Spotify: Censorship or profits?

Joe Rogan has turned controversy into his best partner in professional adventures. But from so much playing with fire, he is getting closer to burning. The latest problem that has affected the American comedian, and Spotify, the platform that Rogan uses to distribute his content has been the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. The interviews of doctors Peter McCullough and Robert Malone were to blame for this new scandal. And it is not just another scandal, it is a much more complex situation. The Joe Rogan Experience was acquired exclusively by Spotify in May 2020 for $100 million; as we explained in an earlier post, Spotify had to expand its content offer as having only music, which is almost impossible to have in exclusivity, makes its business model hard to defend. This has caused the controversy to jump to the Swedish platform, since, being the owner of the format, it is validating the misinformation that has been broadcasted in the program. Among other reactions, a group of doctors published a statement against Joe Rogan and the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. This caused quite a stir on social media with calls for the cancellation of The Joe Rogan Experience, among others. In addition, artists such as Neil Young or Joni Mitchell decided to withdraw their music from the Spotify catalog as a protest.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash.

For those who still do not know the protagonist of the story, Joe Rogan is an American humorist and martial arts commentator. During his long career of more than thirty years, he has gone from doing stand-up comedy in bars to commenting on MMA fights, presenting television programs and being the creator of one of the most listened to podcasts worldwide, The Joe Rogan Experience. The show was launched on December 24, 2009, by Rogan and comedian Brian Redban. In 2015 it was already one of the most popular podcasts in the world with 16 million monthly listeners and in 2019 Rogan said that it had already reached 190 million downloads per month. For more than 1,700 episodes, Rogan has interviewed the most notable and colorful characters on the American scene, talking about current affairs and other topics of interest, always with a casual and irreverent tone. One of the most commented was the frame of Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, smoking cannabis during the recording of an episode.

Rogan has always been involved in many disputes for not having mince words and bringing all kinds of guests to his program. Some of the latest controversies are related to racism and the use of the N-word or, the topic that concerns us today, the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. Peter McCullough and Robert Malone declared, among other ideas not validated by science, that the pandemic was planned, that vaccines are experimental, and that infected people develop permanent immunity.

On January 12, 2022, a group of 270 doctors published a letter in Rolling Stone magazine stating that Joe Rogan is allowing to spread on his show “claims false and harmful to society” about COVID. The letter did not directly request the expulsion of Joe Rogan from the platform, but it did point out that Spotify did not have a clear disinformation policy and could cause situations like this. The text went viral and reached the ears of many artists. Some decided to take action. Neil Young decided to remove all his music from Spotify, stating, “They can have Rogan or Young, not both”. Young was followed by Joni Mitchell and guitarist Nils Lofgren. According to Insider, the traffic on the page dedicated to unsubscribing from Spotify increased its traffic by 115% four days after Young announced that he was leaving the platform. For several days, Joe Rogan was at the top of the media agenda and thousands of people called for Spotify to punish the comedian by terminating his contract. For his part, Daniel Ek, the CEO of the Swedish company, stated that the company would make changes in this regard. Joe Rogan posted a video on Instagram apologizing and removed 113 of the posted episodes for inappropriate comments, most of them racist.

Photo by Haithem Ferdi on Unsplash.

These measures were received with some skepticism by the people who were following the controversy. That is why many people today continue to demand that Spotify kick Joe Rogan off the platform. To what extent should Spotify throw out the comedian? Analyzing the policy of the Swedish company, the answer is not clear. In fact, it was because of all the controversy that, among other measures taken by Ek, the Spotify Platform Rules were published. Among other rules, there is a specific one for the subject that concerns us: “Content that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information that may cause offline harm or poses a direct threat to public health includes, but may not be limited to: asserting that AIDS, COVID-19, cancer or other serious life-threatening diseases are a hoax or not real will not be allowed”. Reading these sentences, the decision of whether the statements made in the program are objectionable depends on the interpretation that each one wants to give. According to the platform itself, more than 20,000 podcasts containing erroneous information about COVID-19 have been removed. So, it seems that in other cases Spotify has no hesitation in deleting programs if it deems it necessary.

We cannot forget that The Joe Rogan Experience is the star podcast of the platform and therefore Spotify has a privileged treatment with it. Spotify in most cases, when an anonymous individual uploads a podcast, it is only the platform on which content is uploaded and it can defend itself by stating that the content does not represent the company. But in this case, Spotify is the exclusive owner of the program and therefore, the company must be careful with the content since in some way it acts as a “producer” and indirectly it is validating these opinions if it publishes without censorship.

Censorship on social networks and digital platforms has been one of the most debated issues in recent years, navigating the fine line between freedom of expression and the publication of offensive or harmful content. For years, these platforms have created structures to be able to find the solution that creates the most consensus. For example, TikTok has a division of workers only in charge of filtering the videos that are published. Facebook has an Oversight Board in which it invested an initial 130 million, as we explained in this earlier post. And Spotify should not be less. For many years, Spotify has been opaque with its content policy, but it has had to give up and start taking steps to get closer to users and thus not lose them. Moreover, with this new commitment to create exclusive Spotify content, the situation becomes more compromised for the Swedish company, since it becomes the producer of these programs. Keep in mind that the relationship between a content creator and YouTube, and between Joe Rogan and Spotify is very different. And therefore Spotify has to be very careful.

Here a new question arises. If instead of leaving Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren, The Weekend (80 million views), Justin Bieber (79 million) and Ed Sheeran (77 million), the three most listened to artists on the platform, had left, a total of 236 million monthly listeners between the three, would the company continue to defend Joe Rogan because his statements are correct or would they then change their decision and expel Joe Rogan from the platform? To what extent would a justified decision in a policy unknown to the public until a month ago, and based on content protection financed by the same company, be revocable if there was an economically sound reason? To what extent is it a moral, political, economic, or strategic decision?

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