Substack defends free expression as critics call for censoring vaccine skeptics


Substack, the subscription newsletter service popular among independent journalists and writers, is doubling down on its principle of free expression as critics call for the platform to censor vaccine skeptics. 

“At Substack, we don’t make moderation decisions based on public pressure or PR considerations,” Substack Vice President of Communication Lulu Cheng Meservey began a lengthy Twitter thread on Wednesday. “An important principle for us is defending free expression, even for stuff we personally dislike or disagree with. We understand principles come at a cost.”

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Meservey tweeted a list of reasons why she’s “proud” to “defend free expression, even when it’s hard,” beginning with wanting a “thriving ecosystem full of fresh and diverse ideas,” which she stressed “can’t happen without the freedom to experiment, or even to be wrong.”

“People already mistrust institutions, media, and each other. Knowing that dissenting views are being suppressed makes that mistrust worse. Withstanding scrutiny makes truths stronger, not weaker,” Meservey wrote. “We made a promise to writers that this is a place they can pursue what they find meaningful, without coddling or controlling. We promised we wouldn’t come between them and their audiences. And we intend to keep our side of the agreement for every writer that keeps theirs.”

“I respect that writers on Substack are people who like to think for themselves. They tend not to be conformists, and they have the confidence and strength of conviction not to be threatened by views that disagree with them or even disgust them. This is becoming increasingly rare,” she continued. “Who should be the arbiter of what’s true and good and right? People should be allowed to decide for themselves, not have a tech executive decide for them. I wouldn’t want someone to pick out my clothes for me, much less my ideas… If everyone who has ever been wrong about this pandemic were silenced, there would be no one left talking about it at all.”

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She added, “When it comes to bad ideas, it’s neither right nor smart to martyr them and drive them into dark corners where they’re safe from examination and questioning. That doesn’t work. What works is examination and mockery… I read things on Substack all the time that I personally disagree with. Open debate is not always comfortable. But neither, for that matter, is the sea.”

Additionally, Substack co-founders Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj co-authored a piece saying “society has a trust problem” and that censorship would only create more distrust. 

“While we have content guidelines that allow us to protect the platform at the extremes, we will always view censorship as a last resort, because we believe open discourse is better for writers and better for society,” the Substack co-founders wrote. ‘We are living through an epidemic of mistrust, particularly here in the United States. Trust in social media and traditional media is at an all-time low. Trust in the U.S. federal government to handle problems is at a near-record low. Trust in the U.S.’s major institutions is within 2 percentage points of the all-time low. The consequences are profound.”

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They continued, “The key to making this all work is giving power to writers and readers. That’s why at Substack we focus on subscriptions instead of advertising, and it’s why Substack writers own and control their relationships with their readers. To paraphrase someone who ought to know, these people do not look to be ruled. Our promise to writers is that we don’t tell them what to do and we set an extremely high bar for intervening in the relationships they maintain with their readers…. Trust is built over time. It can be rebuilt over time, as long as those in positions of responsibility don’t succumb to pressure to take shortcuts. Trust can’t be won with a press release or a social media ban; and it can’t be strengthened by turning away from hard conversations. It comes from building and respecting relationships. For the media ecosystem, it requires building from a new foundation. That is the work we commit ourselves to at Substack. It is hard, and it is messy. It is the only way forward.”

BARI, ITALY - Empty Moderna Vaccine Flasks on January 23, 2022 in Bari, Italy. In January, the vaccination centers of the ASL Bari produced a considerable effort with more than 277 thousand doses in 20 days and 13,800 injections on an average daily basis, to ensure the maximum possible protection for all age groups.

BARI, ITALY – Empty Moderna Vaccine Flasks on January 23, 2022 in Bari, Italy. In January, the vaccination centers of the ASL Bari produced a considerable effort with more than 277 thousand doses in 20 days and 13,800 injections on an average daily basis, to ensure the maximum possible protection for all age groups.
(Donato Fasano/Getty Images)

Their messages came just before a widely-reported study alleging Substack made “at least $2.5 million” from “anti-vaccine newsletters per year” based on its business model that takes 10% of its writers’ earnings. 

“Two of the most popular anti-vaccine newsletters, published by prominent anti-vaxxer Joseph Mercola and former New York Times writer Alex Berenson, are listed as having ‘Tens of thousands of paid subscribers’ each. Both account for over $2.2 million of the annual revenue figure, earning a combined $183,000 a month,” wrote the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit that claims to combat online hate and misinformation. 

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The study was reported on by outlets like The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Daily Beast. And articles circulated on social media among prominent liberals, including Chelsea Clinton. 

“Anti-vaxx grift going strong – why is Substack facilitating science denialists’ ability to profit from destructive lies (and comfortable profiting themselves)?” Clinton asked. 

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Notably, CCDH was the same group that claimed conservative websites The Federalist and ZeroHedge published so-called “racist” articles about the George Floyd protests. 

NBC News was accused of activism by using the CCDH study to urge Google to demonetize both The Federalist and ZeroHedge from its ad platform. 

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