‘More Spectacle Than Substance’: Spotify Response to Joe Rogan Controversy Leaves Researchers Shrugging

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Earlier this month, Rolling Stone reported that a group of 270 doctors, healthcare workers, educators, and scientists was campaigning for Spotify to publicly adopt a misinformation policy. The initiative was inspired by a Dec. 31 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, the wildly popular podcast hosted by comedian Joe Rogan which featured Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist who has been suspended from Twitter for posting misinformation about Covid-19. During the episode, Malone promoted various Covid-19-related conspiracy theories, such as the debunked idea that the medical establishment’s espousal of vaccines was due to “mass formation psychosis.”

This group was not advocating for Rogan, who reportedly has a $100 million contract with Spotify, to be removed from the platform, or even that the episode featuring Malone should be removed — rather, it was asking Spotify to clarify its guidelines regarding medical misinformation, if it had any to begin with. (Spotify later publicly released its internal “longstanding platform rules.”) “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy,” the letter read.

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The letter, which now has more than 1,300 signatures, went viral, prompting #DeleteSpotify to trend and musicians Neil Young (as originally reported by Rolling Stone), Joni Mitchell, and Nils Lofgren to pull their music from the platform. “When these heroic women and men, who’ve spent their lives healing and saving ours, cry out for help you don’t turn your back on them for money and power. You listen and stand with them,” Lofgren said in a statement issued on Saturday, with reference to the health care professionals who authored the letter. Podcaster and author Brene Brown and even royals Meghan and Harry also expressed their concern about Spotify’s lack of misinformation policy.

The demands also prompted backlash from conservatives, particularly right-wing media outlets who accused the signatories of attempting to censor Rogan and pointed out that not all of the signatories were practicing medical doctors, as some were nurses, science educators, and other types of health care practitioners. (Dr. Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist who coauthored and signed the letter, says this was by design, to include nurses and health care providers, such as physical therapists, who treat Long Covid and people who need rehab after the ICU. “These are the people seeing all the devastation Covid has caused,” she says.) Some of the letter’s signers also received death threats. Yet overall, the national reaction was beyond the wildest dreams of those behind the initiative. “The intention was to get Spotify to put a policy in place, but when they refused to do so, it became a national conversation,” Wallace tells Rolling Stone. “We were happy to see there was a lot of support. But more significantly, I am very proud of the fact that we started a national conversation about misinformation.”

Last weekend, in a lengthy blog post, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek finally addressed the ongoing controversy by publishing Spotify’s internal medical misinformation policy, which prohibits “content that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information that may cause offline harm or poses a direct threat to public health.” The post also announced that Spotify would now add content advisories to any content related to Covid-19 on the platform, in much the same way Instagram and Twitter have. “From the very first days of the pandemic, Spotify has been biased toward action,” Ek wrote in his post, detailing the company’s Covid-19 relief efforts to “[give] you a sense of how seriously we’ve approached the pandemic as a company.”

The architects behind the original letter, however, are unconvinced by these efforts. Labeling something Covid-19 content, “whether it’s Joe Rogan or the CDC… further creates a ‘false balance’ problem,” says Wallace. “It’s designed to look like they’re doing something, but they’re not doing anything. It’s more spectacle than substance.”

Abbie Richards, a misinformation researcher who helped organize the efforts to write the letter, agrees that labeling all COVID-19 content on the platform is “the definition of too little, too late,” and that warning labels on content can potentially lead to increased skepticism about both “fake” and legitimate news.

Darren Linvill, who studies social media disinformation at Clemson University, also is skeptical that Spotify content warnings will help curb the spread of misinformation on its platform. While he refers to Spotify’s actions as “a step in the right direction,” he notes that the efficacy of content warnings “is still relatively unknown. It’s a very difficult thing to study, in part because of the difficulty in obtaining the right data from the platforms.” Some research on content warnings, he says, has even indicated that “they may have the opposite of the desired effect, increasing the likelihood of some media users to engage with the content.”

Perhaps more to the point, while Richards lauds Spotify for being more transparent about internal policy guidelines, she says the guidelines themselves are somewhat obtuse. “They could be broader to encompass more general medical misinformation, and also more specific about what is the line they draw. It’s quite unclear: what are you allowed to do and not allowed to do? Rogan has somehow avoided crossing the line,” she says. While she does not wish to see Rogan banned from the platform, she finds it surprising that Spotify has not taken any of his episodes containing Covid-19 misinformation down, such as the Malone episode, as it appears to violate Spotify guidelines prohibiting “dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information that may cause offline harm.”

“There’s quite a hefty amount of misinformation in several episodes. Maybe that shouldn’t be allowed, and [removing them] could be a way to solve the problem,” she says. “If he wants to have a relationship with Spotify, they should put the brakes on at a certain point.” Linvill thinks Spotify should clarify its rules regarding misinformation and then remove all content that violates these rules accordingly, “the same as all mainstream social media platforms,” citing Rogan’s August 20, 2021 claim on his podcast that mRNA Covid-19 vaccines are really “gene therapy” as just one example. If one of their content creators seriously suggests something like “vaccines are gene therapy” and that statement has dangerous implications for public health, that content could be removed.

“It seems to me that the best way to ‘raise awareness around what’s acceptable’ is to actually enforce rules,” he says, quoting a line from Spotify CEO Ek’s blog post. “As every parent knows, you can tell people the rules all day long. If you don’t enforce them they will be quickly forgotten.”

For his part, Rogan addressed the controversy on Monday morning, posting a nine-minute video responding to Young’s decision to pull his music and the platform’s move to adopt content warnings, which he said he agreed with. He apologized to those who criticize his podcast and vowed to more thoroughly research contentious topics and feature more “mainstream” guests to balance out fringe views. “I want to show all kinds of opinions so that we can all figure out what’s going on and not just about Covid, about everything about health, about fitness, wellness, the state of the world,” Rogan said in his statement. In the same statement, however, Rogan also pointed out that “any of the things that we thought of as misinformation just a short while ago are now accepted as fact,” citing the now-widely accepted inefficacy of cloth masks as just one example.

Wallace is skeptical that Rogan is earnest in his desire to curb misinformation on his platform, nor is she persuaded by Spotify’s recent efforts to do damage control, given the company’s enormous reported financial interest in Rogan. “It’s not about cancel culture. Nobody is trying to stop Rogan from making podcasts,” she says. “And it’s not just that Spotify permits misinformation. It’s that they’re sponsoring it. They’re paying him to produce misinformation, and they’re standing by it.”

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