Can Joe Rogan save free speech?
“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” That ultimatum from singing legend Neil Young to Spotify had a justifiable sense of certainty about the choice. After all, it is a variation of the type of threats used successfully against a host of companies to cancel speakers, writers and performers. Young was soon joined by Joni Mitchell and others in the “if-you-listen-to-him-you-can’t listen-to-me” demand. They are the latest to join a growing number of journalists, academics and artists in favor of censorship. Then something happened … or, more accurately, something did not happen.
Spotify told Young to take the freedom train off Spotify. It was sticking with Rogan and, perhaps secondarily, free speech.
For Spotify, the choice between Rogan’s 11 million listeners or an aging rocker was economically clear, even with other artists threatening to pull their music from the platform. The music side of Spotify is reportedly not making much revenue, but Rogan and podcasts are a cash machine. Spotify now has 365 million subscribers and its advertising revenues have doubled with the help of the podcast market. Revenue from podcasts is up a staggering 627 percent on Spotify.
However, even if the company was not motivated by its better angels, that may actually be better news for free speech.
The free-fall of free speech has largely been due to greed. Companies see no profit in defending dissenting viewpoints. Now, for the first time, the economics may have actually worked against censorship and for free speech. At least in this instance, to paraphrase “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good” for free speech.
The famous economist Arthur Cecil Pigou once explained that corporations are not “social” but market creatures moved by profits, not principles. No matter how “woke” many companies may appear, there is an economic calculation behind corporate action. Most companies yield to demands because it is wealth-maximizing. There was a calculation that woke statements or censorship policies would protect a company from protests while opposing customers would still want its product.
That calculation has been a disaster for free speech. The First Amendment only addresses the primary threat that existed in the 18th century against free speech: the government. It does not limit private companies, which have free speech rights like individuals. Activists and politicians used that blind spot to do indirectly what they could not do directly in censoring opposing viewpoints.
Democratic leaders, including President Biden, have encouraged companies to expand what they euphemistically call “content modification” to block dissenting views on vaccines, election integrity, global warming, gender identity and a range of other issues. Even the World Health Organization has embraced censorship campaigns to fight not the pandemic but the “infodemic.”
Censorship is in vogue. Prince Harry (who called the First Amendment “bonkers”) has supported Young in his quest to silence Rogan on Spotify. One’s commitment to a cause today is measured by one’s intolerance for opposing viewpoints.
As a result, social media companies and other corporations now regulate speech in the United States to a degree that an actual state media would struggle to replicate. Faced with a growing cancel culture, companies are scrubbing their platforms of dissenting viewpoints and converting forums into echo chambers.
In the use of private companies, the left has achieved an ignoble distinction. While liberal writers and artists were blacklisted and investigated in the 1950s, liberal activists have succeeded in censoring opposing views to a degree that would have made Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) blush. Rather than burn books, they have simply gotten stores to ban them or blacklist the authors.
But then they went after Rogan.
Rogan’s popularity is precisely due to the fact that he is uncensored in what he says. As many networks and newspapers have become more of an echo chamber, viewers and readers have fled en masse. Trust in the media has fallen to just 46 percent and as low as 40 percent in recent polling.
Where are people going for information? It seems many have gone to podcasts — and specifically to Joe Rogan, at least 11 million of them.
While Young reportedly relies on Spotify for 60 percent of his royalty income, Spotify does not rely on Young or other rock stars for its primary profits. It is the reverse of market conditions from just a couple years ago.
The problem with controlling speech is that it has to be complete; it doesn’t work if there are alternatives to echo-chambered media. Rogan’s podcast is one of the biggest. With 11 million listeners, he surpassed cable and network audiences as well as the readership of the largest papers. His program allows people across the political spectrum to speak freely, including those who question official positions on vaccines and treatments.
While Rogan has promised to be more careful in how information is presented on his show (and Spotify will add “advisories” on podcasts), his podcast survived the celebrity onslaught. As various investors seek to create free speech alternatives to Twitter and YouTube, there may be an emerging market for free speech products.
This is not the first failed effort to eliminate alternatives to mainstream media. Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney of California were widely criticized for a letter to cable carriers like AT&T asking why they are still allowing people to watch Fox News. (For the record, I appear as a Fox legal analyst). The two members of Congress stressed that “not all TV news sources are the same” and called the companies to account for their role in allowing such “dissemination.” Fox News has remained the most watched cable channel, topping even ESPN. That includes more primetime Democratic viewers of Fox than CNN.
Likewise, the effort of politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to protect readers from what she considers to be poor book choices has failed. Warren wants companies like Amazon to change algorithms to steer readers away from books that she deems unhealthy or untrue. The problem is that people are still finding sources for uncensored authors. Former New York Times author Alex Berenson hit the top of Amazon’s Kindle Store with his recent book critical of COVID science and policies.
This does not mean that Joe Rogan is the new Thomas Paine or that this small skirmish is a turning point in the war over free speech. Indeed, the campaign continues against Spotify. However, with the explosion of corporate censorship, free speech advocates have begun to look at figures like Rogan as “super survivors,” people who seem to have natural immunities protecting them from an otherwise lethal threat. If we can replicate those economic antibodies, we just might be able to develop a protection against censorship and the cancel culture.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.
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