Why free-speech platforms all end up moderating content

Alex Kantrowitz wrote a great article about how new platforms (such as Substack) plan to maintain their free-speech promises now that established platforms (such as Twitter) are abandoning them in favor of cleaning house. What happens if Nazis decide that Substack is their new roost? What happens to its current stars if Substack becomes a Nazi bar and panics?

Some have criticized [established] platforms for leaving up too much objectionable content. Others have called the platforms censors, arguing they take down too much …

Substack would do well to have some infrastructure built for the eventuality of a content moderation crisis. Currently, the company has no policy team, and its founders run its content moderation efforts, according to Best. It shows. In light of recent events at the Capitol, I emailed Best to ask how he felt about a top-performing Substack newsletter that questioned the election results. Rather than engage, Best fell back on a corporatism. "As a rule we don't comment on moderation decisions," he said.

It is impossible for private platforms to guarantee users' free speech. This is because corporations have shallow priorities and deep vulnerabilities.

Substack will do better at keeping its promise, perhaps, because it can benefit from the experiences of other companies, and has already shown itself capable of more consistency and transparency. Like Spotify, it might invest so much in a specific risk that managing that investment overwhelms other concerns. But in the long run, the game is rigged. Everone has to abridge free-speech policies in the face of pressures they cannot resist: legal, financial, public-relational, and political.

This isn't a criticism of Substack (or anyone else's) intentions. It's just a recognition of the inevitable. Substack has excellent management and a principled operational philosophy that frees it from the advertising media model, but it's still a cash-burning startup funded by venture capitalists who are in it for the money. It is raised by wolves, will likely end up sold to a media conglomerate or to the public, and cannot escape its own ecology. Free speech is an attractive product feature, but the market has other interests and shareholders have other priorities.

Consider the enemies the new platforms haven't faced, yet, such as well-funded lawfare and the kind of tabloid-driven obscenity scandals that helped kill Reddit's original free-speech aspirations. Anyone remember when ViolentAcrez was "The Biggest Troll on the Web"?

The thing most-rarely recognized in the discourse of moderation is that policy faces outwards from the get-go.

When a platform is small—such as a specialist forum or a blogger's comments—moderation is easy, so the incentive is to enforce strong positions one way or another and honor them in song.

When a platform is growing, moderation becomes hard, so the incentive is to adopt and rhapsodize the virtues of free speech.

When a business matures, moderation is a predictable expense whose cost fluctuates relative to all the unpredictable expenses. At this point, the incentives become turbulent and what is said and done about speech becomes reactive, arbitrary and incoherent.

Another way of putting this is that everything said about speech by corporations is flotsam bobbing on the unseen riptides of private reality. At the end, even Parler boasted about censoring its worst users in an effort to save its hide. Ethical consumption under capitalism is always on sale.