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31 January 2022

Spotify’s response to the Joe Rogan controversy is weak – but predictable

The platform is acting now because it has to, and its action is negligible.

By Sarah Manavis

Does Spotify have a Joe Rogan problem? Or is Joe Rogan the solution to Spotify’s problem? Until recently, many would have thought the latter: the American presenter of the The Joe Rogan Experience was one of Spotify’s most successful podcasters in the US and the UK, drawing in 11 million listeners per episode. Rogan showed not just how Spotify could make money through podcasting, but how podcasters could find their greatest audience on the platform. Spotify reportedly offered the comedian a $100m exclusivity deal in 2020.

But, of course, that was before the rock legend Neil Young said that Spotify had to choose between hosting his music or hosting Rogan, after the latter allowed (not for the first time) Covid-19 vaccine sceptics to appear on his podcast . Young called Spotify “the home of life-threatening Covid misinformation” and removed his content from the platform. Other artists, including Joni Mitchell, did the same. Spotify has since faced further scrutiny for the many misinformation-laden podcasts it hosts

In a statement on Spotify’s website, the company’s CEO, Daniel Ek, said, in response to the backlash, that Spotify would now share its “long-standing Platform Rules”. He said that the company would start promoting these rules to creators “to raise awareness around what’s acceptable and help creators understand their accountability” for what they publish. Ek also announced that Spotify is “working to add a content advisory” notice to podcasts that discuss Covid-19, which would direct listeners to Spotify’s “Covid-19 Hub” – primarily a landing page for podcasts about the pandemic and vaccines.

On the surface, this looks like a weak approach to dealing with a problem that has existed for years: it is hard to imagine someone being thrown off the anti-vax pathway after simply being directed to a podcast on vaccine history by the Economist. But a closer look at the Platform Rules proves it to be even weaker. The rules are entirely non-committal: creators should merely “avoid” content that promotes dangerous information. There are limited repercussions listed for breaking these rules: yes, it “may result” in the content being removed or accounts being suspended, but there are no clear red lines. Spotify keeps “context in mind” when deciding what steps to take.

While it is more difficult to scan audio content for misinformation than the written content of many social media platforms, Spotify’s response is too little, too late. We are more than two years into the pandemic, and misinformation has been a problem on Spotify for the better part of a decade. Rogan’s podcast has long been synonymous with it. Spotify is acting now because it has to, and its action is negligible. 

But for all Spotify’s sins, this isn’t just a Spotify problem. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube didn’t simply discover on 6 January 2021 that Donald Trump’s accounts were having a corrosive effect on society. Spotify’s spineless, fluffy “rules” are surely built to protect the profit it makes off creators such as Rogan, but most major platforms have similarly bendable rules. (One publisher that has benefited from Spotify dominating headlines is Substack, after a report that it makes $2.5m per year from hosting anti-vax newsletters attracted little attention.) Spotify’s Covid-19 Hub may be laughable, but you won’t find much better on Twitter or Instagram.

Spotify shouldn’t get away with its feeble response to hosting one of the US’s most influential vaccine sceptics. But history says it will, just as other tech platforms have survived even greater storms with equally insubstantial responses. Joe Rogan may be posing a PR problem for Spotify now, but based on the platform’s apparent eagerness to keep him, it’s only a small one – especially when compared to the amount of money he makes for it.

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