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Spotify and the Fight Against Vaccine Misinformation (A.K.A. The Joe Rogan Problem)5 min read

In May 2020, Spotify signed an exclusive podcast deal with Joe Rogan that is now rumored to be valued at $200 million, according to the New York Times. In the week following this announcement, Spotify’s stock went up 17%. The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) is Spotify’s most popular podcast in 93 markets and lays Spotify’s advertising growth in recent years at the foot of podcasts and Joe Rogan’s show in particular.

Concerns have been swirling around Mr. Rogan’s podcast since the beginning. In September 2020, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek addressed employees’ concerns around transphobic content on the podcast. “Others have concerns specifically over a recent episode,” Ek said at that time, according to Vice. “And Joe Rogan and the episode in question have been reviewed extensively. The fact that we aren’t changing our position doesn’t mean we aren’t listening. It just means we made a different judgment call.”

While Spotify employees’ concerns were not fully addressed at that time, matters came to a head early this year when 270 members of the global scientific and medical communities wrote to Spotify an open letter regarding COVID-19 misinformation in a JRE episode with Dr. Robert Malone (who was suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation about COVID-19), calling him a menace to public health. The letter called on Spotify to “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.” Neil Young announced he would pull his music from Spotify and Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash soon did the same in solidarity. India.Arie also pulled her music from Spotify citing not just Joe Rogan’s language around race but also Spotify’s treatment of artists as her reason, while Ava Duvernay, who had previously signed a producing deal, “severed ties” with Spotify. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle also “shared concerns” with Spotify about the “all-too-real consequences of COVID-19 misinformation”, stating that they had first raised these concerns in April 2021 in a statement released by their Archewell Foundation.

Spotify’s problems didn’t stop there. In a town hall with employees in February, Daniel Ek defended the company’s decision to work with Joe Rogan, going on to say that shows like JRE enable Spotify to compete with tech giants like Apple and Google. But Spotify did go on to make its content guidelines public and decided to add “content advisory” warnings to episodes that discuss COVID-19 Although Daniel Ek expressed reluctance to “dictate the discourse that creators want to have on their shows”, up to 100 episodes of JRE have been removed from Spotify, according to JRE Missing, a website which tracks the show.

Spotify’s content advisory warnings take the form of labels stating: “Learn About Covid-19” on episodes that discuss anything related to the virus and disease. Is this enough to stop the spread of misinformation? The Joe Rogan Experience  has an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, according to the Washington Post, nearly 4 times as many people as Sean Hannity on Fox or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Have these numbers changed since the controversy reached its peak and Spotify began labeling episodes for updated COVID-19 misinformation? I do not know. But this from the Washington Post on Twitter’s handling of election misinformation in 2020 is interesting to note:

“What did Twitter do — and did its efforts successfully stop misinformation from spreading? We investigated — and found that while blocking tweets from spreading was successful, tweets with warning labels continued to spread, although less on average than tweets without warning labels. However, tweets by Trump with warning labels spread more than tweets by the president without warnings.

Are Joe Rogan’s podcasts as popular or ever-present enough in the public consciousness as former President Trump’s tweets? It remains to be seen. However, there is one key difference: while Twitter explicitly states that a particular tweet contains misinformation (for example: “This claim about election fraud is disputed” on some of former President Trump’s tweets), Spotify’s simply states “Learn about COVID-19” on any podcast episode that happens discusses COVID-19 (or so Spotify says), which directs listeners to a dedicated COVID-19 hub. So, if you’re listening to a particular podcast, you’ll never know if something you’re listening to is backed by research, unless you have already done the research yourself.

Another issue is the text-based nature of the warnings, meaning you only see them if you’re looking at the screen. If, like me, you’re listening to podcasts on autopilot, you’ll never see the label on an episode that just happened to start playing.  If you need to have content warning for a podcast, it absolutely needs to be given aurally. Putting text-based content advisory labels sounds like Spotify doing the bare minimum.

Spotify has hours upon hours upon hours of content on their platform – presumably, they do not have humans listening to every minute of audio posted on Spotify. How, then, do they know if they are accurately labeling content? So far, the answer seems to be that they are not. The Guardian reported last month that multiple Spotify playlists are promoting songs claiming COVID-19 as fake and describe the vaccines as “poison”, because of its content recommendation engine. In fact, Spotify removed several songs that were flagged to it by the Observer which breached rules banning content that promotes “dangerous, false and deceptive content about COVID-19”. Relying on third parties like journalists does not seem like a particularly effective content moderation strategy to me.

Finally, Spotify does not offer an easy way to report misinformation or any other issues with its content. Most people use Spotify via its app but there’s no way to report issues on the app. To report any problems, you must do it through the desktop site, making it unnecessarily difficult and more unlikely that users will report misinformation or any other content that should be banned under Spotify’s Platform Rules.

With more controversy swirling around Joe Rogan in recent days, with his choice of questionable guests on the show, use of racial slurs and promotion of transphobic views, the bottom line is that Spotify is not doing enough. “Freedom of speech” and the argument of “platform, not publisher” (neither of which are particularly good arguments) does not, or rather, should not excuse Spotify from its ethical responsibilities.

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