Spotify has a much bigger problem than Joe Rogan.
The streaming service has been in damage control mode, trying to quell the outcry over COVID-19 misinformation spread by Rogan, the wildly popular podcast host. Earlier this week, Spotify released its internal rules prohibiting “dangerous content,” and said it will attach an advisory to any podcast that discusses the pandemic, directing listeners to a new COVID-19 informational hub.
But despite these moves, CEO Daniel Ek also suggested this is a free speech issue. He stressed that Spotify doesn’t want to become a “content censor” and that he is committed to “supporting creator expression.”
That’s where his trouble starts. He is hiding behind the same argument that platforms like Facebook and Google make—that Spotify is a platform that distributes content created by others, but isn’t really responsible for that content. That’s a dubious proposition for Facebook and Google—and it’s completely nonsensical when it comes to Spotify.
Spotify isn’t some sort neutral conduit. It isn’t just a tool that podcasters use to upload their work. It’s a publisher. It makes intentional choices about the content it disseminates, especially when it comes to Rogan. This is a crucial distinction. Spotify paid Rogan a reported $100 million for exclusive rights to his podcast. He is the streaming service’s biggest star, its calling card, its billboard name. Rogan is Spotify. There’s no daylight in between the two. For Spotify to maintain that it’s not responsible for what comes out of his mouth, or that somehow it’s too difficult to moderate their content, is ludicrous.
I’ve spent my career in publishing, including as editor in chief of USA Today. Anybody in my field would be out of a job if we knowingly published nonsense and then disavowed any responsibility for it. We would be liable if we intentionally published false information. My role was always to ensure that the news we published was accurate and fair. When sources pushed falsehoods, our responsibility was to challenge them and to report the facts—not to hand them the microphone and turn up the volume.
Spotify is in a similar position. The Rogan episode has thrown into high relief the question of whether it’s a “platform” that simply allows creators to spread content, or whether it is a media company, which has legal liability. The answer has implications not just for Spotify but for other digital platforms that have begun paying some content creators, including Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok. From my vantage point, the answer seems pretty clear. When you pay to acquire content, “you’re it.” You don’t get to have it both ways: you can’t both own it—and profit from it as Spotify does—yet not take responsibility for it.
This isn’t a First Amendment issue. I’m as fierce a defender as you will find of freedom of speech. Joe Rogan and his guests have the right to believe and say anything they’d like, without fear of government reprisal. But the Constitution doesn’t give them the right to spout misinformation on any platform they choose. Spotify, as a private company, gets to make its own rules, to make choices about what it allows and doesn’t on its own air. What it doesn’t get to do is set rules and then pretend it isn’t responsible for enforcing them.
Ek’s suggestion that moderating content would make Spotify a “censor” is especially egregious. It’s a straw man argument: nobody’s asking Spotify to be a censor, not even its harshest critics. They’re simply asking it to publish standards and uphold them. That’s not “censorship.” It’s fact checking.
The current controversy was kicked off a few weeks ago when more than 250 scientists and healthcare professionals wrote an open letter about Rogan’s podcast “promoting baseless conspiracy theories.” They were especially alarmed by a December podcast in which Dr. Robert Malone, who had already been banned from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 misinformation, declared that people who trust vaccines are victims of “mass formation psychosis.” Soon rockstar Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify, quickly followed by singer Joni Mitchell, while author Brene Brown paused her popular podcast.
Scrambling to undo the damage, Rogan took to Instagram to say, “If I pissed you off, I’m sorry,” and to promise he would try to “balance things out” with “more experts with differing opinions.” Spotify’s CEO Ek, meanwhile, put out his blog post, but conspicuously didn’t mention Rogan, suggesting there won’t be any repercussions for the podcaster.
What’s more, Spotify’s rules are so broad they likely wouldn’t make a difference in most of Rogan’s episodes anyway. Spotify says it bans “dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information,” for example, yet its definition of what constitutes “dangerous” (drinking bleach, claiming vaccines are “designed to cause death”) is so extreme that there’s plenty of wiggle room for less egregious but equally false information. The “advisory” that Spotify plans to append to podcasts mentioning COVID-19 is unlikely to help. Research has shown that warning labels don’t necessarily stop the spread of misinformation and in some cases may increase it.
It’s possible that the Rogan episode will continue to metastasize, especially if Spotify’s other major stars threaten to walk—fans have been calling for Taylor Swift to take a stand. But even if it dies down, as many Rogan controversies have before, it has already called attention to the other potentially problematic content Spotify carries. Anyone can add a podcast to Spotify; the company says it has 3.2 million of them. Most of those creators, unlike Rogan, aren’t paid by Spotify, and the company says it will remove content that violates its newly revealed guidelines.
That’s where the real lasting legacy of this affair may play out. Spotify says it bans any content that “incites violence or hatred” toward any person or group. Yet New Stateman writer Will Dunn, in a search of the site, easily found podcasts that celebrate white nationalism, Nazism, racism and homophobia, and that encourage vaccine hesitancy and climate change denial.
Rogan may be the most visible purveyor of misinformation. But what’s disturbing is, there’s a lot more where he came from. It’s time for Spotify to wake up and take responsibility, and finally act like the publisher it already is.
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