The moderation of content was a sensitive issue in 2020. And when I say "thorny" I mean that there are several Congressional hearings on the subject. Twitter and Facebook, in particular, have been embroiled in concerns about the issue, filing complaints that they both haven't done enough to root out problematic content and suggestions that they are a censorship-loving, shadowy enemy of the First Amendment.
The latter appears to be the sole reason right-wing Twitter competitor Parler exists.
As a substack The newsletter platform is growing in popularity and will face some extremely difficult questions about content moderation. A long blog post was posted today in the hopes of nipping some of those concerns in the bud. The article offers some caveats, but broadly supports the platform's commitment to freedom of expression, noting:
For the most part, we don't find censoring content helpful, and in fact, it often fails. Heavy censorship can draw more attention to content than it otherwise would have liked, while also giving content creators a martyr complex to trade in for future profits. We prefer an ideas competition. We believe dissent and debate are important. We celebrate the disagreement.
The stance reflects Substack's commitment to a subscription-based model, rather than the ads that are currently keeping the light on for services like Twitter and Facebook. Instead, the authors' subscription income is cut by 10%. That certainly exempts it from sponsorship boycotts to some extent. The subscription model also means that users have to make more choices about certain content than they do on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where the content boundaries are far more fluid.
"We are happy to compete with 'Substack but with more control over the language' just as we are happy to compete with 'Substack but with advertising'," the company writes.
Of course there are financial considerations – there always are. Substack has a vested interest in supporting right-wing and conservative voices that have opposed the practices of Facebook and Twitter. In particular, The Dispatch ranks high on the service's political rankings. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, editor Stephen Hayes called the service "unapologetically center-right", while his current blurb describes it as "conservative".
"None of these views are neutral," writes Substack. "A lot of Silicon Valley tech companies are trying to make their platforms apolitical, but we believe that such a goal is impossible to achieve." There is undoubtedly a truth in that. Any position on moderation of content can to some extent be viewed as political. Likewise, no one will make everyone – or even most people – perfectly happy.
However, it's also easy to see that the service is facing some key tests of its current hands-off approach as the service continues to grow in popularity. The service's approach has been to make its name known to consumers, which means it is not seen as some sort of invisible publishing platform.
Substack quickly adds that of course there is content that still crosses the line. "Of course there are limits," it writes. “For example, we don't allow porn on Substack or Spam. We do not allow doxxing or harassment. "