WASHINGTON (TND) — Amid growing backlash over its handling of COVID-19 misinformation broadcast by comedian Joe Rogan and other users, Spotify announced Sunday it would add content advisories to any podcast discussing the pandemic and direct listeners to a hub of authoritative information.
“Based on the feedback over the last several weeks, it’s become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely-accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time,” Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek said in a statement.
Hundreds of scientists and medical experts signed an open letter earlier this month warning that “The Joe Rogan Experience” – the former “Fear Factor” host’s Spotify-exclusive podcast – is spreading “medically and culturally dangerous” claims to its 11 million listeners. They did not call for the show to be canceled, but they did urge the company to establish clear misinformation policies and moderate content better.
The long-standing policies published Sunday identified several specific claims that are considered violations: declaring COVID-19 is a hoax, promoting consumption of bleach, suggesting vaccines are designed to cause death, and encouraging people to purposely get infected. The Rogan interviews experts have complained about do not appear to violate those tenets.
The company’s moves are unlikely to satisfy those who argue giving Rogan a platform to spread dubious claims is irresponsible. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are among the artists who have pulled their music from the streaming service in protest, and many users have vowed to cancel subscriptions.
“Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information,” Young said Friday.
Experts who study media and misinformation say the content advisories are a positive step, but they might not convince many users to listen more skeptically. The problems run much deeper, and some of the damage is already done.
“From what we know, that will have some effect on some people, but for plenty of people, it won’t,” said Philip Napoli, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.
As long as platforms like Spotify are chasing engagement, content like Rogan’s will inevitably remain at the forefront, for better or worse.
“This business model depends on triggering strong emotions in the audience, like fear and anger and outrage,” said Kim Bisheff, a journalism professor at Cal Poly. “If that’s your business model, you are in a prime position to spread disinformation and misinformation.”
In a 10-minute Instagram video posted Sunday, Rogan thanked Spotify for its continued support and apologized to the company for the difficulty he has caused. He also extended apologies to Young and Mitchell, but he still defended his work.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist,” Rogan said. “I’m just a person who sits down and talks with people and has conversations with them.”
Critics say the people Rogan has conversations with and the fact that he lets them talk is the underlying problem. Last month, he interviewed Dr. Robert Malone, a one-time proponent of the technology used to develop COVID-19 vaccines who has now been banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation about them. Videos of the interview were removed from YouTube for violating its content policies.
Rogan has also promoted the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 despite warnings from the Food and Drug Administration and he has repeatedly downplayed the risks of contracting the virus. Spotify has previously removed some episodes of Rogan’s show for violating content policies, but the Malone episode and others that alarmed health experts remain available.
The host promised Sunday to “balance out” the more controversial voices he brings on the show, though he did not indicate he would be more cautious about who he books to begin with. He backed Spotify’s decision to add content warnings and provide links to more credible sources.
“It’s a strange responsibility to have this many viewers and listeners,” Rogan said. “It’s very strange and it’s nothing that I prepared for, and it’s nothing that I ever anticipated. I am going to do my best in the future to balance things out.”
Rogan is among the most prominent podcasters on Spotify, having signed an exclusive deal with the music streaming service in 2020 reportedly worth $100 million. The company has often credited the comedian with bringing in new users and bolstering its podcast advertising revenue.
Rogan’s controversial content has thrust Spotify into a contentious debate over online speech and censorship. Social media platforms have faced harsh criticism from all sides for content policies related to the pandemic, the 2020 election, and other hot-button issues, with some complaining they are too permissive of lies and others asserting they are stifling dissent.
However, as a licensee paying selected podcast producers for their content, Napoli argued Spotify bears a different degree of responsibility. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, it pays Rogan millions of dollars to broadcast his views and those of his guests.
“Spotify isn’t Facebook. They’re closer to a cable system than they are to a social media platform,” he said. “They’re programmers in the traditional sense, with First Amendment rights like any content provider has. It’s completely within their rights to include and exclude programming as they see fit.”
This is far from a new problem for Rogan or Spotify. The company stood by the podcaster last spring when he was advising heathy people not to get vaccinated in defiance of public health guidance, and Ek equated him to rappers and other artists who sometimes say inflammatory things.
"We have a content policy and we do remove pieces that violate it,” Ek said at the time.
After that incident, Rogan declared himself a “f***ing moron” and insisted listeners should not consider him a respected source of information. But many still appear to trust him more than government officials and mainstream media outlets.
“The big challenge is, we can ask these tech companies to take steps to make the content they deliver safer for the public, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the consumers,” Bisheff said. “We have to own our vulnerabilities.”
Rogan is too valuable to Spotify for the company to risk alienating him and his audience over complaints from a handful of aging rockers. Even if the comedian’s fiercest critics get their way, though, booting him from the platform would not necessarily muzzle misinformation.
A report published by The Verge last summer concluded becoming exclusive to Spotify might have limited Rogan’s reach. Google searches related to Rogan and social media activity surrounding his guests dropped off precipitously after he signed the Spotify deal. He would surely find another home if he left the platform, and some, if not all, of his millions of listeners would follow.
“In this media ecosystem, no one is ever truly silenced,” Napoli said.