Technology

Critics slam Spotify for using ‘Facebook playbook’ on Joe Rogan controversy

Spotify’s response to COVID-19 misinformation on Joe Rogan’s highly popular podcast has critics singing a familiar tune: Simply warning users about problematic content is not enough.

The streaming service’s decision not to remove “The Joe Rogan Experience” in the wake of false and misleading claims places it in the middle of a moderation battle that social media giants have been fighting for years.

“It’s nice to welcome Spotify to the table, but unless they come up with a policy that also has a clear enforcement mechanism for when somebody repeatedly breaks that policy. It’s not enough — it’s basically meaningless,” said Bridget Todd, director of communications at UltraViolet.

Spotify is using what Syracuse University associate professor Jennifer Grygiel called the “Facebook playbook” — distancing itself from the responsibility to moderate content it distributes. 

“We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users,” Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said in a statement Sunday. “In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

But the streaming service’s business model is entirely different from the social media company’s, Grygiel said. 

Unlike on platforms owned by Meta, including Facebook and Instagram, there are barriers to entry for content creators to appear on Spotify, which Grygiel says undermines its attempt to use the same defense as social media sites that let any user create an account and post content for free. 

Critics say Spotify’s position is especially weak on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which it bought the exclusive rights to host in a deal reported to be worth more than $100 million. 

“This is a massive public health challenge, and part of the reason that infection rates remain so high is because of the volume of disinformation out there — promoting false cures, undermining confidence in vaccines, undermining confidence about masks and so forth,” said Aram Sinnreich, chair of communications studies at American University. 

“And so there’s a real direct causal line between the kind of content that Rogan puts on his podcast and the continuing toll of COVID-related deaths in the American public. And as his exclusive distributor, having paid $100 million dollars, Spotify bears some direct responsibility for that,” Sinnreich added. 

A spokesperson for Spotify did not respond to a request for comment in response to the criticism.

Rogan has repeatedly made comments on his podcast questioning the efficacy and necessity of COVID-19 vaccines — and hosted guests who’ve done the same.

His episode hosting Robert Malone, a medical doctor suspended from Twitter for posting false information about the coronavirus, in particular sparked an open letter to Spotify from doctors and health care professionals urging it to “take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform.”

The backlash snowballed after musician Neil Young threatened to pull his music from Spotify if they continued to host Rogan. Ultimately, he followed through removing his catalog of music from the platform after it sided with Rogan. 

Others followed, with Joni Mitchell saying she, too, would be pulling her music from Spotify. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who also produce and host podcasts on Spotify, expressed concerns about COVID-19 misinformation to the company.

And author Brené Brown said she would not be releasing any podcasts “until further notice.”

Spotify did not specifically name Rogan, but in his statement Ek said the company would begin adding content advisories to any podcast episode that “includes a discussion about COVID-19” and link listeners to a “hub” with “data-driven facts” and “up-to-date information.” 

That mirrors actions taken by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which have added links to their respective information hubs in labeled content. 

Despite widespread use among tech companies, labels and links to information hubs haven’t been proven to actually curb misinformation, said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab. 

“It doesn’t seem to meaningfully change how many people consume content, in fact, in certain demographics it increases the number of people who consume it, because adding an advisory to content makes it edgier; it makes it more interesting. Adding links to neutral information centers also have very little effect on the number of people who consume the content,” Brooking said. 

Todd, of the advocacy group UltraViolet, said Spotify needs to create a misinformation policy that is “clearly enforced and enforceable.” 

“I’m not certain that every episode of Rogan’s podcast, even though I am no big fan of him, would necessarily break that policy. But starting off with a place of having a policy and then making sure that episodes of any podcast that break those policies [are] not just going to be able to stay on the platform,” she said. 

Spotify on Sunday posted its platform rules for the first time publicly. They state that breaking the rules “may result in the violative content being removed from Spotify,” but don’t further detail how those decisions are made. 

Rogan himself addressed the controversy in an Instagram video, saying he supports the decision to have a disclaimer ahead of a “controversial podcast,” but defending his decision to host guests accused of spreading misinformation, including Malone. 

“I’m interested in finding out what the truth is. And I’m interested in having interesting conversations with people that have differing opinions. I’m not interested in only talking to people that have one perspective,” he said. 

Rogan also said he is open to having “more experts with differing opinions” on “right after I have the controversial ones.” 

But his on-the-fly, conversational format “often gives equal weight to really abhorrent ideas,” Brooking said. 

“And those tend to be the ones that some of his listeners run away with,” he said. 

Ultimately, Brooking said, Rogan should not be on Spotify 

“I think that the things that Rogan amplifies are harmful, and I think that Spotify has contributed to that harm,” he said. 

Sinnreich said Rogan and Spotify’s pledges to have “more ‘balance’ in the perspectives that are represented” is not an effective way to combat misinformation, either. 

“This is what media scholars refer to as a fallacious form of bias, the balance bias. The notion is that you can somehow make everything OK if you tell a dangerous lie but you also tell the truth to counterbalance it. And of course, that’s not really the way that the world works,” said Sinnreich, who published a blog post detailing his personal decision to stop using the streaming service. 

While other customers may follow, and the celebrity boycotts led to a $2 billion market value loss, ultimately Spotify’s business model is increasingly reliant on podcasts. Unlike music, which is expensive to license, podcasts allow Spotify to pay an upfront sum for a “massive library of content,” Sinnreich said. 

If artists continue to follow in Young’s footsteps, with each protest on the platform there will be a smaller and smaller impact, he said. 

“There’s a law of diminishing returns with kind of public relations-based persuasion,” he said. “Whereas the value of investing in podcasts for Spotify will only continue to grow. So over the long term there’s not a persuasive financial rationale for the company to erase disinformation content. It has to be a decision that’s made out of concern for the American people.”

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus misinformation coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 misinformation daniel ek Facebook Joe Rogan META misinformation Neil Yong Podcasts Prince Harry Spotify The Joe Rogan Experience Twitter ultraviolet

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