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.”
Spotify isn’t new to controversy. Here’s a rundown of the music streamer’s history of feuds with artists and songwriters over royalties, privacy and more.
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 deadly 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.”
Young famously fought MTV at the height of the cable network’s power back in 1988.
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.
Spotify opens a downtown L.A. campus with 18 podcast studios as it expands its audio and video programming.
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.
Rogan has previously faced criticism for offensive or controversial comments about transgender people and other subjects. In an episode this month with the polarizing Canadian author Jordan Peterson, Rogan talks about skin color and says “unless you are talking to someone who is like 100% African from the darkest place where they are not wearing any clothes all day ... the term Black is weird.” In an April episode, he suggested that healthy younger people shouldn’t get vaccinated, drawing a rebuke from top federal U.S. virus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said Rogan was “incorrect.”
“If we’re thinking about Spotify five years ago, it was just a hosting service for audio,” said Natascha Chtena, editor in chief of the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, which studies platforms and misinformation policies. “Four years ago, Spotify could say, ‘Well, you know, we’re just hosting this content.’ Now you can’t make that argument anymore because you’re paying Joe Rogan’s salary.”
The latest controversy erupted over Rogan’s December interview with Robert Malone, a scientist and widely criticized mRNA vaccine skeptic who has been banned from tweeting after running afoul of Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation policies. Malone was one of the speakers at a Sunday rally in Washington, D.C., to protest vaccine mandates, where he said of vaccines: “The science is settled. They’re not working.” (Data shows vaccines have been immensely successful at limiting hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.)
In the three-hour episode hosted exclusively on Spotify, Malone makes a wide variety of medical claims to Rogan about vaccines and other issues, including that “a third of the population” have “become hypnotized” through “mass formation psychosis” as if in Nazi Germany and “totally wrapped up in whatever Fauci in the mainstream media feeds them.”
Although the episode remains online, Spotify has enforced COVID-19 rules against other, lower-profile figures.
“There was no warning at all,” Australian chef and podcast host Pete Evans wrote in an email to The Times about Spotify’s decision to remove his show from the platform in January 2021 for COVID-19 misinformation. Evans has also been banned from Facebook and Instagram, whose anti-misinformation policies are public.
Rogan has repeatedly said that Spotify has not tried to police his content.
“You’ve probably talked about more stuff that’s controversial the last three months than you did when you were just on YouTube,” another podcast host who has interviewed Malone, Patrick Bet-David, told Rogan during a Sept. 23, 2021, episode.
“That’s just because the world has gotten more controversial, I’ve changed nothing,” Rogan replied. “Spotify has asked me to change nothing. They’ve never — they’ve been amazing. I’m very happy with them, I’m very happy. Especially when you tell me things like interviews that you do get removed off YouTube. That’s not happening to me.”
Spotify has worked on nearly two dozen original or exclusive podcasts with social media influencers over the past year, as it aims to grow its reach in podcasting.
Details of Rogan’s deal aren’t publicly known, including, for instance, whether Spotify is allowed to edit or withhold Rogan’s shows, or whether Rogan is contractually obligated to follow the kinds of rules placed on other Spotify users who didn’t bargain their own agreements. When Rogan moved to Spotify in 2020, the company said he would “maintain full creative control over the show,” and Rogan said on Instagram that “it will be the exact same show.”
Spotify has previously faced blowback over its 2018 rollout of a “hate content” policy that resulted in confusion over music by R. Kelly and other artists being pulled from the platform. Spotify Chief Executive Daniel Ek said at a Code Conference that “we rolled this out wrong and we could have done a much better job.”
Since the pandemic began, many internet platforms have adopted content-moderation policies to limit COVID-19 misinformation from being seen by millions of users. In October, Spotify chief content and advertising business officer Dawn Ostroff said at a Fortune summit that the company was making “very aggressive moves ... to invest in not only the R&D side of content moderation but also in our teams for trust and safety.”
Critics argue that platforms shouldn’t profit from spreading potentially harmful content.
“ It’s an economically motivated market for misinformation,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer for the Center for Countering Digital Hate in Washington. “There are a lot of people making bank off of B.S.”
Rogan himself has been highly critical of such “misinformation” policies, which has resulted in many often right-leaning internet personalities getting kicked off popular platforms.
“Tech clearly has a censorship agenda when it comes to COVID, in terms of treatment, in terms of whether or not you’re promoting what they would call ‘vaccine hesitancy,’” Rogan said in his episode with Malone. “They can ban you for that.”
Rogan also has leverage that other platform users don’t: Last year, “The Joe Rogan Experience” was the No. 1 podcast in the world on Spotify.
A few years ago, Spotify was virtually unknown as a podcast hub in the U.S.
Today, it outpaces Apple Podcasts, a pioneer in the space.
“When there’s an individual that is straddling that line and making controversial comments … controversy is good, because that is driving eyeballs,” said Marc Simon, an entertainment attorney at Fox Rothschild LLP who chairs the firm’s entertainment and sports law department.
While listeners have raised concerns about Rogan’s podcasts, many observers said they don’t think Spotify will take a strong stance against Rogan.
“Joe Rogan has a very strong, loyal following,” said Nadi Filsoof, a senior executive at representation firm Underscore Talent. Dropping Rogan “outweighs the risk based on the potential loss of dropping Neil Young.”
But that could change if “this turns into a movement and Neil Young recruits others to leave Spotify with him or people are inspired by him and other artists leave,” said Berna Barshay, an analyst at Empire Financial Research. “Then it could become a problem.”
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