Off the 'Stack

Lose my trust, lose me

You’ll notice that this post looks a little different. That’s because I’m not sending it via Substack. Henceforth, and until further notice, The Racket is going to be hosted on beehiiv. If all goes well, you shouldn’t notice any difference at all—unless you were used to reading it on the Substack app, in which case you should stop.

If you have a paid subscription, it should carry over. If it doesn’t, or you have or spot any other problems, just respond to this email and let me know. And if you don’t have a paid subscription—or if you were waiting for this move to spring for one—now’s a great time:

The Racket is still a 100% reader-supported publication.
Now on a new platform:

There is so much I want to write about today: The U.S. and its allies just escalated the war in Gaza into a regional war with the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. South Africa opened its genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Today is also the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and I am thinking today of all the friends I lost fourteen years ago and the ones still struggling there.

But unfortunately, there is business to attend to. And the business is that I’m done with Substack. Not just because of the Nazi thing, though that is certainly part of it. It’s because the platform’s management has fundamentally lost my trust.

I didn’t want to leave. I have been on Substack for nearly five years, starting this newsletter in 2019 at the personal invitation of co-founder Hamish McKenzie. This past March—just three months before I started reporting, somewhat accidentally, on the platform’s white-supremacist problem—I’d even bought in as an (extremely small) investor, answering the call when Substack’s third venture capital round failed and the platform turned to its writers to bail it out.

I wrote McKenzie to tell him I’d bought in. “Good shit!” he replied, and invited me to visit Substack headquarters “any time.” Then he hosted an open racist—soon after exposed to have been a formerly genocidal white supremacist—on the flagship Substack podcast, and I reported on it. He hasn’t replied to an email from me since.

Even after my piece on the outright Nazis who’d found “a safe space” on Substack ran in the Atlantic, I didn’t think I’d go. Sure, Hamish and his colleagues, including CEO Chris Best, had stonewalled all my attempts to talk publicly and privately about the situation. Substack’s Head of Writer Relations, Sophia Efthimiatou, blocked me on Substack Notes, the platform’s Twitter clone. (Blocking is a kind of relationship, I guess.) But holding out hope of a substantive response, joined the letter-writing campaign started by Marisa Kabas. We were looking above all for clear statement of policy from management. On Dec. 21, we got it:

I just want to make it clear that we don’t like Nazis either—we wish no-one held those views. But some people do hold those and other extreme views. Given that, we don't think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.

Hamish McKenzie via Substack Notes

It was a comically bad answer. As Garbage Day’s Ryan Broderick said in his farewell to Substack this week: “My man, you’re not supposed to acknowledge actual Nazis are using your product. Even Elon Musk doesn’t do that.” Plus, I might add, how is helping Nazis make money a free-speech position—much less one that will sap the power of the white-power movement, or make anything better?

Hamish’s missive left such a skidmark on the Substack brand that his post became an international media story of its own, landing in the New York Times, as well as—most tellingly and disturbingly, German and Italian newspapers. The day after McKenzie’s post, one of the openly Nazi newsletters I’d been monitoring decided to test the waters with a newsletter calling explicitly for the extermination of Jews worldwide. The trickle of unsubscriptions I’d started getting from users who didn’t want to be on “the Nazi platform” turned into a stream.

Even then, I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on leaving. I’d weathered more reputational shitstorms than I care to remember in five years on Substack. There was the moment when “Substack” became synonymous with charlatans peddling disinformation during the worst global pandemic in a century. The moment when a Substack spokeswoman simped so hard for Elon Musk that she publicly blacklisted Twitter employees who were threatening to quit over his impending disastrous takeover of that company. The rampant anti-trans stuff. It was bad. Other people left. I stayed.

In 2022, when the journalist and critic of the National Security State (and my friend) Spencer Ackerman struck camp out of discomfort with the site’s reactionary turn, Substack retaliated by firing Sam Thielman—Ackerman’s editor, and, not incidentally, mine on The Racket, who they were paying on a year-long, benefits-only contract timed around the relaunch of my newsletter. (Facing widespread condemnation, McKenzie paid out the rest of Sam’s contract and admitted he had “fucked up.”) That retaliation was particularly disturbing, given that a key part of Substack’s pitch had always been that we own our email lists and are free to leave at any time. Still I stayed (with Sam’s blessing).

In every case, I gave the answers I’m seeing other people of good conscience giving right now: There are plenty of good people on this platform, and bad people on others. I’m here for the tools, not the management. I am finally making a living here. Journalism is so unstable, I can’t afford to gamble it all away! I was here first; the assholes should go, not me.

After New Year’s, the last straws fell. On Jan. 4, Platformer’s Casey Newton entered the fray, telling his over one hundred thousand subscribers that, following their own review, he and his colleagues had presented Substack with a list of accounts that they believed violated an existing policy against inciting violence. The result was that Substack banned five Nazi sites—an apparent but welcome contradiction of their (evidence-free) stance that doing so would make the “problem worse.”

The trouble was what was going on behind the scenes. Facing criticism from one of their most respected and bestselling newsletters—Platformer was, as of this writing, the featured newsletter on Substack’s sample page on the App Store and Google Play—they freaked. They immediately leaked details from Netwon’s correspondence—conversations that Newton understood were off the record in both directions—to Public, a newsletter run by Michael Shellenberger, a climate change denier and reactionary culture-war ally known as one of the public faces of Elon Musk’s “Twitter Files.”

The point of the leak was to embarrass Netwon and undermine the anti-Nazi effort by making the problem seem trivially small. Casey had submitted six extremist websites his team considered the most iron-clad examples of Nazi ideology they could find. (It seems Platformer did not include, for instance, Richard Spencer’s co-edited blog or that of the “pro-White policy” front for a neo-Nazi organization I named in the Atlantic, both of which sport Substack bestseller badges indicating that they have between 100 and 1,000 paid subscribers each.)

Casey seems pissed, and with good reason. Selling out one of your best publications to a rival you consider friendlier to your interests—to defend a Nazi-tolerating policy, no less—is beyond gross. Substack holds reams of its writers’ and users’ sensitive private information, including home addresses, credit cards, and unpublished and paywalled drafts. If they’re willing to sell out a profitable newsletter that’s much-loved in their own industry, who wouldn’t they sell out if they saw some potential gain?

Finally, there was the competing open letter. The day before Kabas’ open letter dropped, a preemptive rebuttal appeared on the Substack of a writer named Elle Griffin, defending management’s stance. That letter was signed by some of Substack’s most profitable reactionary accounts, including Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi (who had noted in his newsletter weeks earlier that he was aware our letter was in the works). Darryl Cooper, a Substack podcaster with tens of thousands of paid subscribers who once tweeted that “FDR chose the wrong side in WW2,” signed it as well.

McKenzie repeatedly pointed journalists to the letter, offering it as organic proof that many Substackers agreed with the site’s policies. It wasn’t until Griffin went on a little-known Substack podcast this week that the truth came out: McKenzie had played a critical role in the pre-buttal, contacting Griffin after noticing a complimentary post on Substack Notes, encouraging her to expand it into a newsletter piece, and promising to “help [her] find people to sign it.”

That was it for me. My Substack career began with a phone call and warm invitation from Hamish McKenzie. It ends with Hamish selling out one of his best writers and astroturfing an attempt to preempt criticism from hundreds of his users—criticism that, again, concerned his site’s hosting and profiting off of Nazis, neo-Confederates, and other white supremacists. After years of claiming that all Substack wants is to be a neutral place for free and open discourse—a “new economic engine for culture”—the Substack co-chief put his thumb on the scale for a position that promised to bolster his own bottom line, and tried to hide the fact that he had done so. Halas.

There are others in this exodus. Rusty Foster took Today in Tabs to beehiiv over a week ago. Marisa Kabas, the organizer of the Substackers Against Nazis campaign, is now writing the The Handbasket here as well, along with Sharon Hurley Hall’s Anti-Racism Newsletter. Molly White’s Citation Needed is now self-hosted. Hana Raskin’s The Food Section is going independent.

And just as I was writing this, Newton announced that Platformer, too, will be taking its 172,000 subscribers to a new home powered by Ghost. Along with Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day, that means that both of the lead newsletters on the Substack app’s official image are no longer on Substack. (If I may: Lol.)

Some can’t leave for various reasons—financial, logistical, personal. I get that. Some who read my Atlantic article or joined in the Substackers Against Nazis effort might feel a bit betrayed, hoping that we were going to continue fighting from the inside. I’m going to keep fighting. But I’m going to do it from here. With Substack management having irrevocably, in my opinion, shown their true colors, I think the best way forward is to show that there are other places to write newsletters out there. And it’s time to show Substack that the writers on whom they depend can and will leave at any time.

And for those who are staying because they think the Nazi problem is fake or overblown, or too small to be worth their notice, I say just wait. Substack’s management just put out the welcome mat for some pretty horrible people. Many will surely answer.

I am not saying that other platforms are self-evidently better or more ethical than the old one. I did my due diligence on beehiiv and think it’s the best option for me, for now. But I reserve the right to move again as circumstances change or new information comes to light. It isn’t a question of being chased from platform to platform either. This isn’t like quitting Twitter/X (which I also did, for what it’s worth) and leaving a community behind. We can choose to move our publications whenever we want—thanks to the support of our readers. It’s a model that Substack helped create. And for that, I’m grateful.

Join the conversation

or to participate.