where there are virtually no editorial standards to uphold, the platform itself still has a responsibility to respond to abuse that occurs within its infrastructure. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of having terms of service in the first place? If they don’t apply in this instance, who do they apply to?

I mention this because, for me, the political priority here is equitable application of the terms of use. […] I think that prohibiting the doxing, harassment, and abuse of trans women on this platform is something that is achievable. 

Substack wouldn’t miss me if I stop using their services. At once I’m drawn to the idea of enacting solidarity with the trans community, of which I myself am a member, along with the satisfaction of punishing the platform by ticking down their usership by a count of one. To the platform I’m nobody, but my presence here is more powerful that my absence. I’m not about to strike or boycott something that would only benefit from my departure in the sense of not having to deal with my emails further demanding protections for vulnerable users. There can be no work stoppage, since Substack’s writer pool, to quote Lavery, is “almost infinitely mobile, and neither the company nor the managers are meaningfully impacted by the withdrawal of labor.” Sticking around is an opportunity to disrupt a system that could simply continue ignoring their problems until every person whose bad behaviour they uphold are the only ones left. I, like Lavery, want to be a thorn in the side of this service if it means it might lead to change.

So for now I’ll continue publishing here. I am not the target of online harassment. I have a voice that I use to push for equity in every space I enter, and this is one of them. If anything changes, I’ll let you know and we’ll figure it out.