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After the deadly "Unite the Right Rally" in Charlottesville in August 2017, protesters gathered for a vigil in Washington DC (Ted Eytan via Wikimedia Commons)

How Deep Does Substack’s Far-Right Problem Run, Really?

The pitfalls of a newsletter's free-speech-at-almost-all-costs approach.

Words: Shane Burley
Pictures: Ted Eytan

Late last year, The Atlantic published a piece outlining Substack’s “Nazi problem,” in which  author and journalist Jonathan M. Katz identified 16 accounts that, in his words, “have overt Nazi symbols, including the swastika and the sonnenrad, in their logos or in prominent graphics.” Katz went on to show that some fascist accounts have tens of thousands of subscribers and many accounts are monetized, such as alt-right founder Richard Spencer’s latest publication.

Substack has received criticism for being the heart of what Aaron Huertas has called “reactionary centrism,” and what many in their own world call “heterodox”: ostensibly liberal commentators who often take right-wing, even far-right, opinions on contested issues like trans rights, racial politics, Israel/Palestine, or others. 

Flawed Metrics

When Katz’s article was released, it was these figures — people such as Jesse Singal — as well as publications like Liberty Magazine, who decried it as shoddy work, pointing to the fact that these are relatively few when compared to the size and ubiquity of Substack as a newsletter service and the lack of financial support that figures like Patrick Casey, founder of the far-right American Identity Movement, actually received. Additionally, media figures like Bari Weiss, Freddie deBoer, Glenn Loury, and Julie Bindel have signed a letter asking Substack to continue taking a loose approach to moderation.

“Substack is clear and consistent about its standards, and while it allows Nazis who don’t credibly threaten violence, it also allows authors to call for civil disobedience, to advocate passionately for Palestinians, to say whatever non-legally-defamatory thing they want about arms manufacturers, and to engage in all sorts of other discourse very obviously banned, to various extent, by Beehiiv, Supporting Cast, and Ghost,” wrote Singal in a Jan. 12 Substack post, where he outlined his criticisms of Katz (which he then repeated on the Jan. 13 episode of his podcast, “Blocked and Reported”). 

Part of the metric that Singal uses is whether or not violence was called on these blogs rather than the type of ideology they propagate, thus shifting the metric of whether or not a post is problematic from its ideas and to its incitement of violence. 

Ignoring Propaganda’s Role

This perspective ignores the historic role of white nationalist propaganda in fostering an ultimately violent movement, where ostensibly “non-violent” rhetoric is regularly found to be a motivating factor in acts of racist violence, such as the Citizen Informer (the Council of Conservative Citizens newsletter), in part, inspiring Dylann Roof to kill nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.

These publications are largely nonviolent in their rhetoric, creating plausible deniability when their readership and supporters then take to acts of violence, often framed in desperation when the promised activism of the white nationalist movement fails to deliver.

It requires a wider vantage point than both Katz and Singal employ to see if Substack does, in fact, have a problem with fascist users. This means already knowing the contours and relationships that make up the modern white nationalist movement, its key ideas, symbols, figures, and how its organizations function. 

Bigger Problem Than It Looks

With this schematic in mind, my investigation found nearly 40 fascist, white supremacist, or associated far-right publications on Substack. In order to determine what publications count, I used a consistent metric for defining fascism based on the work of “New Consensus” scholars in Comparative Fascism Studies such as Roger Griffin and Ze’ev Sternhell. (Substack did not respond to request for comment on this article.)

Additionally, accounts that are openly racialist, such as “race realists” like Steve Sailer, were likewise included in this list regardless of their self-stated political preferences since this ideology is a defining feature of American white nationalism.

The accounts tracked here are not just individual accounts, which are even more numerous now that Substack has added a social networking element. Instead, these are actual publishing and/or podcast operations, many of which are monetized. A quick look at who is operating on Substack reveals both that it is established players in the white nationalist movement and that they now view Substack as the most established place that will allow them to operate, thus revealing why it has become the new standard for their movement.

The Substack Landscape

Richard Spencer was a relatively early adopter of Substack and uses it to house a pay-for-subscription publication called “Alexandria” (with over 4,000 subscribers), which offers “classes” on film and philosophy, Zoom meet-ups for members, and hosts a regular podcast feed. This includes long-winded discussions about the influence of Jewish psychological warfare against Aryans, race differences in IQ, and what it takes to rebuild the white identitarian movement. He even has subscribers helping to copy edit his upcoming book, which is done by coordinating a Dropbox link to the documents housed in a series of Substack posts. 

The country’s leading “race realist” organization, American Renaissance, has moved over to Substack as well, now featuring two publications, its regular podcasts (which subscribers can pay upwards of $150 a year through Substack) and an audio feed to read articles that allegedly support their racial views. 

Finding a Home at Substack

Former Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) organizer Matthew Heimbach’s new organization, the Patriotic Socialist Front, is using Substack for its front page, and another newsletter called “Fascio” is published by one of their associates under the name “Zoltanous,” which Unicorn Riot had earlier tied to the social media accounts of former Ohio National Guard member Shandon Simpson. Both publications propagate their unique synthesis of Stalinism and national socialism. 

Many of these accounts are newsletters run by leaders in the white nationalist movement, such as Keith Woods, Richard Spencer’s former podcast co-host and the person who popularized the antisemitic #BantheADL campaign that Elon Musk championed (which is different than the progressive #DroptheADL campaign). 

Figures like TWP’s Matt Parrot, former editor Colin Liddel, alt-right vlogger Colin Robertson (known as Millennial Woes,) and many others have now established Substack as their publishing hub. At the same time, far-right publishing houses like Arktos and Imperium Press are now using the platform for their regular updates. 

Openly Expressed

Other accounts require a closer look to see that they are associated with the world of racial nationalism and “traditionalism,” with names like “Eurosiberia,” but to researchers familiar with the modern far-right, their politics are expressed openly. 

Fascist street organizations like the National Justice Party, the fascist political party created by the racist Right Stuff podcast network, also moved their “Justice Report” to Substack, offering premium subscriptions for $80 a year and leading with stories about “anti-white” racism and Jewish control of the US government. While it looks like the party may be toast, its online publication remains.

Added to this collection of far-right and fascist Substacks is a category that Religion Dispatches recently named “Bronze Age Zionists,” a collection of racist Jewish supremacist authors often writing in the tradition of Jewish Defense League founder and outlawed (and assassinated) Israeli politician Meir Kahane. 

Other accounts require a closer look to see that they are associated with the world of racial nationalism and ‘traditionalism.’

Substack accounts like the “Postkahanism” newsletter spout an extreme Zionist position that justifies the genocide of Palestinians, and many of the figures associated with this trend have suggested a kind of alliance between far-right Zionists and white nationalists in their anti-liberal views.

Some of the publications that are still hosted on Substack are more transparently there to act as a hub for racist activist material. White Lives Matter is a well-documented neo-Nazi project that is providing a common branding model for fascist activists around the country, and Substack currently hosts webzines for chapters in Montana and Connecticut, which includes materials that supporters can use in their activism. Some Mom’s for Liberty chapters (which I did not include in the list of 40 accounts) have likewise utilized Substack, including their Hughes County and Bay County chapters.

Antisemites, QAnon Followers, and “Race Realists”

Well-documented antisemitic conspiracy theorist and “Holocaust skeptic” Kevin Barrett hosts a newsletter with over 5,000 subscribers, which Substack has kept online despite it appearing in an Anti-Defamation League expose. The same is true of Turning Point Stocks, a blog that mixes financial advice with discussions on “the Jewish Question,” and multiple QAnon newsletters.

Those defending Substack have pointed out that the platform has Terms of Use rules and it is quite likely that most of these publications are not in violation, but that fails to answer if they have an issue with fascist and far-right groups and individuals adopting their platform. 

When investigating what far-right accounts are included on Substack, it became clear that there are a number of cases that walked a clear line of respectability, such as hosting a 32,000-subscriber newsletter from conservative commentator Richard Hanania, who was recently exposed as once a “race realist” author for white nationalist websites (such as Richard Spencer’s earlier, the successor of which is now on Substack). 

Just as relevant, Libs of Tik Tok, an “anti-woke” X account that has been cited as the inspiration for numerous death and bomb threats against, in particular, youth gender medicine facilities, continues to be hosted on Substack and remains monetized. Because of Substack’s stringent “free speech” standards and the fact that it led the pack in creating these subscription-based newsletters, it is simply the next place for the far right to move as they hop between trending platforms. 

The question for Substack is then if “following the rules” is reason enough to defend the use of their platform by these movements despite the ultimate aims of far-right, fascist, and white nationalist movements being dependably violent.

“Substackers Against Nazis” 

The issue has become so severe for Substack that 200 people using the platform signed a letter to Substack titled “Substackers Against Nazis” demanding action be taken. Some, like antifascist journalist Talia Lavin, switched platforms altogether, no longer willing to hand over a portion of their earnings to the company. 

Platformer, a publication that reported on this controversy, and its founder, journalist Casey Newsom, also chose to leave Substack, citing the “Nazi problem. Their article faced criticism from Jesse Singal, who claims that Newsom did not follow appropriate journalistic protocols. Substack removed five fascist accounts on Jan. 8, but confirmed that no policy change took place

This means that, by their applied metric, all of the accounts identified in our research could remain on the platform even when Substack is notified. In doing so, their Terms of Use become an easy guide for how the far-right can rebrand their rhetoric to avoid deplatforming, further entrenching themselves on a newsletter system now free from interference. Substack leadership says they will continue to take action against violating content offered by “neo-Nazis,” but without a clear understanding of what that content includes, who neo-Nazis are, or how to spot it, they will instead only address the lowest hanging fruit by deleting the kind of fascist activists who have refused to hone their message. 

“We don’t expect everyone to agree with our approach and policies, and we believe it’s helpful for there to be continued robust debate of these issues,” wrote Substack Editor-in-Chief Hamish McKenzie in a Substack post saying that they would continue to host far-right content on the platform, and defending his decision to host Richard Hanania on his podcast.

Parroting Far-Right Talking Points

The reason that the far right seems to hone in on Substack is likely that they think their messages can get through the moderation, primarily because many of the personalities who have helped to build Substack’s audience have parroted some far-right talking points under the guise of liberal criticism. 

Even when Stripe, the payment processor Substack uses for accounts, has banned a particular user, it remained possible to circumvent that and link to alternative services like SubscribeStar while popularizing the content on Substack. And, more than anything, Substack is a user-driven content platform that offers itself as an easy alternative both to regular social media and websites, thus communicating with the audience in a technological language that they are now comfortable with. 

Axios reported in March 2023 that some 17,000 accounts had earned money with Substack and readers had paid more than $300 million for the opportunity to read and listen, a level of growth that their infrastructure and quality assurance system seems woefully unable to keep up with. 

Within their current model there is little Substack can do, but, as has happened with other tech platforms, the organized pressure of users and community groups might push executives to address this use of their platform in ways that both disallow fascist organizing and balance speech concerns. Since many of those authors identified in this investigation have prior relationships with the larger white nationalist movement, those are easy metrics the company can use to decide what types of voices are best left off their platform.

Shane Burley

Shane Burley is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon who covers the far-right and social movements. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017) and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021), and the editor of No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis (AK Press, 2022). His work has appeared in places such as The Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, NBC News, Jacobin, The Independent, MSNBC, In These Times, The Baffler, and Oregon Humanities. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book Safety Through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism, released in June by Melville House Books. He can be found on Twitter @Shane_Burley1 and Instagram @ShaneBurley.

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