Spotify’s Joe Rogan Mess

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S1: By now, there’s a familiar rhythm every time a major tech company has a speech controversy. First, somebody writes or says something outrageous or inflammatory. Then there’s a backlash. Then apologies or promises to do better. Then sometimes a backlash to the backlash, which made me wonder what stage the ongoing Joe Rogan Spotify mess had reached.

S2: I feel like we’re doing a speed run through the life cycle of a user generated content platform. Spotify is on a steep learning curve.

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S1: That’s Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies online speech. And Spotify, which is the exclusive home of Rogan blockbuster podcast, has been in an uncomfortable spotlight since late December. Over Rogan, a history of frequently broadcasting COVID misinformation under the guise of just asking questions.

S3: Yeah, I think for the most part, it’s safe to get vaccinated. I do. I do. But if you’re like 21 years old and you say to me, Should I get vaccinated, I go, No.

S1: 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 shows, and prominent podcasters like Roxane Gay have pulled their work as well. Are you surprised that people care so much about Joe Rogan and Spotify?

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S2: I mean, I am in one sense like in one sense, I’ve been waiting for this for years and I’ve never really understood how there have been this massive blind spot that gets a free pass. I mean, people say wild things on podcasts and just get away with it in a way that you never would on on Twitter, I think. But on the other hand, like this has really been dominating. I’ve been getting push notifications on my phone about it. Friends have said to me that I don’t understand how big of a deal Neil Young is and, you know, maybe guilty by the looks of things because this has been huge.

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S1: It’s huge, in part because Rogan is arguably the most famous podcaster around, but also because once again, a big, popular platform is grappling with who gets to say what on their service. But Evelyn says there is a key difference here. Joe Rogan isn’t somebody’s random uncle posting nutty things on Facebook or Twitter. He’s being paid millions of dollars by Spotify.

S2: This is a role that Spotify is playing. That’s very different to a whole bunch of other platforms in this space, and I think that people are starting to have a bit more of a nuanced conversation about that and how responsibility should differ based on the platform role.

S1: Today on the show. Yeah, we’ve done this dance before, but the steps are a little different this time. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around. An important thing to realize about Spotify is that as a company, it has many identities and it’s in the process of evolving. You can still stream music and curate playlists or find and listen to podcasts made by all sorts of people. But crucially, over the past few years, Spotify has leaned hard into podcasts that it distributes exclusively like Armchair Expert, Call Her Daddy. And, of course, the Joe Rogan experience.

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S2: With respect to Joe Rogan, it has paid $100 million for an exclusive contract with Rogan. So that is the only platform that releases his podcasts, which are enormously popular, and it’s part of Spotify’s push to get into podcasting. So in that sense, you know, the analogy is not really true. Like a Facebook or Twitter. It’s much more like a broadcaster that has secured an exclusive contract with the star and is putting out all of that content. But the interesting thing is that Spotify does have a separate part of its platform, which is that, like almost anyone can get a podcast uploaded. Yeah, that looks a lot more like a Facebook or Twitter or any other user generated content.

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S1: The Joe Rogan deal in 2020, you know, to be his exclusive home reportedly $100 million deal felt like an inflection point in how Spotify changed its business model. And I wonder how you would see their evolution.

S2: Podcasts have sort of been this strange space where for a long time, they were kind of a 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 in

S1: Rogan has been around for it, right? Right.

S2: And then as soon as something becomes so popular, platforms try and monetize it, which is what you see sort of Spotify doing here. And it’s getting into the role of much more curation, much more editorial, you might say, rather than merely sort of a hosting distribution network.

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S1: Let’s go through the latest controversy. Rogan has the show December 31st. He has a doctor on named Robert Malone. This guy was at one point a vaccine scientist. He’s now a pretty prominent anti-vax activist, and Malone gets banned from Twitter. And then he goes on Rogan show. I wonder, broadly speaking, how platforms and tech companies have been dealing with people like Malone over the course of the pandemic.

S2: It’s been fascinating because I think the pandemic itself has been a real inflection point for platforms in sort of the role that they’re prepared to play. You know, before the pandemic started, they really had this. We’re not going to be arbiters 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? You know, the best remedy for speech is more speech, that kind of thing. And then sort of as a result of the public health emergency that sort of went out the window almost overnight. And you saw the major platforms all releasing COVID 19 misinformation policies where, you know, based on what the WHO said it was mis or disinformation started taking a lot more content down and then also started labeling a lot more content. And so you do see this much more active role. The 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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S1: on January 10th, a group of doctors published an open letter to Spotify about Malone and and other misinformation on Rogan show, and they said This one thing this is not only a scientific or medical concern, it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions, and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform. And number one, to use the word platform, which is is interesting, right? They are treating them like they’re a Facebook or a YouTube. But it’s also so different as a response from when Rogan, you know, not long before was out there promoting ivermectin, as, you know, a treatment he was taking when he got COVID. I don’t know. Is it a strategy to follow the the the platform playbook to say, you are like a Facebook here?

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S2: Platforms such a weird word, isn’t it, like I don’t know if anyone really knows what it means, I mean, it definitely has. What is that legal significance? You know, it’s not like it’s written down somewhere that as soon as you become a platform, this magic word means that you suddenly, you know, are immune from taking responsibility or have less a lesser role than this other magical world where a publisher. Right? You definitely see the tech platforms, as we call them, trying to use it as just like we are here. We are giving people the opportunity to express themselves rather than being some sort of, you know, interventionist curation or actor in this space.

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S1: This whole issue might have gone away, but for Neil Young, on January 24th, the singer briefly posted a letter on his website demanding that his music be taken off Spotify because it is, quote, spreading fake information about vaccines. They can have Rogan or young, he added. Not both. A day later, his entire catalogue disappeared from the service. Soon after that, Joni Mitchell joined him.

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S3: I wanted to make a video to address some of

S1: the then Joe Rogan made an Instagram video that sort of apologized. Kind of.

S3: So I want to thank Spotify for being so supportive during this time, and I’m very sorry that this is happening to them and that they’re taking so much heat from it.

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S1: Spotify tried to clarify its position. The CEO, Daniel Ek, admitted that the company hadn’t been transparent about its content policies. He laid out some rules around COVID 19 and said Spotify might put content advisories on some shows. He also reportedly stressed to employees that Spotify doesn’t hear Rogan shows before they go live, and the company has removed some of Rogan’s back catalogue, including episodes with Alex Jones. But Ek also put the onus back on creators to abide by the platform’s rules and quote understand their accountability.

S2: Their relationship with Joe Rogan is very different to any other content creator, right? Like they’re paying the guy, 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

S1: for, and it’s the only place to get the Joe Rogan experience right?

S2: And so, you know, and if they wanted to alert Joe Rogan to their rules, I’m sure they had better channels than like trying to highlight it more on their platform in the interface or something like this is again a completely different situation to, for example, Facebook’s community standards, which govern what you and I can post on Facebook. And, you know, the very legitimate point that we should know what the rules are. Many people aren’t trying to break the rules they would stay within. They don’t want their content removed from Spotify. But Spotify had these secret rules that it was apparently applying. I mean, we learnt throughout this controversy for the first time that Spotify has apparently taken down 20000 other podcasts for COVID misinformation.

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S1: So they say,

S2: Well, that was news to me, and we had no idea why those ones crossed the line. And Joe Rogan’s podcast didn’t and how it’s making these determinations. Who is making these determinations? Those seem like really important things to know before we can start talking about whether these rules make any sense or whether Spotify is, you know, living up to its responsibility here.

S1: Is this a content moderation issue or is it Spotify sort of quietly saying, Yeah, we’re just going to kind of pick the person who’s making a lot of money for us.

S2: So Joe Rogan. The analogy is not to content moderation, and I think it really suits them to try and make it a content moderation problem because content moderation at scale is really hard. You know, it’s like 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, the lines are blurry. That’s an unreasonable expectation. But that’s not what we’re talking about when it comes to Joe Rogan, where he’s releasing a handful of episodes that they’re paying $100 million for. They are playing the role of of a publisher or a broadcaster. And we might have some disagreements around how that editorial discretion that they have in those cases should be exercised. You know, people may disagree about the best way of approaching that kind of missile 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. It’s, you know, this is much more like a radio broadcast or a Fox News broadcast or something along those lines.

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S1: It sounds like you’re saying they’re sort of hiding behind the content moderation debate when. They bought this guy show, and they know what he does, right?

S2: Exactly.

S1: When we come back, what might actually work to make platforms or publishers or whatever, Spotify is more responsible. You have written so much about content moderation, and often when we are discussing that on a social media platform, for example, we’re talking about how algorithms take inflammatory or outrageous content. AMP it up and put it in front of a lot of people. And that is something that you and I have discussed. Podcasts are something different, but they are a multi-million dollar business, and I wonder how they fit into this model.

S2: It’s fascinating. I feel like content moderation debates with respect to many platforms are kind of in their awkward adolescence where we sort of got past the like initial, you know, Facebook needs to take down everything that’s false and 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.

S1: And that makes sense.

S2: Yeah, I mean, it does make sense that they’re playing a different role. Podcasts have been different for a long time. You know, instead of the awkward adolescence podcast, content moderation is kind of in its infancy still. And for a long time, you know, podcast apps were just these directories. There was no amplification. There was no sort of there isn’t any sharing. But as podcasts have become more popular and therefore, you know, platforms are trying to monetize them more, you’re seeing a lot of the same features get introduced right. You’re now seeing top 10 lists everywhere when you log into Spotify now. I don’t know about you, but I get a whole bunch of podcast recommendations. And so now that they’re taking on that role again, we’re going to have to start having those conversations about when you’re amplifying certain things. Surely your responsibility for that content should be greater.

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S1: I wonder if there’s something about the spoken word that makes this feel more difficult.

S2: I think we need to have a conversation about how different formats can have different effects. You know, 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 power social relationship with the person that is in your ears while you’re doing the dishes or folding the laundry or going for a run. And I think that does create a different kind of relationship. You know, there’s research around, you know, the facts of spoken word versus written word. There’s also, you know, technical differences, right? Like moderating audio content is really hard. The tools are worse. It like trying to recognize certain words when people say them is a lot harder than just using a keyword list for text.

S1: I wonder if that’s going to change as platforms including Spotify are going to auto transcribe their podcasts.

S2: For sure, the tech’s going to get better. And there’s this thing of like once you have the tools that can do something, does your responsibility change? It does can imply ORT. And I think that is somewhat part of the reason why we’re asking platforms in general to step up more in their content moderation because they are developing these much more powerful tools that they themselves, by the way, liked to come out and say, We’ve got these amazing artificial intelligence tools, machine learning models that can detect hate speech and within a few years now, it turns out that was all bunk. And these tools suck, and it’s never going to solve the problem. But once you start to say we have the machinery, the capability to do something, then people are going to expect you to do it.

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S1: This whole debate can feel intractable like you want to throw up your hands. But Evelyn says progress has been made in making content that’s more responsible without stifling speech.

S2: 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 reducing that and for amplification for certain kinds of content. And that’s the kind of stuff that I’m really excited about.

S1: Like, you got to read this thing before you share it.

S2: Oh my God, that is my favorite tool. I love that tool because Twitter released some stats about that, right? So it’s this very simple nudge, right? Where if you go to retweet an article that you haven’t read, a little pop up will come up and it will say, Hey, do you want to read this before you share it? And that’s so gentle writing and seems good. Like, yeah, before you share something, maybe you should know what’s in it and you can just dismiss it and go, No to hell with you, Twitter. I’m going to share things, you know, I don’t care what’s in it. But 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.

S1: 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.

S2: A Spotify has a responsibility for what it’s amplifying. Does that mean that, you know it has the only responsibility? Does that let the producer of the content creator off the hook know? Does it let the audience off the hook for, you know, 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, you know, letting people get their information from random podcasts on Spotify? No. But when Spotify is promoting things, when Spotify is profiting off things, yeah, absolutely. It has responsibility there to know what’s in that content and to own the consequences of letting it proliferate.

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S1: Evelyn Douek, thank you very much.

S2: Not always a pleasure, Lizzie, thank you.

S1: Evelyn Douek is a lecturer at Harvard Law and a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. That is it for the show today, but keep an eye out for us on Sunday when we will be back with another episode in this feed. And every Sunday, TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks were edited by Tori Bosch and Jonathan Fisher. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of the larger What Next family, and it’s also part of future tense partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. You can check out Future Tense is Free Speech Project, which you can find at Slate.com. Future tense. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.