Future Tense

Spotify Has Convinced Everyone to Debate the Wrong Issue

In front of a large Spotify logo, a hand holds a smartphone that displays another Spotify logo.
Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

In 2020, Spotify paid $100 million to become the exclusive home of Joe Rogan’s blockbuster podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. Now, Spotify is in an uncomfortable spotlight over Rogan’s history of frequently broadcasting COVID misinformation, under the guise of “just asking questions.”

Every day there seems to be a new development. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell took their work off the streaming platform in protest. Spotify staff is reportedly upset about Rogan’s shows, and prominent podcasters like Roxane Gay have pulled their work as well. In response to the controversy, Spotify’s CEO Daniel EK admitted in a letter on the company’s website that the company’s content moderation policies had not been “transparent” and outlined some steps the company was taking regarding COVID content. Despite the letter, the issue of what Spotify should do regarding content moderation and continuing to act as a publisher of podcasts remains murky.

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On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies online speech, about the questions around content moderation that the Joe Rogan Spotify controversy raises. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: Are you surprised that people care so much about Joe Rogan and Spotify?

Evelyn Douek: I am in one sense. I’ve been waiting for this for years, and I’ve never really understood how there’ve been this massive blind spot on podcasts that gets a free pass. People say wild things on podcasts and just get away with it in a way that you never would on Twitter.

Podcasts have sort of been this strange space where for a long time they were niche interest, not many people paid attention to them, and then they’ve exploded in popularity over the last little while. And of course, as soon as something becomes popular, platforms try and monetize it, which is what you see sort of Spotify doing here. It’s getting into that much more curational, much more editorial, role, rather than nearly a hosting distribution network.

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Let’s go through the latest controversy. On Dec. 31, Rogan has a doctor on named Robert Malone. This guy was at one point a vaccine scientist. He’s now a prominent anti-vax activist, and he’s been banned from Twitter. And then he goes on Rogan’s show. Broadly speaking, how have platforms and tech companies been dealing with people like Malone over the course of the pandemic?

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The pandemic itself has been a real inflection point for platforms in the role that they’re prepared to play. Before the pandemic started, they really had this, “We’re not going to be arbiter of truth, we’re going to be hands-off. Who are we to judge what is true and what is false in the marketplace of ideas? The best remedy for speech is more speech,” that kind of thing. And then, as a result of the public health emergency, that went out the window almost overnight. We saw the major platforms all releasing COVID-19 misinformation policies. Based on what the WHO said was mis- or disinformation, they started taking a lot more content down and also started labeling a lot more content. So you do see this much more active role that platforms are prepared to play in terms of misinformation, false speech in the context of health than you do in the context of politics, for example.

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After Neil Young drew more attention to the situation by asking for his music to be removed from Spotify, CEO Daniel Ek released a statement addressing the controversy, and he reportedly stressed to employees that Spotify doesn’t hear Rogan’s shows before they go live. And the company has removed some of Rogan’s back catalog, including episodes with Alex Jones. But Ek also put the onus back on creators to abide by the platform’s rules and “understand their accountability.” What do you make of all this?

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Their relationship with Joe Rogan is very different to any other content creator, right? They’re paying the guy. As you said, he’s been around for ages. They can’t be surprised by the kind of content that he’s producing. It’s exactly the stuff that they were paying for.

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And it’s the only place to get The Joe Rogan Experience.

Right. And so, if they wanted to alert Joe Rogan to their rules, I’m sure they had better channels than trying to highlight it more on their platform in the interface or something. This is again, a completely different situation to, for example, Facebook’s community standards, which govern what you and I can post on Facebook.

Many people aren’t trying to break the rules. They don’t want their content removed from Spotify. But Spotify had these secret rules that it was apparently applying. I mean, we learned throughout this controversy for the first time that Spotify has apparently taken down 20,000 other podcasts for COVID misinformation. That was news to me. We had no idea why those ones crossed the line and Joe Rogan’s podcast didn’t. How is Spotify making these determinations? Who is making these determinations? Those seem like a really important things to know before we can start talking about whether these rules make any sense or whether Spotify is living up to its responsibility here.

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Is this a content moderation issue, or is it sort of Spotify quietly saying, “Yeah. We’re just going to kind of pick the person who’s making a lot of money for us”?

I think it really suits Spotify to try and make it a content moderation problem, because content moderation at scale is really hard. The phenomenal hours of audio that are uploaded to Spotify every day is insane. And the idea that they could make the right decision in all of those cases around really contentious issues, where the rules are blurry, that’s an unreasonable expectation.

But that’s not what we’re talking about when it comes to Joe Rogan. He’s releasing a handful of episodes that they’re paying a hundred million for. They are playing the role of a publisher, a broadcaster. And we might have some disagreements around how that editorial discretion that they have in those cases should be exercised. People may disagree about the best way of approaching that kind of mis- or disinformation, whether it’s counter speech, whether it’s labels, whether it’s removing it, whatever it is. But for Spotify to say, “this is content moderation,” is to avoid that this is much more like a radio broadcast or a Fox News broadcast.

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It sounds like you’re saying they’re hiding behind the content moderation debate, when they bought this guy’s show and they know what he does.

Right. Exactly.

Often, when we are discussing content moderation on a social media platform, we’re talking about how algorithms take inflammatory or outrageous content, amp it up, and put it in front of a lot of people. Podcasts are something different, but they are a multimillion-dollar business. How do they fit into this model?

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It’s fascinating. I feel like content moderation debates, with respect to many platforms, are in their awkward adolescence, where we’ve sort of got past the initial “Facebook needs to take down everything that’s false, and leave up everything that’s true.” We are getting into these more nuanced conversations about like, “OK, maybe that’s impossible, but maybe Facebook needs to have more responsibility for what it amplifies, what it shoves in front of people.”

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Podcasts have been different for a long time. Instead of the awkward adolescence, podcast content moderation is in its infancy still. And for a long time, podcast apps were just these directories. There was no amplification. But as podcasts have become more popular, and platforms are trying to monetize them more, you’re seeing a lot of the same features get introduced. You’re now seeing top 10 lists everywhere. Now that they’re taking on that role, we’re going to have to start having those conversations about when you are amplifying certain things, surely your responsibility for that content should be greater.

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Is there something about the spoken word that makes this more difficult?

I think we need to have a conversation about how different formats can have different effects. Podcasts often are very chatty, and you start to feel like you get to know the host. You start to develop some sort of a relationship, maybe a parasocial relationship with the person that is in your ears while you’re doing the dishes, or folding the laundry, or going for a run.

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That does create a different relationship. There’s also technical differences. Moderating audio content is really hard. The tools are worse at it. Like trying to recognize certain words when people say them is a lot harder than just using a keyword list for text.

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This whole debate can feel intractable. Has any progress been made in making content that’s more responsible without stifling speech?

Yes. The idea of attaching a label is more effective than removing things. We’re also seeing platforms experiment with things like friction. So, as we were talking before about amplification, well, reducing that amplification for certain kinds of content. That’s the kind of stuff that I’m really excited about.

Like, “you got to read this thing before you share it.”

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Oh, my God. That is my favorite tool. Twitter released some stats about that. It’s this very simple nudge, where if you go to retweet an article that you haven’t read, a little popup will come up and it will say, “Hey! Do you want to read this before you share it?” That’s so gentle, and it seems good. Twitter said that the number of people that clicked through and read that article, as a result of that tiny gentle nudge, was 40 percent more people. That’s insane.

Even with tweaks to try to tamp down inflammatory content, trying to figure out who should bear the responsibility for what we consume online or in our ears is complicated.

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Spotify has a responsibility for what it’s amplifying. Does that mean that it has the only responsibility? Does that let the producer, the content creator off the hook? No. Does it let the audience off the hook for their need to engage in critical thinking, critical listening as well? No. Does it let public health authorities off the hook from needing to do their own effective messaging and reaching people rather than letting people get their information from random podcasts on Spotify? No.

But, when Spotify is promoting things, when Spotify is profiting off things, absolutely it has responsibility to know what’s in that content and to own the consequences of letting it proliferate.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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