At the Intersection of Free Markets and Free Speech
Elon Musk has bought Twitter, and now promises to protect free speech on the platform. Naturally, this prompted a slew of celebrities to proclaim they are leaving Twitter because they claim free speech is dead on the platform. Apparently, they are now gravitating towards platforms like Mastodon and Discord (though, there’s doubt this will last). Before this, of course, people from different political leanings had their issues with the direction of Twitter, so they went to outlets like Parler.
It seems like regardless of who is running the platform, one side of the aisle or the other is unhappy with the direction, prompting alternating calls for government to come in and do something about the “death of free speech”. Yet the fact that there are so many platforms ready to take the exiles from the larger tech companies shows free speech is not threatened—and that’s because of a free market.
The Story of Substack
Over the last few years, when political strife seemed to escalate, Substack, a newsletter platform, grew to prominence as an alternative source of news and commentary outside the mainstream media. Substack makes it simple for anyone to start their own publication. It gained its reputation when writers like Bari Weiss, who now runs Common Sense, left the New York Times over the direction of the legacy outlet. There’s also Andrew Sullivan, who left New York Magazine for the same censorship concerns and restarted his newsletter, The Weekly Dish. Other independent thinkers and writers like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald started their publications for the same reason, and now have a large following. Each of these writers have profitable and influential publications that present a range of divergent viewpoints. There are also thousands of lesser-known writers, each with their own audiences and viewpoints ranging across the political, economic, and religious spectrum. Total paid subscriptions on Substack for the thousands of independent newsletters is over a million.
One of the things that makes Substack unique is the ability for writers to interact directly with readers, without fear of being censored by higher ups. It promises independence for writers within their own publications.
With the popularity of Substack, there was talk that Twitter would buy them (pre-Musk). Substack declined. Then, due to Substack’s success, several new newsletter platforms began to spring up from the larger tech companies like Twitter, LinkedIn, Axios, and Forbes. Another one of them was Facebook’s Bulletin. Facebook, to compete with Substack, brought in Malcolm Gladwell, Mitch Albom, and Nobel Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai. Surely, with such writers and the resources Facebook has they would’ve eventually beat Substack. They didn’t. Substack has grown, and Facebook recently announced they would be shutting down Bulletin as it didn’t have the success they hoped.
The reason for this discursive history is to highlight one small chain in the market’s reaction that occurred when free speech was threatened. The story of Substack shows two things:
- In a free market, the larger technology companies and mainstream media outlets don’t have a monopoly on speech.
- A free market protects free speech.
At peak public concern over censorship within private companies, Substack, a private company, started and billed itself as the place for independent writers to quickly set up a publication and take their points of view to the masses. They now have a thriving business.
The former head of communications at Substack, Lulu Cheng Meservey, once tweeted, “Substack is hiring! If you’re a Twitter employee who’s considering resigning because you’re worried about Elon Musk pushing for less regulated speech… please do not come work here.”
But, maybe one day, if Substack begins to moderate their user content (which seems unlikely), other companies will happily fill that void, allowing them to profit and free speech to flourish.
And the government should stay out of all of this.
That’s how a free market protects free speech. Again, we shouldn’t ask government to regulate content at the larger tech companies. They shouldn’t craft policies for those companies that will inevitably filter to smaller operations. It’s better to know the Substacks and Mastodons and Parlers of the world can freely form and not have to comply with prior precedents.
Instead, when governments and private businesses attempt to control narratives, let’s let the market correct them. Not the government.