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TAYO FACT CHECK: Misleading Newsletters on Substack Target Filipino Communities

TAYO FACT CHECK: Misleading Newsletters on Substack Target Filipino Communities

Since its inception in 2017, Substack, an email newsletter platform, has offered journalists and writers a free space to present their ideas and have complete control of their content, including the ability to monetize what they write with paid subscriptions to readers.

Substack debuted with much excitement and fanfare as it removed the traditional constraints journalists often encounter daily: editors slashing work, limiting page views and word counts. As Forbes put it, Substack has given writers “creative, editorial, as well as financial freedom.”

Substack authors may either offer their writing for free or charge readers to access it. Subjects can cover just about anything under the sun, but Substack does impose certain restrictions on content, including: 

  • Hate 
  • Private information 
  • Plagiarism
  • Impersonation
  • Harmful and illegal activities
  • Spam and phishing
  • Marketing and promotion
  • Nudity, porn, erotica

According to Axios, the platform had grown to more than 17,000 paid writers by 2023. However, as Substack has expanded, some of the content it hosts has strayed far beyond the company’s own guidelines and at times even the basic rules of journalistic ethics. An entire ecosystem of mis- and disinformation content, including white supremacist, anti-COVID-19 vaccine, neo-Confederate, and explicitly Nazi-themed newsletters, has proliferated on the platform. Almost all of these newsletters have content that can be accessed for free. 

Substack drew criticism after Jonathan M. Katz published an article in The Atlantic titled “Substack Has a Nazi Problem” in November 2023, which reported that 16 newsletters contained “overt Nazi symbols, including the swastika and the sonnenrad, in their logos or in prominent graphics.” Katz also found that the platform was not only hosting these types of newsletters, but also making a profit from them. 

According to an article in Rolling Stone, in that same month, more than 200 Substack writers, including Casey Newton, one of the platform's most prominent writers, wrote an open letter to Substack’s founders asking the company to explain its stance on said newsletters. There was an initial refusal from Substack to remove accounts that endorsed Nazi ideology, but eventually they removed six.  Newton soon cut ties with the platform “over its decision not to moderate praise for Nazis and pro-Holocaust material,” the Washington Post reported.

Tayo has reached out to Substack on the matter but has not yet received a reply. Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie responded to the criticism  in a blog post last December, which, in essence, kept to the company line of mostly taking a hands off approach to its content, saying, in part: “We don’t think that censorship (including through demonetizing publications) makes the problem go away—in fact, it makes it worse.

“We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power. We are committed to upholding and protecting freedom of expression, even when it hurts.

“We will stick to our decentralized approach to content moderation, which gives power to readers and writers.”

In Tayo’s quest to help promote greater understanding of the media landscape among Filipino Americans, our research has found that Substack also contains several newsletters promoting content that purports to benefit Filipinos, but instead trafficks in pernicious conspiracy theories(defined as using varied and sometimes unrelated facts to form a theory that asserts a secret of great importance is being kept from the public.)

One such publication that Tayo has been aware of since 2023 is this newsletter which, according to the account’s biography, covers “‘Health and Wellness,” noting that, “Currently reporting is mostly focused on the Covid-19 scene in the Philippines, with occasional Australia-related posts.” There is no information about where the author is located or where they are from, but the profile picture displays an image of a Caucasian woman. From May 2023 to March 2024 the newsletter’s followers doubled from 1,000 subscribers to 2,000, with subscriptions costing $60 a month. 

What misleading claims are promoted? 

This newsletter discusses topics mostly related to the novel coronavirus and the various vaccines rolled out during the pandemic; the Philippine government’s COVID-19 response; as well as other public health related topics relevant to Philippine audiences. The author also occasionally writes about the disputed maritime claims between the Philippines and China, along with a sprinkling of items related to domestic Philippine politics. 

The author’s claims about COVID-19 vaccines are extremely provocative, implying that they are dangerous, are leading to scores of untimely deaths, and that the Philippine government is knowingly covering up the issue. While much of what the author publishes is clearly opinion, the material is presented in a way that portrays often sensationalistic claims as fact, using decontextualized charts and data lifted from government websites for supporting evidence. 

In a post dated March 21, 2024, the author recounts the story of a well known Filipino doctor, Gia Sison, who died of a sudden cardiac arrest earlier that day at the age of 53. In reporting on her passing, GMA News Online revealed that Gia’s husband, Dr. Rogin Sison, had informed the outlet that his wife died of pulmonary embolism and heart failure.

The author, however, has other ideas about what caused the untimely death of the prominent advocate for breast cancer and mental health awareness.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer mourned the death of Dr. Sison in March, 2024

After linking to the GMA News account of Dr. Sison’s fatal heart attack, the writer cited a recent photo shared by the late physician on Twitter (X) showing her lying in a hospital bed and smiling. In that widely disseminated post, Dr. Sison relates how just a few weeks earlier she had suffered an episode of “sudden cardiac death,” wherein she actually died for six seconds but then came back to life. Following that, two other social media posts by Dr. Sison from 2021 promoting the then-recently released COVID-19 vaccines are displayed, one of which documents her receiving a shot. Here is Dr. Sison's X post after receiving her first dose:

Quite predictably, the author then draws the unsubstantiated conclusion that Dr. Sison’s untimely death was attributable to COVID-19 vaccination, offering no actual proof of causation, only opining that she was too young to have died under such circumstances.

 “She surely was a good person,” the author exclaims, continuing:

"My age. In the peak of her professional and personal life! Doing what she believed in! She is not the typical age to have cardiac issues; still too young for that, or would have been too young in pre-covid-19 vaccine years.

"I really contemplate why did she believe when I didn’t and couldn’t. Why did she trust and promote, while I has [sic] the very opposite reaction of extreme distrust? So extreme that I had to reject the interventions regardless of considerable personal costs, which was probably life-saving for me. Sadly Gia Sison is now gone. I live on to fight for our children and our future!"

This line of sensationalistic commentary is an ongoing pattern, reaching back at least to the March 31, 2023 article, “11 Sudden Deaths Philippines Jan - March 2023; Compilation of Published Sudden Deaths,” which discusses a series of separate and unrelated deaths over the previous three month period. 

One item features the story of a 49-year-old Davao swimming instructor who had recently died of a heart attack while competing in the swim leg of a local triathlon. Below the local news excerpt reporting on his death is a screenshot of the deceased’s Facebook profile picture indicating that he received his COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.

Another news report cited involves the death of a well-known carinderia owner in Sampaloc, Manila, a 57-year old-woman who went to bed on March 7 and never woke up. The author notes, “There was no warning that she was unwell prior to her tragic and unexpected passing.”

After Boybits Victoria's death, the newsletter author grabbed photos from the late PBA player's social media pages showing him receiving doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The not-so-subtle inference? The unverified claim that shots caused his death.

The author then moves on to the case of 50-year-old former basketball player Boybits Victoria, who suddenly died of a heart attack on March 1, 2023. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, years before his death, Victoria had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder in 2018. Directly below the article excerpt, however, the author displays a photo Victoria posted to social media showing him holding up a sign saying, “I GOT MY BOOSTER.” The inference, of course, is that the former PBA player died from taking the COVID-19 vaccine.

For all of the deaths cited, no evidence that they resulted from COVID-19 vaccination is ever presented. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop the author from making that very conclusion. 

An earlier entry from October 13, 2023 vividly reveals how the newsletter author manipulates data to imply that COVID-19 vaccination has been resulting in mass fatalities.

The author reprints a chart from the Philippine Statistics Authority showing that deaths in the Philippines increased by 320,000 people during 2021 and 2022, a dramatic rise compared to figures from 2019. Conveniently ignoring the impact of the global pandemic itself where deaths in all countries had risen at the time, the author concludes that those deaths were instead prematurely caused by vaccination, offering no other proof to support this claim.

“Please observe, all excess deaths started in March 2021, or later,” the author writes. “Most regions show two distinct death spikes. Could this tally with first the rollouts to healthcare workers, front liners and the elderly, and second to the general population rollouts? . . . When will the population speak out? Everyone already knows someone (or even many people) who has died unexpectedly! Most of the people I talk to already associate the covid-19 vaccines with the deaths and illnesses that they are observing!”

The author uses data from the Philippine Statistics Authority to claim excess deaths in 2021 were the result of COVID-19 vaccinations.

In actuality, the Philippine Statistics Authority points out the clearly visible trend in the data. “In 2022, a total of 679,766 deaths were registered in the Philippines, a decrease of 22.7 percent from 879,429 in 2021,” the PSA found in a February 2024 report.

It should be noted that Substack still has a lot of very serious and well written content. Public health issues are especially widely covered and written about by notable doctors and health professionals offering valuable insights on timely and urgent topics. However, readers need to be aware that writers peddling false or misleading information have found a space on the platform and would be wise to seek out independent verification of sensationalistic claims. 


  1. Falon Fatemi, “The Rise Of Substack—And What's Behind It,” Forbes, January 20, 2021
  2. Sam Fischer, “Substack invites newsletter writers to invest,” Axios, March 28, 2023.
  3. Jonathan M. Katz, “Substack Has a Nazi Problem,” The Atlantic, November 28, 2023.
  4. Charisma Madarang, “Substack Loses Major Newsletter Platformer Over Nazi Content,” Rolling Stone, January 12, 2024.
  5. Molly White, “Substackers Against Nazis,” Citation Needed, December 15, 2023.
  6. William Oremus & Taylor Lorenz, “Substack wanted to be neutral. Its tolerance of Nazis proved divisive, Washington Post, January 24, 2024.
  7. Jade Veronique Yap, Gia Sison, doctor and mental health advocate, passes away,” GMA News, March 21, 2024.
  8. Claire Dennis S. Mapa, “Registered Deaths in the Philippines, 2022,” Philippine Statistics Authority, February 6, 2024.

For further reading on trusted Substack newsletters related to public health issues, please see the following:

Your Local Epidemiologist

Inside Medicine

Force Of Infection

This article was written and edited by the Tayo editorial desk and has been reviewed by an independent panel of subject matter experts.

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