Politics

Why Spotify Will Win

The market wants what Rogan is selling, and what Rogan is selling is doubt.

The Spotify logo is seen on top of a stack of banded bundles of $100 bills.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Celyn Kang/Unsplash.

In his I’m-Sorry-if-You-Were-Offended apology posted on Sunday night to Instagram, podcaster Joe Rogan tried to smooth over the fact that he’s been broadcasting dangerous misinformation on his show, The Joe Rogan Experience. The requirement for him to do anything at all arose only after musicians including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell asked that the streaming service Spotify remove their music after 270 medical experts demanded that the platform establish a clear misinformation policy rather than allowing its shows to “damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance.” As Young put it at the time, “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

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Spotify, which had bought the exclusive streaming rights to The Joe Rogan Experience in a deal reportedly worth more than $100 million, at first did nothing, then pulled the lever for Rogan. Spotify thus proceeded to pull down Young’s work, and Mitchell’s, and to stand behind its guy, whose show reaches about 11 million people an episode. In the disputed episodes, Rogan has amplified multiple known falsehoods about the dangers of vaccines, touted the benefits of ivermectin (strongly disputed by the FDA), and promoted an “expert” vaccine skeptic with lethally discredited views. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who also have a podcast deal through Spotify, issued their own statement on the controversy “to express our concerns to Spotify to ensure changes to its platform are made to help address this public health crisis.” Predictable flapping about the perils of cancel culture and censorship ensued.

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The alleged perils of cancel culture notwithstanding, Rogan’s non-apology apology was a tour de force in both accepting and declining responsibility. He first sacrificed a goat at the altar of bothsidesism by promising that from now on, whenever he amplifies the views of science deniers, he will attempt to follow up with mainstream experts who can also give their viewpoints. Sighing that “you know, I do all the scheduling myself, and I don’t always get it right,” he explained that “these podcasts are very strange because they’re just conversations. And oftentimes I have no idea what I’m going to talk about until I sit down and talk to people and that’s why some of my ideas are not that prepared or fleshed out because I’m literally having them in real time.” This was all not so much his fault but a result of the fact that his podcast exploded years ago and then “boom, it’s become what it is today, which is like some out-of-control juggernaut that I barely have control of.” The out-of-control-ness is thus the justification, not the problem. Rogan then praised Young, misidentified a song by Mitchell, and said he’d try to prepare more, but maintained that the real object is and always was “to create interesting conversations, and ones that I hope people enjoy.” Much like Tucker Carlson, whose lawyers quite literally defended his news show as—according to a judge who agreed with them—“ ‘exaggeration,’ ‘non-literal commentary,’ or simply bloviating for his audience,” the reason Rogan explained that he should essentially keep on doing what he’s been doing is because this is all just entertainment, asking hard questions, and airing all sides of controversial and unsettled questions. If folks perceive that, as they perceive Carlson, as factual, that’s someone else’s fault.

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This is not at all new move for Rogan. His tendency to host conspiracy theorists and denialists and to then defend himself by saying he is a moron dates back to at least February of 2019, when he explained himself this way:

There’s certain people that I’ll have on, whether it’s Alex Jones or anyone that’s controversial, where people who get fucking mad. “Why are you giving this person a platform?” OK. Hmm. I didn’t think about it that way, and I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I think I’m talking to people, and you can listen.

His vaccine comment defense was the essentially the same: “When I say something stupid, I’m not thinking about what I’m going to say before I say it. I’m just saying it.” If Rogan hosts someone controversial and agrees with them, he says it’s because he doesn’t know better. If he invites someone who’s demonstrably wrong to come back, it’s also because he doesn’t know better. Rogan now says he will do a better job attempting to learn the issues he doesn’t understand, but his whole raison d’être is that he doesn’t learn. His is the enormous privilege of the perpetual tabula rasa machine: His gift is that he can be an empty vessel who merely lucked into a huge audience and millions of dollars. Who is he to judge? And who are we to judge him? And who is Spotify to judge us judging him?

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Enter Spotify. As Rogan was issuing the apology-that-wasn’t-quite-an-apology, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek wrote in a blog post published on Spotify’s website that “There are plenty of individuals and views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly. We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users. In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor.” Ek announced that the company would begin adding content advisories to any podcast episode that “includes a discussion about COVID-19” and link listeners to a “Hub” with “data-driven facts” and “up-to-date information.”

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This is a replay of the widely derided “Facebook” play from years back, when the company claimed its platform cannot operate as censor and thus, ya know, bygones. Whatever the Spotify content rules are, they have now been posted. The problem is that nobody knows how they can or will be enforced. Ek further told employees this week that Spotify doesn’t edit Rogan because he sees the company as a platform for Rogan’s show, not a publisher.

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When Rogan says something wrong, or fails to correct something inaccurate, he is an empty vessel just asking questions. And who are they to judge? Or more literally, is anyone doing the judging here? This isn’t censorship so much as curation, argues Roxane Gay. But maybe “free speech” means we don’t get either. Two days after the apology, Spotify’s shares have recovered. Cha-ching. On Monday, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson praised Rogan in a tweet: “Great stuff here brother,” Johnson wrote. “Perfectly articulated. Look forward to coming on one day and breaking out the tequila with you.” He added a jaunty glass of bourbon emoji. Bygones.

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It all played out as yet another operetta on the perils of cancel culture and the benefits of canceling the cancelers. To that extent, Kathleen Parker is no doubt right in claiming that Rogan and Spotify have won handily. Millions more people will doubtless still tune in, and both Rogan and Spotify will sleep easily, to the dulcet sounds of more cash pouring in. The Rock will get some tequila. But where I disagree with Parker is that I’m not as sure there is no judgment to be had here. The hope may be that “truth will out.” But the problem is: It won’t.

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Truth won’t out because the market wants what Rogan is selling, and what Rogan is selling is doubt. That is also what Carlson is selling and what the GOP is selling, and that is what Donald Trump has been selling for six years. The beauty of “just asking questions” as a rhetorical frame is that it provides cover for some of the foundational work of authoritarianism—it casts broad and enduring doubt on government, on science, on fact, on vote tallies, and on science. The current democracy-on-the-cusp scenario we all live in now is the result of this tendency: People are running for secretary of state positions across the country because they rose to prominence after “just asking questions” about the 2020 election; Donald Trump pushed real plans to seize election machines because he was just probing “both sides” of the Big Lie. Under cover of having all sorts of interesting and entertaining questions, actual fact has been subordinated. That which is neutral has been politicized, and that which is abhorrent has been normalized, all in the name of just asking tough questions.

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I’m not calling Rogan an authoritarian. Carlson surely is, as is Trump. I am saying that when grown adults say they have no responsibility whatsoever to learn or understand or contextualize fringe ideas, they are doing the work of authoritarians, and at minimum, they are absolving themselves of any responsibility to check the tide of it. What Rogan well knows, and what Spotify has flawlessly commodified, is that pretending that you just aren’t smart enough to understand your own guests, the reach of your show, the consequences of your bookings, your lack of preparation, and your amplification of untruth (and also casual racism and climate denialism and misogyny) lets you get away with all of it. And it forces your listener to either do all of the above for themselves, or to accept your work as truth.

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And to be perfectly fair, even blaming Rogan, Spotify, Alex Jones, Jordan Peterson, or all the brave askers-of-questions also misses the point. The problem is that there is a market for what they are selling—the problem is that it is too profitable to stop. This is what we seem to want, to believe ourselves the final arbiters of all that is knowable. It soothes us, this devaluation of knowledge or scientific consensus or expertise. It rewards our sense of self, reassures us that ours is the only science, the only law, the only experience that matters. Truth isn’t going to “out” because we don’t want to believe in it. Which is why we’re not only getting exactly the truth-tellers we deserve—we’re actually paying them to lie to us.

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