Substack benefits from anti-mask and anti-vaccine newsletters – Mother Jones

Illustration by Mother Jones; Getty

The coronavirus is fast-developing news, so some of the content in this article may be out of date. Check out our most recent coverage of the coronavirus crisis and subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

If you subscribe to an email newsletter, chances are it’s hosted by the popular Substack platform. The company makes it easy for anyone to bombard their friends’ inboxes with regular missives: just sign up, write your first edition, and ask everyone you know to subscribe, either for free, either for the amount you choose per month, of which Substack takes a 10 percent cut. Unlike other similar platforms, the company also hires copywriters with large Twitter followers and huge reach, offering advances of hundreds of thousands of dollars for newsletters it hopes will be particularly popular. The universe of Substack newsletter topics is as vast as the imagination of their owners: a journalist writing about extremism and sandwiches; a historian describes strange ancient jewelry; the Wilco singer offers advice to budding musicians.

The substack is growing rapidly. According to Forbes, in just four years since its inception, the company has gained 250,000 paying subscribers, and its top 10 newsletters alone generate $7 million in revenue per year for the company. The company wooed popular journalists away from traditional platforms. Media critics are somewhat obsessed with Substack’s rise and particularly criticize its secrecy about advancements, as the company doesn’t reveal which of its authors have been offered offers. Some observers have accused Substack of giving a platform to what they consider hate speech. Writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle accused the company of making large advances to “people who actively hate trans people and women, fight endlessly against our civil rights and, in many cases, have a public history of direct and vicious abuse of trans people and/or cis women in their industry. New York Times editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell questioned whether the proliferation of bulletin news was “bad for democracy”.

There’s a less frequently discussed way Substack could actually endanger democracy: It’s become a conduit for public misinformation during a historic pandemic. Indeed, my search for Substack returned dozens of newsletters that suggested that vaccines and masks were ineffective and dangerous, and that “the media” had exaggerated the harms of COVID-19. Many newsletters I found insisted that the government was suppressing evidence in favor of treatments that scientists have shown to be ineffective, such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Other Substack newsletters have made similar claims about unproven supplements and other fringe remedies.

Simply enter the term “COVID” into Substack’s search bar to find a wide variety of newsletters to browse. Some are by leading epidemiologists and other medical experts offering insight into public health issues in the national conversation. But among these evidence-based offerings are a whole host of newsletters that make false claims about masks, vaccines, and data.

The examples I found of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation on Substack were too numerous to list here, but a few, each with thousands of followers, stood out. In a titled Unmasked, an anonymous writer claims masks are ineffective and calls the CDC guidelines a “shameful debacle.” Matthew Crawford, owner of a newsletter called “Rounding the Earth”, regularly publishes articles on the virtues of discredited treatments like ivermectin and the supposed dangers of vaccines. He was “concerned,” he wrote, that vaccines are “killing and crippling more people than they save, and that billions of people are being used as guinea pigs in what is at best an experiment and at worst a reorganization of world power”. .” In a July newsletter, he welcomed new readers and noted that a recent article had been read by 30,000 people.

Perhaps the most alarming article I found on Substack was “Take Control of Your Health,” a newsletter written by an osteopathic doctor and famous anti-vaccine fanatic named Dr. Joseph Mercola. Mercola’s model of vaccine misinformation is well known; he was the subject of a New York Times profile and listed among the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “misinformation dozen.” One of Mercola’s recent Substack newsletters is titled “The type of fat you eat affects your risk of COVID;” another claims that “more than 200,000 have already died from jab COVID in the United States.” (Of course, neither is true.) Many Mercola newsletters tout the supposed benefits of supplements and other alternative remedies for preventing or treating COVID. part of his The sub-stack page is called “prohibited items”; in one such post, Mercola wrote, “We were forced to remove all of the hydrogen peroxide videos I previously posted for liability reasons, but thankfully they are all now posted here.”

Substack’s content guidelines prohibit “harmful” activity, but they don’t explicitly prohibit users from spreading misinformation, or caution them against promoting conspiracy theories about vaccines or COVID-19. In response to a request for comment from Mother Jones, a company spokesperson said that although the company has not offered any advances to users who promote misinformation, the company errs “on the side of free press and free speech, even for those we don’t approve of or disagree with” and that “being skeptical, controversial or even untrue is not against our Terms of Service. When I reported misinformation on Other platforms, such as Facebook and a popular app for churches, lawyers told me these companies aren’t legally responsible for content promoted by their users. harboring misinformation. As Dorit Reiss, a lawyer and professor who studies vaccines and law at the University of California-Hastings College of Law, put it: “If they mean it when they say that they won’t get used to promoting misinformation that puts people at risk, so they probably have a responsibility to do what they can.

I’ve written about the COVID-19 misinformation scam before. Oftentimes, I see it misinterpreted as a side-hustle: old-fashioned snake oil salesmen making a quick buck on the gullible. That’s part of it, of course, but the problem is bigger than that – by a lot. Companies that facilitate the spread of conspiracy theories are also included. It’s not just Substack users who profit from misinformation in their newsletters; the company itself also makes money on these accounts. The pandemic has been very good for the misinformation economy, which is buzzing, in part because powerful corporations are taking advantage of it.

This piece has been updated with a statement from a company spokesperson.

Harry L. Blanchard