Substack Is Not a Neutral Platform
The newsletter platform is the latest tech company to turn a blind eye to anti-trans arguments
Last weekend, I announced my intent to abandon Substack. I surprised myself a little with the decision. I like my newsletter. I had content scheduled for two or three months in advance. I had been on the platform since early 2018, when I was recruited by co-founder Hamish McKenzie, who promised me that Toast founders Daniel Lavery and Nicole Cliffe were satisfied users. Yet, over the past several months, I had watched as the platform morphed into a haven for online transphobia, and when I hit my limit, I hit it hard.
The names on Substack now — Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Katie Herzog, Jesse Singal, Graham Linehan, Freddie de Boer — are a world away from the ones McKenzie used to sell me on the service, and, though their politics differ, they are seemingly united in their contempt for “identity politics,” “wokeness,” and “cancel culture,” terms which often translate as “trans people talking back to cis people.” Herzog, Singal and Linehan in particular are dedicated to spreading transphobic rhetoric through their work, and Singal and Linehan use their platforms in a such a way as to operate as “harassment influencers,” naming individual trans people who then get swarmed by their followers, as well as engaging in direct conduct that targets have repeatedly characterized as harassment.
Substack is known to be offering six-figure advances to some writers, and since the company won’t name which writers it’s paying, any money it generates could potentially be funding (for example) Linehan’s February 2021 effort to find and publicly shame trans women on a dating app. Yet this is not purely a money issue. A clear network has developed among the anti-trans writers at Substack, who collaborate with each other and boost each other’s work: Singal has a podcast with Herzog, and Herzog’s anti-trans essays are published by Sullivan and cited by Greenwald, etc. This is the look of consensus forming. Substack denies that it plays an editorial role, maintaining that the writers are solely responsible for what they create — and declining to meaningfully moderate the content published by those writers — but it’s nonetheless begun to look very much like a…