Substack explains its ‘hands-off’ approach to content moderation

Content moderation has been a thorny topic in 2020. And when I say “thorny,” I mean in the sense of having multiple congressional hearings on the subject. Twitter and Facebook in particular have been mired in concerns around the subject, fielding complaints that they both haven’t done enough to weed out problematic content and suggestions that they’re a censorship-happy, shadow-banning enemy of the First Amendment.

The latter appears to be the sole reason for the existence of the right wing-focused Twitter competitor, Parler.

As Substack grows in popularity, the newsletter platform is going to face some tremendously difficult questions around content moderation. Today it published a lengthy blog post hoping to nip some of those concerns in the bud. The write-up offers some caveats, but largely espouses the platform’s commitment to free speech, noting:

In most cases, we don’t think that censoring content is helpful, and in fact it often backfires. Heavy-handed censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have enjoyed, and at the same time it can give the content creators a martyr complex that they can trade off for future gain. We prefer a contest of ideas. We believe dissent and debate is important. We celebrate nonconformity.

The stance reflects Substack’s commitment to a subscription-based model, rather than the ads that currently keep the lights on for services like Twitter and Facebook. Instead, it takes a 10% cut of writers’ subscription revenue. Certainly that frees it up from sponsorship boycotts to some degree. The subscription model also means that users have to opt into specific content more so than on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where content boundaries are far more fluid.

“We are happy to compete with ‘Substack but with more controls on speech’ just as we are happy to compete with ‘Substack but with advertising,’ ” the company writes.

Of course, there are financial considerations — there always are. Substack has a vested interest in supporting right-wing and conservative voices who have decried Facebook and Twitter’s practices. Notably, The Dispatch is at the top of the service’s politics leaderboard. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, editor Stephen Hayes called the service, “unapologetically center-right,” while its current blurb refers to it as “conservative.”

“None of these views are neutral,” Substack writes. “Many Silicon Valley technology companies strive to make their platforms apolitical, but we think such a goal is impossible to achieve.” There’s no doubt some truth in that. Any position on content moderation can be viewed as a political one to some degree. And equally, none will make everyone — or even most people — completely happy.

But it’s also easy to see the service facing some major tests of its current hands-off approach as the service continues to grow in popularity. The service’s approach has involved putting its name out there in front of consumers, meaning it won’t be viewed as a kind of invisible publishing platform.

Substack is quick to add that there is, naturally, content that crosses the line in spite of this. “Of course, there are limits,” it writes. “We do not allow porn on Substack, for example, or spam. We do not allow doxxing or harassment.”