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27 January 2022

Joe Rogan is far from the most controversial act on Spotify

Neil Young says he doesn’t want to share a platform with the podcaster. He could have picked plenty of other targets.

By Will Dunn

Spotify has removed Neil Young’s music from its platform this morning, apparently at Young’s request, after the singer stated he did not want to share a platform with the podcaster Joe Rogan, whom he accused of “spreading fake information against vaccines”.

Rogan, a former stand-up comedian and Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator, signed a deal thought to be worth $100m to bring his long-running podcast to Spotify. He is the platform’s most popular podcaster in the US and UK. His affable, just-asking-questions approach is commercially astute: it allows him to profit from the attention-grabbing power of conspiracy theories and political extremism, without needing actually to express them himself.

This approach is most obvious in the three hours of airtime Rogan and Spotify gave to the prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in October 2020. For years Jones spread the claim that the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, in which 20 children were murdered, was “completely fake” (he has since acknowledged that the shooting was real in a sworn deposition as part of a defamation case). The families of the children have been subjected to years of harassment by people who believe these claims.

Rogan now says that interviewing Jones was a mistake, but other podcasts on Spotify do not agree. One US podcast currently available on Spotify gives extensive airtime to the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory with an interviewee who is also a prominent Holocaust denier. In another podcast now streaming on Spotify, the same interviewee claims that fewer than 300,000 people died in the Holocaust.

Hundreds of concerned doctors have accused Rogan of allowing his interviewees to spread misinformation about the pandemic, and some of his interviewees air views many people find offensive. Many other podcasters are happy to espouse fringe views themselves, and to have them distributed to a potential audience of nearly 400 million Spotify users. Steven Crowder, who has been accused of racism, homophobia and harassment, is a much more controversial host than Rogan. Crowder’s podcast is one of several promoted by the Blaze Podcast Network, along with that of Glenn Beck, who after the 2011 Norway massacre compared the children murdered by Anders Breivik to the Hitler Youth.

Spotify also distributes the podcasts of the white nationalist Greg Johnson, and the British far-right group Hearts of Oak, which includes recent interviews with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the English Defence League founder and anti-Islam campaigner; Lutz Bachmann, the founder of the far-right anti-Islam Pegida movement – who was considered sufficiently unpleasant that he was refused entry to the UK; and the former Ukip candidate Carl Benjamin, whose hate speech against ethnic minorities and women has caused him to be suspended or banned from other platforms including Twitter, Patreon and YouTube’s partner programme.

Of the €2.5bn Spotify turned over in the third quarter of 2021, a small proportion came from distributing the music of the Norwegian black metal band Taake, whose lyrics include anti-Muslim statements of hate and who had gigs in Germany cancelled after their frontman appeared on stage with a swastika (which is illegal to display in Germany) painted on his chest. In their response the band referred to the club owner who had asked them not to play as “untermensch” – a term used by the Nazis for supposedly inferior peoples.

Other metal bands associated with neo-Nazism include Watain, from Sweden, and Loits, from Estonia. The British punk band Skinfull, which was identified as “racist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is also distributed by Spotify. This is despite Spotify including the band on a list of artists identified by the SPLC that it planned to remove in 2017.

Views on vaccine hesitancy (often described as “medical freedom”) are easily found on Spotify in prominent podcasts such as The Vaccine Conversation. Spotify also gives a platform to climate change denial. Search for the word “climate” without being logged into a Spotify account and three of the eight episodes that come up are from podcasters who suggest that climate change is not caused by human activity, is nothing to worry about or is not happening at all.

This is the great problem of the platform economy. In traditional broadcasting the platform publishes a small amount of material to a large audience, taking responsibility for its quality. In the platform economy, a vast amount of material is published – there are almost three million podcasts on Spotify – and the market for attention decides who wins.

What Rogan’s show demonstrates is that there is an effective formula in this market: the inherently easy and appealing power of the Manichean perspective, which sorts information not as true or false, but as good or evil. For Facebook and YouTube, this is a business model, but for Spotify it’s a problem, because Spotify makes its money from subscriptions, not advertising. It won’t lose a huge amount of business from people who can’t listen to Young’s Out on the Weekend any more, but if it keeps acting like an ad-supported business, its users may go somewhere with a little more class.

[See also: Why I broke up with Spotify]

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