Lying On The Internet For Fun And Clout

I will apologize in advance for the length of this post, this particular controversy has quite a few layers to unpack and I have strong opinions on all of them. 

Over the past week, there has been a fair amount of grousing from progressive writers over their newfound knowledge that certain writers got financial deals from Substack to start their newsletters. Most of the complaints were sour grapes dressed up as outrage, ranging anywhere from “why is Substack paying THOSE writers and not me?” to “why is Substack giving THOSE writers a platform at all?” This whole sour grapes/outrage cycle seemed to be based on an assumption that every big-name writer that has joined Substack recently -- Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias, Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, et al -- received financial compensation from the platform to do so. To respond to the rumors Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of Substack, released a post explaining the new Substack Pro program 

“With Substack Pro, we pay a writer an upfront sum to cover their first year on the platform. The idea is that the payment can be more attractive to a writer than a salary, so they don’t have to stay in a job (or take one) that’s less interesting to them than being independent. In return for that financial security, a Pro writer agrees to let Substack keep 85% of the subscription revenue in that first year. After that year, the deal flips, so that the writer no longer gets a minimum guarantee but from then on keeps 90% of the subscription revenue – which, if we’ve made our bet well, will be a larger overall dollar amount. We like this structure because, while some who get these deals are already well off, it gives financially constrained writers the ability to start building a sustainable enterprise. We take most of the risk for them. In return, their work contributes to the quality of the Substack ecosystem and they become long-term customers.”

Prior to launching Substack Pro, the platform did compensate some writers on an advance-style system, but those deals only compensated a writer for a few months and the money advanced to the writer had to be paid back out of that writer’s subscription revenue. The idea behind Substack Pro was to give writers more time to build a readership on the platform while putting less financial pressure on the writers.

McKenzie also explains the process by which Substack chooses which writers will be eligible for Substack Pro

“We see these deals as business decisions, not editorial ones. We don’t commission or edit stories. We don’t hire writers, or manage them. The writers, not Substack, are the owners. No-one writes for Substack – they write for their own publications. We cannot contact their readers without explicit permission, and we make no attempt to influence their content, other than requiring that they adhere to the content guidelines that apply to all writers on Substack (read our stance on content moderation for more). The only thing we ask for in return is a commitment to a minimum publishing frequency so we know they’re giving it an honest shot.

When considering a Pro deal, the main thing we take into account is the writer’s likelihood of success with the Substack model. We look at the writer’s audience size, how engaged their following is on social media, and the respect they engender among their readers and peers. As an indicator of a publication’s market opportunity, we look at what they cover and assess how well that subject is covered elsewhere. We consider their track record and look for evidence of an ability to publish multiple pieces a week for an extended period of time. We do not approach this process from the perspective of a publisher, looking to gather a particular type of content under our brand, but with the eye of an investor, looking to stimulate a new generation of profitable media businesses. We want to help writers flourish.” 

On the topic of who got what deal Substack has been tight-lipped but McKenzie gives a hint that the deals have not been as common as assumed 

“Other writers, seeing the success of their contemporaries, have come to Substack on their own, taking no money from us. For many writers, that’s the smarter financial decision, since the guaranteed payments we are willing to offer are often dwarfed by the amount of money they can make if they just stick with the standard terms, keeping 90% of the subscription revenue for themselves. This is by far the largest group and it includes many of the biggest names on the platform. (We don’t disclose the names of the writers with whom we’ve done deals because it is their private information and up to them whether or not they want it publicly known.)”

I agree with Substack’s decision to not name who has received a Substack deal, that is for each writer to divulge publicly if they choose to. I’m not surprised that most writers haven’t taken Substack up on that deal either; while it is a very generous offer, most of the high-profile writers who have recently moved to Substack have huge audiences willing to pay for content. While leaving a salaried position (or not taking a new one after being booted from one’s old one) always entails a financial risk, there were writers who had proven the Substack model is a viable way to earn a living.

And that brings us to the weird left turn this online freakout took -- somehow this anger at Substack for paying writers to migrate to the platform became centered around Jesse Singal, writer and co-host of the Blocked and Reported podcast. Specifically, trans rights activists took aim at the platform for paying Singal to write his newsletter. A Twitter meltdown ensued, with trans rights activists calling Singal a transphobe, a stalker, and a “chaser”  while providing zero proof of their claims. Singal documents the whole thing here if you want a full rundown, while this sort of attack is nothing new for Singal it is pretty ugly to witness. 

And since there are people who will look at this situation and think “who cares, Singal has a successful newsletter and podcast, how is this harming him”, I’ll leave this right here. 

“But this is still quite harmful: I don’t want to just do stuff for Substack and Patreon. I want to continue writing for mainstream outlets like I’ve been doing for almost a decade and a half. I want to write another book for a mainstream publisher, if I can come up with a worthy idea. How many editors out there now know — KNOW — that I am a terrible, creepy harasser because of these awful, shitty people endlessly repeating these lies and never providing anything like sufficient evidence to justify such claims?”

This brings to mind the old (alleged) Goebbels quote “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” Repeat something often enough, even if it can easily be proven to be false, and you create a narrative. And narratives, be they good or bad, have a sticking power like nothing else. 

Blatantly lying about someone is never OK, but doing so in the service of smearing someone to the point where they can no longer make money is unconscionable. To keep repeating a claim after it’s been made clear there is no proof to substantiate it is a very deliberate act meant to produce a narrative, an activity that should be harshly criticized by everyone who cares about putting an end to this insanity. 

Until the incentives for lying about people in your out-group on social media disappear, however, this trend isn’t going anywhere. Spreading the narrative that Singal is an awful transphobic stalker who is obsessed with trans women carries a certain cachet; it’s a signal that you are an ally of the trans community, aligned with them against the person they have deemed unworthy of having a platform. Whether any of those engaging in this behavior have actually read and engaged with any of Signal’s work, I doubt it. Much easier to repeat the false narrative and gather the likes and retweets than to engage in Singal’s work and the questions it raises. 

Here’s the kicker -- Singal isn’t part of the Substack Pro program nor was he part of the advance program, the only money Substack has paid out to him is the money he’s earned from subscribers. He started his newsletter in 2019, long before the Substack Pro program was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and he’s grown it through time. If there is a “right” way to do a Substack newsletter, Singal did it. 

So to recap the story so far, a bunch of people got mad that the Substack Pro program exists and the Wrong People may or may not have received money to write for the platform, which then metastasized into an attack on a writer who isn’t part of the program but who his attackers assumed was so they leaned into their grievances against him. That this attack was dressed up as a criticism of Substack mirrors the attacks on Clubhouse, which pretend to be about the platform but are really about the people who are using the platform. 

This isn’t meant to be a piece devoted to defending Singal -- he is capable of defending himself -- but to note that point-blank lying about people is becoming a routine occurrence on social media. Buried by the Singal drama was the attempt by Iris Kavanagh to smear author Wesley Yang by posting to Twitter that he was advocating for rape in a Clubhouse chat. I was not present for this chat but I’m familiar enough with Yang to be sure that he did no such thing, and several people who were in the chat room confirmed that he said nothing of the sort. In response to the pushback on her claim, Kavanagh locked her Twitter account. 

Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. 

This pattern of lying in public -> claiming victimhood when called out for lying -> spinning that pushback into “toxic bullying” or whatever we’re calling it this week is ridiculous and those who engage in it should be told as much. As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s time to be brave and call bullshit. 

I still have so much I want to say about this situation but yikes we’re at 1752 words already, so I think a Part Two will have to happen for Friday’s post. 

Stay tuned...