Big Technology

What Glenn Greenwald Fears From Substack

‘They’re going to have to prepare now about how to resist the onslaught that absolutely will be coming in their direction`

Glenn Greenwald

OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts — edited for length and clarity — with notable figures in and around the tech industry.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Overcast.

In January, I wrote a story for OneZero about the content moderation war in store for smaller social platforms like Clubhouse, Spotify, and Substack. As part of my reporting, I reached out to Glenn Greenwald, a strident voice against moderation who left The Intercept for Substack last year. While I’m not in lockstep with Greenwald ideologically, I wanted to hear, and present, his thoughts at length.

This week’s Big Technology Podcast features my full conversation with Greenwald, where we discuss his move to Substack, the line between content moderation and censorship, and Joe Rogan.

Alex Kantrowitz: First of all, how’s the move to Substack going?

Glenn Greenwald: It’s great. I didn’t have much time to investigate how it worked or what it was prior to leaving The Intercept because I decided I was going to leave maybe 24 hours or so prior to actually posting my first article on Substack. I started a series of very frenetic calls, and one of the things I wanted to figure out is what is it that Substack actually provides that you can’t provide on your own? Why can’t you just go and start your own site and charge the same amounts for subscriptions? Then, instead of giving Substack their percentage, keeping it yourself.

Everybody with whom I spoke emphasized that the services that [Substack] provides — not just customer service if things go wrong with the billing or with people signing in — but also just the entire platform itself, how user-friendly it is, how well it works. That alone makes it worthwhile.

Something I didn’t really discuss but I’ve come to appreciate a lot is I think [that] Substack is becoming an important symbol of certain values in journalism and political discourse that I value a lot, and I’m happy to be a part of it. I think that’s also helping to give legitimacy to the platform and to those people who are writing on it. I’ve been there about a month, and overall, I’m extremely happy.

The user-friendly part of Substack is definitely part of what drew me to it. It made sending out emails easy, so that was nice.

I’ve worked, obviously, with a lot of different systems, including various iterations of The Intercept’s, with Salon’s, with The Guardian’s. The one at Substack is not just easiest to use but also the most advanced, most sophisticated in terms of layout and the options it gives you.

I want to just speak to you for a moment about the set of values that you mentioned that Substack puts forth or now represents. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s just a platform and we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that there are certain writers that have left their publications and made ideological breaks from them. There’s a whole variety of different writers there. You have people writing about climate change, people writing about women’s sports, and you have me. I didn’t do an ideological break from BuzzFeed; I just wanted to be independent. Am I looking at it wrong?

It depends. I think you’re correct that viewing it through the prism of a few high-profile writers who have gone there after breaking with their news outlets over relatively similar disputes is a mistake. It’s too limiting and narrowing for what Substack represents. But I think the way you described it in your question in terms of what it represents for you is an ideology — the idea of independence as a writer and as a journalist to be able to produce content free of corporate structures and the dogma that ends up being embedded in it.

Whether or not there’s a repressive atmosphere that emerges at a particular media outlet, writing within a corporate structure is a different way of writing and doing journalism than being on your own and doing it independently, speaking in your own voice for better or for worse.

There is an ideology inherent to Substack which isn’t necessarily the narrowly defined one that often is attributed to it, of a place that refugees from corporate outlets go when woke ideology prevents them from speaking freely. That’s obviously true for a few people, but probably not the majority. I think, more so, it’s a place that’s designed to enable people to write freely and independently. I do see [that as] increasingly as an ideology [in] a journalistic climate where control and structure and homogeneity are becoming more predominant.

For me, it was more of a determination to write outside of the core news cycle and tackle things with a little bit deeper analysis. But I do see some of what you’re saying in that with Big Technology, I came out saying I want to write nuanced stories about tech.

I think that’s important what you just said. [You can be] at a news outlet that does try not to censor writers and journalists or impose on them some specific partisan or ideological set of orthodoxies but nonetheless has a certain financial model that necessarily fosters imperatives about how you work and the kind of writing you can do. So if you’re at BuzzFeed, which depends upon an advertiser-based model and deriving revenue from it, it means that journalists have to write about things that are going to generate a lot of clicks.

It means that in general, depending on where you are in the organization, you’re going to have to produce a lot of content to satisfy that model. Which isn’t nefarious; it can just mean that you’re not entirely free to choose the things that you want to write about or the pace at which you’re writing them or the time that you’re taking to dig deep. I know BuzzFeed has investigative journalists who it gives the luxury of digging deep into a story and not requiring to produce multiple items a week. But in general, depending on what job you have in an organization, it can impose on you conditions for how you can write. And you can liberate yourself from [that] by being at Substack.

I don’t think that we ever wrote for clicks. I do think there was a determination to be relevant in the conversation that was going on at the time.

By writing for clicks I don’t mean that in the most kind of derogatory sense. I know as a journalist I’ve written for clicks in the sense that you just described it, which is that when you write something you want a lot of people to read it — it’s one of the metrics by what you judge to the success of your journalism. But a lot of times, that can translate into a pressure to write about something, not because you’re most interested in it but because it’s kind of the easiest path to obtaining that outcome. Whereas taking your time [and] writing deeply may not give you that immediate sugar high of tons of people going because it’s the hot news item of the day, but you can build a big audience over time, it’s just that not every news outlet has the luxury of allowing you to do that.

I’ve seen stories that I’ve written for the newsletter perform poorly by traditional standards. But the open rate keeps going up. Which means there’s a relationship that’s building with the reader, which is interesting.

How’s it going for you on the money side? Have you exceeded your Intercept salary yet?

Yeah, I’ve exceeded my Intercept salary. The concern for me was that in addition to my salary, which I was pretty certain I’d be able to at least equal, the Intercept has been paying a substantial amount of expenses for me connected to the work I do in Brazil — including lots of lawyer’s fees and fighting off the attempt by the Bolsonaro government to imprison me or to criminally prosecute me as well as physical security, round-the-clock physical security that I need because of threats.

The Intercept, to its credit, has agreed to continue to assume the costs of my legal representation in connection with anything that has to do with reporting I did for it, but the security cost and things like my assistant and other people who work with me in my journalism is something for which they’re obviously no longer paying. And so I was more concerned about that. But the launch of the Substack page has gone very well, and I at least equal those amounts as well, so I’m satisfied on that end.

You’ve hinted that you might want to start a new publication eventually. Do you want to break some news?

I may be breaking some news [soon]. I’m unfortunately not prepared to do it on your podcast or on your Substack page. I’ve been open about the fact that it is something I’m working on because I think in order to have a real impact on the news cycle, you need to be able to work with [a] team. But I’m also thinking about how to integrate it with the Substack page and with the Substack model where people pay for the content that they’re interested in and that they want and where I assure myself that I have the same level of freedom. So there’s a lot of moving pieces to figure out.

Are you going to just bundle with a handful of different Substack writers?

It’s possible, though that’s not the idea. The idea isn’t just to bundle Substack writers; the idea is more to build a newsletter that is designed to institutionalize the values that we had been discussing, some of which I thought I had been implementing when I co-founded The Intercept and didn’t quite work out in the way I had envisioned. But the idea is you can have an impact as a Substack writer or a Substack columnist for sure. I think a lot of my articles are already finding bigger audiences than they found at The Intercept. But to really present a new model of writing and doing journalism, I think you need to be able to commit to constructing a newsroom based on those values. So that would be the idea, if we’re able to do it.

Let’s talk about content moderation. The Columbia Journalism Review wrote about Substack writers and put you in a category of writers that condemn cancel culture and the left. You reacted saying it’s only a matter of time before people started demanding Substack be censored: “They hate nothing more than free expression.” What did you mean by that?

I had several objections to that article. The part that was about me I think just wildly mischaracterized what I do as a journalist. I write very rarely about cancel culture, in the sense that it means firing people or canceling book contracts. And I very rarely critique the left on that basis either. I do write a lot about free speech and censorship, which to me is something quite different than cancel culture, but I’ve always written a lot about that.

I think the other two examples that the author of that article cited, Andrew Sullivan and Matt Taibbi, write about it much more than I do. [Journalist Clio Chang] kind of implied strongly that we were all like-minded — a characterization I can accept when it comes to Matt. [But] both Andrew and I, who have been fighting for 15 years both in public and private, were very surprised by that. The thing that I objected to most was the idea that they’re just succeeding because they’re white men. For so many reasons, it’s just very flattening of my work and of just my life and my identity and lots of other things.

But I think it was really a way of trying to say that Substack itself is intrinsically unfair. The piece started [by] implying that the content [Andrew Sullivan] is producing is the kind of content with which a platform like Substack ought not to be associated or not ought not be platforming because it’s white nationalist or racist or anti-immigrant or designed to incite violence against marginalized people — all the standard phrases that are invoked when it comes time to censoring. And I think one of the things you’re seeing is that as Substack becomes more successful, more big names migrate there and start earning as much money as they were making when they had to endure all the burdens of being within a new big news organization or even more established media outlets. [Note: The CJR said, “Substack’s content guidelines draw a line at hate speech,” in a passage about Sullivan, stopping short of the categorizations above.]

And the journalists who worked for [established media outlets] are going to start turning their guns on Substack in part just out of professional jealousy but more substantively based on the idea that they believe corporate media outlets are the only legitimate guardians of our discourse. That they’re the ones who have the fact-checking and the journalistic expertise, integrity to make certain they’re not disseminating fake news or airing toxic opinions and that any platform that’s too free is a platform they’re going to start trying to demonize with the aim of demanding that more controls be exerted over who can and can’t write there — the way they’ve done to Facebook, the way they did to Twitter, the way they’ve done to Patreon, and now the way that they’re going to do to Substack.

Substack is sort of new on people’s radar, but it’s inevitable that it’s going to follow the same pattern as media behavior toward these other platforms that also were allowing free and independent dissemination of information that ended up competing with the hegemony and monopoly that these corporate media outlets want for themselves when it comes to overseeing discourse.

It seems that Substack will be super reticent to take anybody’s newsletter down. If it takes one person’s newsletter down, then everyone’s going to leave. So is this an actual fear? Or did you just see it important to push back on the idea in the earliest possible stage?

No, it’s an actual fear. I agree with you that Substack and the people who founded it and are running it are very committed to the idea that they should be a content-neutral platform, that they ought not to play the role of discourse police or speech regulators, deciding which ideas are good and bad, which ideas are true and false. But that was the premise of Facebook as well and Twitter and Patreon. They didn’t want that responsibility either, largely for self-interested reasons.

But when the New York Times and CNN and NBC News starts turning their very loud and powerful megaphone onto you saying, “Oh, look, Substack is hosting extremist content; they’re allowing racism to flow freely and misogyny to go unchecked; it’s become a hotbed of misinformation and disinformation and fake news.” Suddenly the pressure from the public is very high for you to do something about it, for you to disassociate your platform from what is being decreed to be toxic or racist or anti-Semitic or misogynist or whatever content. And even if you start off very resolved not to do it, that pressure is very high as evidenced by the fact that much bigger platforms thus far have succumbed to it.

Once you start going down that path, which was how they induced Facebook and Twitter to do it, first [you] do the easy cases — you kick off Milo Yiannopoulos, you kick off Alex Jones — but now suddenly you’ve assumed the responsibility to exclude people who are toxic. And then anyone that you’re allowing [onto the platform, it’s] almost like an implicit judgment from you that they’re within the realm of decency and permissibility. And I think it’s very important to substance for Substack not to go down that road. But to do that, they’re going to have to prepare now about how to resist the onslaught that absolutely will be coming in their direction.

I wonder if there’s a difference between what Facebook and Twitter have done and what might happen on Substack. For instance, you or Andrew Sullivan, you would never be kicked off. Maybe never say never, but you haven’t been kicked off Facebook or Twitter; you’re operating freely there. It seems like those platforms took action on some of the most egregious stuff. People spreading misinformation about Covid-19 that could lead people to get sick or foreign election manipulation.

Should Facebook and Twitter have just let the whole thing run open and wild? Do you see the distinction between the stuff that they’ve taken down and threat to writers like Andrew Sullivan on Substack?

I don’t really see the threat to myself for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I certainly don’t write often about cultural issues, which is about race and gender and trans issues — which is a lot of times where these doors open first into demanding people be deplatformed. And when I do write about them, I tend more or less to share the liberal consensus — not entirely but enough to insulate me. I’ve never really been the target of those kinds of deplatforming calls, notwithstanding how polarizing my journalism might be.

But someone like Andrew I think is in real danger of that. I mean, he did get essentially fired from New York Magazine for exactly that reason that even though he was one of the biggest names at the magazine, producing among the most traffic there, making the most impact with a lot of his essays. There was a two-year campaign on the part of younger journalists to demand that he be fired on the grounds that what he was writing was so toxic that it was creating an unsafe workplace. They actually went to human resources and the like.

But I think that Andrew was enough of a mainstream name that he certainly wouldn’t be the first one for that to happen. But you can see how easy it creeps. So maybe someone just a little bit more extreme than Andrew on questions of race or immigration or nationalism and the like could be the first test case, and then suddenly you move to Andrew next. I think the other part of your question that you’re raising is an important one which is, well, what about truth and falsity? What about, as you said, the vaccine doesn’t work, Covid is a hoax, masks don’t work, Trump won the election, there was actual fraud?

Do we think that the founders and managers of Substack are competent to judge the truth and falsity of various opinions [and decide what] can and can’t be heard? I remember Mark Zuckerberg was asked about that by Kara Swisher, and he said, “Well, I’m not a historian who expects me to decide what is historical truth and not.” He said even when it comes to things like Holocaust denialism — he said, “Yeah, even when it comes to that, I’m not a Holocaust scholar.” And there was all this indignation. But I thought he was right; I don’t want Mark Zuckerberg acting as a historical expert over the kind of things that can and can’t be said. I think if people are saying bad things on Facebook, the solution is to refute them, rebut them, and debunk them.

I think the other point is that oftentimes these debates assume that you have the power to banish bad ideas. But if Substack starts removing people’s pages for posting stuff about Covid or misinformation about the election, it doesn’t mean that stuff goes away; it just means, as you suggested earlier, it goes to a different place. And I just generally find it better for bad ideas to be out in the light rather than hiding in the dark because then you can discredit them more easily.

The other side of that argument is that Facebook and Twitter are acting as editors and are choosing what to amplify via their algorithms. So it’s like they’re handing someone a megaphone. And then, is it censorship if they take that megaphone away?

That’s an important point. So what happens, for example, on Substack if they start doing that? If they just start promoting different sites using various metrics? Already they’re showing the public what articles are the most read, which pages are the most subscribed to, which ones are producing the most revenue. What if they go a little bit further and start creating categories saying, “Here’s our most popular pages for health, policy, and here’s our most popular pages for culture.”

And in those lists one finds racist or misogynistic or transphobic content, one finds information that is clearly false by a consensus of experts in the field? By promoting certain content at the expense of others like YouTube does, like Facebook does, like Twitter’s starting to do more of, you essentially are assuming that role. And once you do you, then you have the responsibilities that go with it. And I think that’s a good reason why Substack ought to be very, very careful not to start doing that. Because I think in order to resist these, there will be these growing calls for them to police content. They need to be able to say with credibility, “We’re a content-neutral platform and don’t make judgments about which content deserves to be heard and doesn’t.”

Leaderboard or not, they should probably not have the racist stuff in there. But it does also look like they are moving toward that featuring of stories and newsletters in the way that you describe [Note: Substack did move to category-specific dashboards after this conversation], so we’ll see what happens with the next feature release, but it will be an interesting discussion on the horizon.

Yeah, for sure.

It seems like these days we’re talking a lot more about content moderation on platforms like Substack and Spotify and Clubhouse, where we were talking about it on Facebook and Twitter predominantly for the last bunch of years. Why has the discussion moved to these platforms?

I think there’s a lot of conversation about the need for more or different content moderation on Facebook and Twitter, but I think that liberal censors have largely won the war over Facebook and Twitter. Probably the D-Day event was when they both acted in different ways to block access to the New York Post story that could have been damaging to the Biden candidacy in the days before the election: Twitter [justified its move] by just simply saying, “We’re not going to allow any posting of links to this story.” Facebook [used] algorithms to suppress the story.

[It was a] pretty extraordinary act for social media companies that have long said we don’t do that to take in the weeks out leading up to the election. But I think it demonstrates that in media outlets calling for greater censorship, liberals calling for more content regulation have largely succeeded. Most of the most inflammatory right-wing provocateurs have been removed from Twitter and Facebook — not all but most.

So I think they feel as though they’ve kind of implanted the framework of censorship that they advocated on those social media outlets and are now on the hunt for outlets that are still too permissive from their perspective. And that includes Spotify and Substack and Patreon. And I think that as a platform increases in importance in terms of the names who go there, the viewership or the readership they’re attracting, the more interest there will be in trying to assert this power of content control. And that’s certainly true of Substack, certainly true of Spotify with Joe Rogan’s very high profile move there. I think that’s why you’re seeing increased attention.

For me, the move to block the New York Post article just seemed to be a trigger-happy move from these platforms who didn’t want to repeat what happened in 2016 and had been on the alert for a foreign disinformation campaign — even though that didn’t materialize.

I agree with that totally. Everything you said I agree with. But I think maybe we just differ on the significance. I think that the fact that they were so sensitive to that is indicative of the success that liberals, by which I just mean establishment liberals and not the left-wing of the Democratic Party, have had in pressuring these companies and in turn causing them to internalize both literally internally inside their own companies but also just the consciousness of these companies about what their responsibilities are.

Right. But they were also the victim of a real foreign disinformation campaign that happened during the 2016 campaign.

That story by all accounts doesn’t really have any Russian involvement. We don’t know the real origins of it; we know the story, but even if you’re interested in protecting your site from being abused by deceit, bots, and fake pages, that doesn’t quite justify, to me, preventing links to the New York Post, a very well-established newspaper.

Lastly, you were on Joe Rogan’s show recently. Do you think he should have had Alex Jones on the show after Jones said the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax? And do you think Spotify should leave interviews up with Jones?

I would not interview Alex Jones. I would not put Alex Jones on my platform; that would not be a choice I would make. I think one of the things I talked about is with Joe was, what he said was his sense of growing responsibility not to provide the use of his platform to people who are reckless or irresponsible. There are a lot of alt-right people he used to routinely interview that he’s decided [that] he no longer will in the spirit of that. I think the Alex Jones case was very special or kind of an aberration for Rogan, in part because he’s been friends with Alex Jones for 20 years; I mean, they’re like personal friends. And I think he feels a sense of personal loyalty … so I think it’s kind of a special case. I don’t know if that would happen if they weren’t friends.

And then beyond that, I think that it’s very important for Rogan to demonstrate to the people within Spotify who are trying to control his content — and clearly there is a movement inside Spotify to do that — to push back against that and to say, “Not only are you not going to succeed in limiting my freedom to talk to whoever I want, to demonstrate that to you and to make it clear, I’m going to put on the person who’s probably most horrifying to you just to show you that you have no power to control me.”

So again, if you were to say to me, “Would you interview Alex Jones; would you put Alex Jones on?” No, I wouldn’t. But I think in Rogan’s case, [he believed that] Alex Jones is a voice that ought to be heard.

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