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Nov 18, 2021 4 min read

What's going on at Substack?


Wiser! Essay: Substack was meant to be the antidote to Facebook's algorithms amplifying fake news, except that the much hyped platform has become the go-to platform for those with little regard for the truth.

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Is Substack repeating the issues it was meant to overcome?

The much-hyped newsletter platform was founded in 2017 as an alternative to the (struggling) ad-driven media industry. It positioned itself as the anti-Facebook, a place where quality and thoughtfulness triumphed over engagement algorithms. But some of its most feted writers are considered by many to push harmful content.

Take Chris Berenson, an ex-New York Times writer who was banned from Twitter in August 2021 for pushing false claims about Covid,19 vaccines. But that has not stopped him from continuing to spread his nonsense.

One of Berenson’s most recent posts on Substack claims incorrectly that mRNA vaccines have contributed to, rather than stopped the spread of Covid19. (And if you are thinking, does anyone actually believe this claptrap, let me remind you that there are more people on the planet today who believe the world is flat than at any time in the history of humankind.)

Substack does have content guidelines but they are loose and broadly interpreted. Without the scale of a Facebook or a Twitter, Substack is not facing intense scrutiny and a social media backlash as a platform with misleading content. (BTW, Chris Berenson earns an estimated $720,000 a year from his Substack subscribers.)

In creating a democratic publishing platform as an antidote to the biased media platforms that are wedded to an advertising business model, Substack has created a problem for itself. It is easy to exploit in the name of democracy. But without being responsible for the content on the platform, in the same way that a newspaper or TV news channel would be (section230), Substack is digging a hole for itself. This is because platforms (like Facebook and Twitter and Substack) can hide behind legislation known as Section230.

Section 230

Section 230 is a provision of federal law that protects Internet web hosts and users from legal liability for online information provided by third parties. In addition, the law protects web hosts from liability for voluntarily and in good faith editing or restricting access to objectionable material even if the material is constitutionally protected. In recent years, the spread of misinformation and disinformation through Internet services and denials of access to some individuals and material have raised questions about the scope of Section 230 protections.

Section 230 has been interpreted by courts as creating broad immunity for both the provider and user of an β€œinteractive computer service” by prohibiting their treatment as the β€œpublisher or speaker” of information provided by another person. Section 230 β€œpreempts,” i.e., displaces or overrides, any laws that would hold such providers or users liable for third-party content.

In other words, Section 230 provides air cover for platforms and lets them escape any liability for what others say on their platform. Not for the first time, the issue of responsibility for misinformation is the issue. In ye olden days, newspaper editors took responsibility for fact-checking and balanced, objective opinion. In the world of social media, there are no editors performing that role nor is there a requirement for one.

This gets to the heart of the debate about the future for social media and the wider creator economy, including platforms like Substack. The solution appears to be in the introduction of a democratic process to provide some form of content moderation. The theory goes that other users would be the fact-checkers and arbitrators of the truth. If you have enough "reasonable and fair-minded people", the truth would win out. Or so it goes. We'll have to see about that one.

Side-note: when I first started the Wiser! Newsletter, I used Substack. Then I moved off it. Substack is a great platform to get started on but it has limitations that I didn't want to live with as I scaled. So I moved to Ghost. My point is that I have no axe to grind against Substack, it's a good product that filled a gap in the market.

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Substack is now a platform for the de-platformed. Wired

Substack is a scam in the same way that all media is. New York Magazine: Intelligencer

What is Section 230? Investopia

The problems with building on Substack. Indie Hacker

Is Substack really worth $650 million? TechCrunch

The Rise of Substack. Forbes

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