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The One Where I Got Trolled On Substack Notes
Unpacking a weekend with a tide of racism and bigotry - and its aftermath
I’m a “both and” kind of person rather than an “either or” person, so I want to start by saying that Substack is both the place where my newsletter has found a good home until now AND the place where I got a relentless amount of racist trolling on its new social-media-like thing, Substack Notes a couple of weekends ago. The experience was extremely unpleasant, and it’s also left me with a lot of questions. Before I get to those, let me reconstruct what happened.
From Beta to Live
I was part of the beta test for Substack Notes, and it was a very pleasant experience. Lots of writers hanging out sharing writerly things, with a side of pet, food, mature and travel photos. It was so pleasant that I had no hesitation in writing a recommendation post about Substack Notes or in making a minuscule investment in the company when they put out the call.
But then they opened Notes to the public and all hell broke loose. That’s not an exaggeration.
The way the Substack newsletter platform works is that each publication is its own space, which publishers can manage with the tools the platform provides - publishing in different formats, threads and, most recently, chat. It has worked very well in the 2.5 years I’ve used Substack.
How Substack Opened the Door to Right Leaning Trolls and Neo-Nazis
But Substack Notes is more like a social media site. While it worked fine in the test phase, once it was open to all, it had the usual social media problems without any of the social media safeguards. And an interview with CEO Chris Best about whether the platform planned to control overt racism left the door wide open for who want to spew hatred and bigotry everywhere. As this Gizmodo article said: Substack’s CEO Would Rather Not Think About the Racist Stuff. Okay?
Lucky him. Most people who look like me, and people who face isms don’t get to exist in blissful unawareness or close our eyes to what’s happening.
A Weekend of Trolling
Shortly after this, someone on Notes realised I publish an anti-racism newsletter and started coming after me. And when I joined others in calling for platform-level controls after seeing some truly horrific antisemitic memes, then a bunch of far-righters (at least that’s who they seemed to be) went absolutely wild.
As I said in my note, for some, calling out bigotry on Notes makes me "weak", "cowardly", "a karen", "a hitler" plus a few other things. One charmer saw it as an excuse to sprinkle the n-word in his reply.
They piled on, not just on me, but on several others who reiterated the need for some control - a few guardrails. It was truly awful. (Here’s a recent example from Chandra Hardy, who has been trolled relentlessly.)
Many of the team were horrified and reached out to me to discuss how to make things better. They also said that co-founder Hamish McKenzie would elaborate on Substack’s approach in a few days.
An Underwhelming Update
Towards the end of that week, McKenzie tried to make things better, but still ended up dodging the question of how Substack would handle racism and bigotry on Notes. Most of the people who most loved his statement are people with MAGA, neo-Nazi and far right views, which tells you all you need to know.
My comment on this in the Substack Slack, which I’ve been in since winning a Grow fellowship a couple of years ago, was this:
“As one of the people most affected by last weekend's sh*tshow, I don't think Hamish's statement is definitive enough. I'd love to see his stated personal values reflected in the company's values. Instead, it puts the burden of dealing with bigotry largely on individuals who are already experiencing trauma. I certainly feel unprotected and unsafe.”
Another comment I made in Slack was:
“By failing to put some guardrails in Substack signals that this kind of hate is ok (silence showing you side with the oppressor and that sort of thing).”
I and others made similar comments on Notes itself, attracting even more trolling. One person even went as far as to dedicate a whole newsletter article to tearing three of us down (and no, I’m not linking to it).
I will add that I chose not to block and mute at the start to get a real sense of what the experience would be like for Black and Global Majority folx and those facing isms, so I could let the team - and my readers - know.
The proof of the pudding? One Black woman who followed me to Notes lasted less than 24 hours on the platform because of all the hate speech. Others that I’ve shared this experience with privately are adamant that they will not be signing up.
The Questions I’m Still Grappling With
While individual team members have been great and, as I’ve said, have been working on making it easier to curate your Notes feed, I’m still troubled by the failure of the co-founders to make a simple statement saying that certain things (racism, for example) won’t be tolerated on Substack Notes. That speaks to their values - and what it says isn’t great.
Because of that I’ve unpublished my invitation to Notes, and won’t ask anyone else to follow me there till they know what they are getting into. After all, if the company can't come out against racism, bigotry and hate speech, is it the right place for people who look like me?
I know at least one writer has already moved her publication because of the founders’ shilly-shallying on this fundamental issue, and I’m thinking about it too. In fact, I’ve already figured out a platform I could move to if need be.
However, I don’t know that any platform is any better. Most tech platforms are created and run by people who don’t look like me. If I see Substack as a newsletter platform, then how is running my newsletter there any different from running it on WordPress, which powers sites with a whole range of viewpoints?
And should I make things harder for myself, in a tech world already stacked against me, by moving to another platform where there’s potentially even less visibility for anti-racist perspectives?
Is it better to stick with Substack to keep getting the message out, while continuing to call the founders to account? (Because you know I will!)
I just don’t know, and I won’t make a final decision until I do.
What Happened Next
Since this happened, Substack has put in some more Notes controls, changed who you would see in your feed by default, added some reply and filtering controls and more. They also removed one tab in the Notes app that lumps everyone in together. This means we’re less likely to be exposed to views we find objectionable. That has not stopped the harassment for all, though. The levels have dropped for me, but other women on the platform are still being trolled relentlessly. That’s not ok.
I want to make it clear that I do not mind seeing dissenting views - I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me on everything - but I do object to the racist trolling, bullying, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia that’s been a huge part of the post-launch Notes experience for me and many others.
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Substack Clearly Needs Help
One thing that’s clear - and not just on Substack - is that mostly white mostly cis tech bros can’t and shouldn’t be the only ones making a decision on what constitutes harm for people who face isms. They simply haven’t got the range. They should be guided by those of us who’ve experienced it often enough to know what we’re talking about.
And just because the founders CAN put their heads in the sand, it doesn’t mean they should. As Noah Berlatsky says:
“Best’s response to the interview was not serious; McKenzie’s note is not serious. But genocide, insurrection, harassment, and death threats are serious problems, and Substack had best address them quickly, rather than waiting until the worst happens.”
They have an opportunity to do better than LinkedIn and many other social networks, and a big decision to make as to where Substack’s values stack up against the harm being done to people. Right now they’re flubbing it, with a huge risk that, as TechDirt says, Notes will become the Nazi bar or, as another Notes user put it, “a 4chan cesspool”.
I don’t want to see that happen.
Just before this went live, I read a note on The Present Age. Two quotes stood out to me:
"This is how the right operates. All the time. They demand to not only be included but to be able to do anything they want, as well."
“Their entire political ideology is built on being against groups of people. Until politicians, businesses, celebrities, and regular people tell them to kick rocks when they try to stir up a new controversy, they’re only going to become more extreme, not less.”
It’s a timely warning for the Substack founders.
Looking to the future
Here’s where I am at the moment, though this could change. Since I’m able to talk to some Substack team members directly, I’d like to use that facility to share some perspectives they might be unaware of, in the hope of making Notes better for everyone.
In the meantime, I’ll be on the lookout for a tech platform for my newsletter where I know for sure the founders have values I share - if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
Thanks for reading,
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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2023. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.