Can A Shit Search Function Save Substack From Nazis?!
Image: Sanu N CC BY-SA 4.0
Substack has a Nazi problem. The company, in contravention of its own terms of service, allows far right, explicitly Nazi blogs to monetize hate speech and build power. Substack’s founders have interviewed and promoted far right figures and have allowed those figures to use Substack’s resources to direct readers to white nationalist substacks.
Most people agree Nazis are bad. But a lot of Substackers argue, like the proverbial ostrich, that what you don’t see can’t hurt you. And, they insist, they don’t see Nazis on Substack.
No Nazis Here, Nope
Elle Griffin distills this position in a post called “Substack shouldn’t decide what we read.” Signed by a number of high profile substackers and endorsed by the company itself, the post effusively praises substack as a “garden of learning” and argues that the platform gives you all the tools you need to keep from ever seeing hateful fascist content.
Most Substack readers subscribe to a newsletter via email and never see anything except the emails from the writers they subscribe to. Ninety-six percent of my own subscribers read via email—not the app—they might not even know that I publish my newsletter using a platform called Substack. How exactly would they come across hateful content on Substack?
The author of the recent Atlantic piece gave one way: actively go searching for it. He admits to finding “white-supremacist, neo-Confederate, and explicitly Nazi newsletters” by conducting a “search of the Substack website and of extremist Telegram channels.” But this only proves my point: If you want to find hate content on Substack, you have to go hunting for it on extremist third-party chat channels, because unlike other social media platforms, on Substack it won’t just show up in your feed.
Please Google The Terms: Facebook Genocide Myanmar
There are a number of problems with Griffin’s argument. First, Griffin argues that other social media companies have tried moderation and failed. But this is deeply confused. Most social media companies start out with as little moderation as possible and then have to do more moderating after they do bad things like enabling harassment, death threats, dogpiles, and oh also genocide and insurrection. The track record of social media companies letting Nazis build power is very bad, to put it mildly. Substack’s founders regularly misrepresent (or outright lie) about this track record, which should worry all of us. (I have a longer post about this aspect of the discussion here.)
Can Shitty Search Be An Anti-Nazi Strategy?
The other disconnect here is in the explanation for why people aren’t seeing Nazis on Substack or in Substack notes.
Griffin argues that people like her don’t see Nazis because Substack gives them the tools they need to moderate content. “I am the curator of my own space,” she says, and adds, “when I’m scrolling my feed, the only posts that show up are by the people I subscribe to and the people they are interacting with. There is no ‘viral tweet’ inserted into my feed.”
Griffin is right to some extent. Substack doesn’t have trending topics and its algorithms are low key. It’s easy to curate your feed so you don’t see things you don’t want to see.
That’s certainly to the good. But a big part of the reason that Substack Notes feels like a bunch of walled off rooms is not because of Substack’s high quality content moderation. It’s because Substack’s search function sucks.
As anyone who’s used Substack search in Notes knows, it’s just about impossible to do topic searches on the platform.
It’s not clear whether Notes’ lousy search function is a deliberate choice or not. Mastodon deliberately disabled search functions to avoid dogpiles and Twitter-like harassment. Maybe Substack has done the same—or maybe they just haven’t figured out how to enable better functionality yet.
Whatever the reason though, the lack of a search function makes it extremely difficult to stumble on content from people you don’t know. That means you’re unlikely to stumble on Nazis, which is good.
The Downsides of Walled Gardens
It also means, though, that you are unlikely to stumble on writers you might like to follow absent some recommendation or link to your network.
This isn’t a big deal for some of the larger accounts (Slavoj Zizek! Ted Gioia! Matt Taibbi!) who signed Griffin’s letter. They have a large footprint off of Substack to draw readers. More, Substack regularly promotes big accounts through its own newsletters and podcasts.
But the lack of a search function is a real problem for smaller accounts, and a serious drawback for even large accounts focused on news and reporting. Twitter allows you to find subject matter experts when a particular issue becomes salient. It allows you to find people commenting on ongoing events, be they Senate hearings, election analysis, or football games. On Twitter, you could build an audience by being funny or insightful and by having something to say about big events that everyone was paying attention to, for whatever reason. You can’t do any of that on Substack. Because, again, Substack search sucks.
Substack could offset this by using their own promotional resources and platforms to surface lesser-known writers. But they don’t really do that. Instead, they tend to focus their promotion on the largest accounts. Including, sometimes, the large accounts of far right racists, because Substack’s owners appear to think far right racists are cool and insightful.
Without a decent search function, Substack Notes, for most people, just isn’t a good way to build an audience. Without search, people don’t see Nazis fulminating on popular topics. But they don’t see experts or good faith commenters either. Which doesn’t seem like a great trade off.
Substack’s Future With the Nazis
Substack can go a few directions at this point. They can continue on with a useless search function, effectively making it impossible for most users to build an audience on Notes and relegating it virtually irrelevant, both as a social media network in its own right and as a way to grow subscribers. Or they can fix search…and then you’ll see the results of allowing Nazis to build power on the network. Because there will be Nazis all over the place.
There’s a third option, of course. Substack could enforce its TOS and demonetize explicit Nazi accounts that are calling for the extermination of marginalized people (which is what you are doing when you post swastikas and talk about how awesome Hitler was.) Nazis would get frustrated and have to take their bullshit elsewhere. Then Substack could set up a decent search function, and, ta-dah! People could find more obscure good Substacks without being inundated with fascist garbage.
At the moment, though, Substack has two problems: a problem with Nazis, and a problem with a search function that sucks. The second allows people to ignore the first. But it also limits Substack’s usefulness for a lot of users.
And ultimately, if Substack lets fascists build communities and cash and power, even the shit search function won’t be enough. Nazis are going to use Substack to organize violence if Substack will let them, and even if you still can’t see it on Notes, it will get bad enough to hit mainstream media at some point. The question is whether Sustack’s founders take steps to solve this issue before then, or whether they spend their time gazing into their opaque search function, twiddling their thumbs, and occasionally promoting eugenics on their podcast. I hope they choose the first, better path. But I’m not optimistic.
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