By Jennifer Korn, CNN
(CNN) — Substack has removed several publications for inciting violence, the newsletter publisher said in a statement shared with CNN Tuesday, as writers from across the platform threatened to quit over the presence of pro-Nazi content.
After Casey Newton, founder of Substack tech news publication Platformer, flagged a list of publications violating content guidelines to the company, Substack says it is removing five.
None of the nixed newsletters have paid subscribers and, in total, account for about 100 active readers, according to the company.
The decision to remove the content could represent a change of heart for Substack, a subscription network through which writers can publish free or paid newsletters that has taken a very hands-off approach to moderation.
The company has said it aims to be a hub for individual voices, expert thought and critical discourse that it claims are harder to find in mainstream media.
Although the platform has explicit guidelines banning content that incites violence, a November article in The Atlantic pointed out at least 16 different newsletters with Nazi symbols, as well as many more supporting far-right extremism, leading to calls for change from many Substack authors and a refusal from leadership.
A December letter signed by more than 200 of the platform’s authors decried the presence of newsletters pushing Nazi and white nationalist views with thousands of paid subscribers, claiming Substack was allowing this content to exist and profiting off of them.
Substack takes 10% of profits from paid newsletters.
“From our perspective as Substack publishers, it is unfathomable that someone with a swastika avatar, who writes about ‘The Jewish question,’ or who promotes Great Replacement Theory, could be given the tools to succeed on your platform,” the letter reads.
In response, co-founder Hamish McKenzie released a statement in late December refusing to remove such newsletters, saying the move would limit free speech and open discourse.
“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,” McKenzie wrote in December. “Given that, we don’t think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away — in fact, it makes it worse.”
Although the company is now removing several such newsletters, Substack says it does not plan on changing its current decentralized approach to moderation that “gives power to readers and writers,” McKenzie wrote in December in a newsletter the company reshared with CNN Tuesday.
“If and when we become aware of other content that violates our guidelines, we will take appropriate action,” the company wrote.
Substack has raised millions from major venture capital firms such as Andreessen Horowitz and has been valued at between $500 million and $1 billion in those funding rounds.
The company recruited some big name writers from other media outlets such as Glenn Greenwald, Matthew Yglesias, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss and Heather Cox Richardson, many of whom champion free speech, heterodox thinking and broad discourse.
Substack has more than 35 million active subscriptions, including 2 million paid subscriptions, according to the company. Several newsletters left the platform amid the debate, while others including Platformer threatened to do so.
While Substack removed specific accounts with content that explicitly incites violence after Newton specifically pointed out those newsletters, the Platformer writer says the fight has only just begun.
“In coming days, explicitly Nazi publications on Substack are slated to disappear. But the greater divide within its user base over content moderation will remain,” Newton wrote Monday. “The next time the company has a content moderation controversy — and it will — expect these tensions to surface again.”
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