Why Spotify picked Joe Rogan over Neil Young in its misinformation fight
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many popular digital content platforms have adopted “misinformation” policies to limit users from sharing inaccurate or misleading information like hyping unproven treatments or making wild accusations about federally approved vaccines.
Some platforms’ policies specifically address the virus: Twitter users, for example, can’t “share false or misleading information about COVID-19 which may lead to harm.” Other policies are more generic, but can be applied to COVID-19, such as Apple Podcasts’ restriction on content “that may lead to harmful or dangerous outcomes.”
Then there’s Spotify. The Swedish music and podcast streaming giant has previously told news outlets that it bans “false or dangerous deceptive content about COVID-19, which may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.”
But unlike its peers, no such policy is listed in the company’s user guidelines or its summaries of prohibited content — which is notable given the controversies surrounding the company’s top podcast show, “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
For the last two weeks, Spotify has faced mounting public pressure to explain its position on misinformation policies and whether they apply to the platform’s hugely popular podcast personality Rogan, who has repeatedly drawn headlines and public criticism for questioning COVID-19 medical orthodoxy and for featuring guests who have been banned from other platforms for violating health information guidelines.
The controversy hit a new peak Wednesday, with news that Neil Young was pulling his music from the streaming service over his concerns about COVID-19 misinformation on Rogan’s podcast.
“I sincerely hope that other artists and record companies will move off the SPOTIFY platform and stop supporting SPOTIFY’s deadline misinformation about COVID,” Young said in a statement posted on his website.
“We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users,” Spotify said in a statement after the news was first reported in the Wall Street Journal. “With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators. We have detailed content policies in place and we’ve removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID since the start of the pandemic. We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon.”
Spotify representatives have otherwise declined to comment about Rogan and its content-moderation practices since a group of more than 200 medical professionals, academics and others sent a Jan. 10 open letter demanding the service “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform,” likening Rogan’s most controversial episodes to “mass-misinformation events” of “devastating proportions” that provoke “distrust in science and medicine.”
Young backed them up Monday with his own ultimatum to Spotify, urging the company to stop “spreading fake information.”
“I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform,” Young wrote in a since-deleted open letter to his management team and record label, according to Rolling Stone. “They can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both.”
Spotify’s strained balancing act — does it believe it must combat misinformation or does it believe in unfettered debate? — is characteristic of the awkwardness of the Rogan era at the company, which began in 2020 with an exclusive distribution agreement said to be worth about $100 million.
The landmark licensing deal was part of a broader shift in Spotify’s growth strategy, which included acquisitions of Gimlet Media (the makers of the popular “Homecoming” podcast), Anchor FM Inc., Parcast, and the podcast network the Ringer. Spotify later inked exclusive podcast deals with Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, and influencers like Lele Pons.
But with growth comes responsibilities. Many media companies either have to decide what kind of vision to put forward for professional editorial content — which is often edited before publication — or how to fairly moderate the content that users put on its services. Spotify’s expansion strategy has given it the unusually complex burden of wrestling with both challenges at a time when digital platforms and traditional media companies alike have faced increasing calls to limit the spread of potentially harmful content about COVID-19, elections and other issues.
And Rogan, whose brand is built partly on a willingness to interview controversial guests who get banned from other platforms for violating user content rules, manages to combine both challenges into a single program, which Spotify has been reluctant to either censor or publicly defend.