Writers know the power of a good lie.
As authors, we put quotation marks around words that have never been spoken, and attribute them to characters that exist only in our heads. As journalists, we know that as soon as something is 50.1 percent of something else, we can go to our golf bag of words and pull out the big dog: “most.”
As PR flacks, we describe bad things as if they’re actually good:
I really wasn’t going to write about Substack again.
Not after their co-founders posted a high-minded essay on Wednesday, explaining that in order to rebuild society’s trust in the media they have to cut six-figure checks to all its most prominent transphobes, or whatever. Not even after I realized that post was a response to a report that peddlers of COVID disinformation are generating millions in revenue on the platform!
No, what inspired me to saddle up my hobby horse and ride was the Twitter thread that Substack VP of Communications Lulu Meservey wrote to promote that post.
The lies begin at the start.
“An important principle for us is defending free expression,” Meservey claims. “We understand principles come at a cost.”
By positioning Substack–a blog platform with an email server and a content budget–as a defender of free expression, Meservey implies that free expression is under attack. Substack, she further implies, is taking a principled stand against this attack, even though it’s costly for them to do so.
So who’s attacking free expression? And what toll is it taking on Substack?
As much as I’d like to fisk the whole thread, tweet by tweet, neither you nor I have time for that. But in her second tweet, Meservey demonstrates how a gifted word-artist can take the truth, a lie-ish shade of truth, and a truthy shade of lie, and layer them them all on the canvas until you can’t tell one from the other:
The first line of this tweet seems indisputably true! It feels like we all mistrust institutions, the media, and each other right now. Most everyone reading this Tweet is now nodding along. The second line sounds kind of truthesque, and we’re already nodding along, so we don’t stop. And then the closing line pretty much nails it: withstanding scrutiny makes arguments stronger, not weaker.
But Meservey didn’t say “arguments,” she said “truths.” Exposing truths to scrutiny doesn’t make them more true. Either Ivermectin is a miracle cure for COVID, or it isn’t. Allowing yahoos on Substack to falsely claim that it is doesn’t expose the falsehood–it just lets Substack collect more revenue, even if they have to step over a few dead bodies on the way to the bank.
So let’s go back to that second line: Of course, all reasonable people agree that well-reasoned “dissenting views,” expressed reasonably, belong in the public discourse. At the end of her thread, Meservey linked to a Substack post by Matt Taibbi pointing out national health authorities have repeatedly, knowingly, issued misinformation trying to manipulate the public into doing the right things. Given that awful truth–and it is awful, and it is true–should all views that dissent from the government’s official party line be suppressed? Of course not.
But “Ivermectin Cures COVID” is not a dissenting view. It’s horseshit.
While it feels true to say that trying to silence a controversial opinion will only make it louder, the reality is that deplatforming fascists, racists, and conspiracy theorists is extremely effective.
Guess which social-media network ranks the highest in trust? LinkedIn, where everyone’s words are directly connected to their name, face, and paycheck–and content is aggressively moderated to keep it on-topic.
Is LinkedIn fertile ground for nourishing ideas? Hell, no. A well-equipped gym for intellectual exercise? Absolutely not! It’s not even any fun to scroll through. But we believe anything we see on LinkedIn is likely to be rooted in reality.
Contrarily, every platform built on a platform of free-speech absolutism (Gab, Parler, 8chan, etc.) immediately becomes a fetid, toxic swamp no one but the very worst of humanity will ever go anywhere near.
Content moderation builds, not erodes, trust, which is why Substack moderates content.
Despite the founders’ claims of a “hands-off approach,” Substack at least nominally pledges to remove hate speech that directly incites violence, plagiarism, and other forms of objectionable content. Enforcement might be inconsistent and spotty, but they do not allow just anyone to post just anything.
And despite Meservey’s florid prose about appreciating content she doesn’t like or agree with, she glibly dismissed those who pointed out Substack’s list of forbidden content includes erotica:
Pornography is tricky to define; see Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter’s infamous “I know it when I see it” standard. Here’s Substack’s attempt:
“Sexually exploitative content” can mean all kinds of things–and as LGBTQ+ creators have discovered time and again, it only takes one conservative middle manager to decide queer content is sexual content and pull the plug on their livelihoods. That Meservey can passionately defend right-wing wackos in one tweet and snidely dismiss writers who write about their sexuality in the next shows you what her values are.
Oh, right–values! Isn’t that what this is supposed to be all about? Bravely defending the principle of free expression at great cost?
No, it isn’t. Choosing to be a safe harbor for hate speech and dangerous lies isn’t costing Substack anything. By courting right-wingers who bring big direct-to-audience engagement along with them, Substack is just picking up low-hanging cashfruit.
Meanwhile, employing people who can tell the difference between a fact-based critique of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s approach to public-health messaging and a quack telling people to breathe in hydrogen peroxide? Well, that costs money.
That is the principle to which Meservey, and the company she works for, is committed: making money off other people’s writing. Substack found a niche in the #content market, and they’re filling it as best they can. That they’re doing real harm to real people sucks, but at least it’s not an unusual amount or form of harm for most tech platforms these days. What bothers me is the claim that the harm is actually good.
To be clear, Meservey, Taibbi and the Substack co-founders (a three-person byline of Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best, and Jairaj) make some great points about information bubbles, echo chambers, and blind-faith tribalism in media consumption, including some I’ve made myself. I especially liked this bit from the founders:
But Taibbi, as he often does these days, inverted the power structures at play to make his point: Don’t we remember how the Department of Defense cracked down on journalists during the Vietnam War, insisting the truth be suppressed and the official government version of reality be parroted? Well, many terminally online folks probably don’t know about that, which is absolutely why a free press is important.
But Substack is not “a free press.” Taibbi is not embedded at the front lines of an unjust war. And over-educated, underemployed, often marginalized writers Tweeting at Substack that they should stop publishing fascists is not tanks rolling down Main Street.
As much as Meservey is taking Ls online right now (and getting an army of anti-vax weirdoes coming to her rescue), the reality is that Tweets and posts like this one probably won’t move the needle–or their venture-capital boosted bottom line–all that much.
And as much as Meservey, Taibbi, and the rest of the Substackosphere would like to pretend this is a both-sides problem necessitating a both-sides solution, the decline of faith in media is almost entirely one-sided:
According to Pew Research, the share of Republican and lean-Republican adults who say they have “a lot” or “some” trust in the national media has fallen by half in the last five years. By half. Just since Trump.
Even though platforms like Facebook have repeatedly been caught boosting right-wing content to maintain an appearance of even-handedness, and Substack is one of many publishers paying to keep mediocre conservative columnists around for the same reason, the Trump Cinematic Universe has conditioned an entire generation (or two) of conservatives to believe that unless their preferences are being directly catered to, they’re being lied to.
Maybe Substackers don’t mind boosting lies alongside truth and reaping the financial rewards. But don’t look me in the eye and tell me you’re doing it for truth’s sake.
Promote an article from 2019 in Everything Awesome? To me, that’s preposterous.
I’m actually not sure how this one only found its way to me this week. But I enjoyed the heck out of this well-researched, clear-eyed deep dive into a “Chinese” food item that is truly more American than apple pie.
Karre, the executive editor at Dutton Books for Young Readers, shared these two brilliant pages from The New Yorker by Maurice Sendak and Art Spiegelman. And boy, am I glad he did.
It’s two of the greatest childrens’ authors and illustrators of all time talking earnestly about the clashes between the horrors of the real world, the innocence of kids, and the reality of their development and our instincts as adults.
As a kidlit author myself, this is already incredible stuff. But Karre shared this as a response to a school district banning Spiegelman’s seminal “MAUS,” and he included a good bit of his own wisdom along the way:
Conservatives and progressives agree on two things that are not true: 1) the past was always more conservative, and 2) if we do nothing, the future will always be more progressive.
Buhlert, responding to an exhausting insidery scene-drama kerfuffle, uses a deep understanding of SFF literary (and fandom) history to deflate a dumb generalization about science fiction these days, and along the way deflates a lot of dumb generalizations about what fantastic fiction has always been.
For those raised even a little bit evangelical, Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s story is dizzyingly alien and hauntingly familiar, eminently relatable and thoroughly risible. Sherman’s reporting and writing are both marvelous in this, and getting this story is an absolute achievement.
Yeah uh, so, it turns out that it is still NFL playoffs outside, and I still keep not having time to work on my YA fantasy novel (codename: “A&A”).
But the launch of a fierce new SFF short-fiction market, “Sieze The Press,” grabbed my fictional attention; I polished up a recent short story and submitted it. I also did a run-down of current markets and stories, and sent another couple in another couple.
Though I’ve largely given up short stories for novel drafting these days, I’ve been smacking myself for not continuing to send the ones I have out as new markets open (or old ones re-open to subs). Years of potential opportunities missed!