Spotify’s Problem With Misinformation and the Apparent Joe Rogan Clause
Joe Rogan’s controversial COVID-19 misinformation have cost Spotify the catalogs of some big name artists. But will these artists’ boycotts actually make a difference?
Joe Rogan, the UFC commentator turned podcaster, has come under heat throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for spreading misinformation on the virus and the vaccine. Spotify reported “The Joe Rogan Experience” as the most listened to podcast on the platform globally in 2021. Rogan sparked major controversy in December when he released a three-hour podcast episode with Dr. Robert Malone, a physician who suggested in June that the vaccine made COVID-19 infections worse. Critics call his spread of misinformation dangerous for a multitude of reasons: his average listener is the persuadable age of 24, he has a sizable cult of personality, and his enormous reach gives him unfettered access to a large audience.
Photo Courtesy: Thaiger
Following the release of this episode, hundreds of public health professionals wrote an open letter to Spotify urging the company to implement a misinformation policy. On January 24, musician Neil Young requested that Spotify remove his music in protest of the platform’s support of Rogan. Young’s letter led to other musicians and creators to take similar action: Joni Mitchell pulled all but four albums from the streaming service, and India.Arie also announced that she plans on pulling her music as well, adding Rogan’s usage of racially insensitive language and the way Spotify pays artists to her reasons for leaving in an Instagram post.
This is not the first time that artists have pulled their music from Spotify in protest. In November 2014, Taylor Swift removed all of her music for reasons similar to India.Arie’s concerns about Spotify’s payment policies. Adele withheld her albums ‘21’ and ‘25’ at their times of release from the service in protest of their free streaming model and their model to pay artists based on StreamShare, not per each individual stream. However, these boycotts were temporary. Swift’s entire discography became available again in June 2017, and users could listen to ‘25’ in 2016, seven months after its initial release.
The Joe Rogan situation differs from disagreements over royalties and payouts because it involves free speech and a multi-million dollar deal. In 2020, Rogan signed a deal with Spotify, making the service the only way anyone could listen to “The Joe Rogan Experience.” The Wall Street Journal reported the multi-year licensing deal as being worth more than $100 million. A recent New York Times report claims the deal may be worth double that figure.
In a message to employees, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, after condemning Rogan’s words, wrote, “I want to make one point very clear — I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer. We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope.” Yet the platform has not always left content totally up to creators. In 2017, the service removed racist music in response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In May 2018, they enacted a Hate Content and Hateful Conduct policy, but redacted it in June of the same year due to vagueness and an apparent lack of input from the platform’s team and partners . Music by R. Kelly and XXXTentacion were the only ones immediately affected by the policy, due to the former’s allegations of sexual abuse and the latter facing charges of aggravated battery. Now, users can listen to their hits like “Ignition Remix” and “SAD!,” respectively, but Spotify will not make any effort to actively promote them.
In a statement given to TIME magazine after pulling the policy, Spotify said “We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions – what we choose to program – to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
Besides receiving scrutiny from 300 medical professionals, Young, Mitchell, and India.Arie, Spotify has also been criticized by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the White House. The former also have a multi-million dollar podcast deal with the service and have expressed concerns over the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, said, “our hope is that all major tech platforms, and all major news sources for that matter, be responsible and be vigilant to ensure the American people have access to accurate information on something as significant as COVID-19… That certainly includes Spotify,” during her daily press briefing.
Other media outlets have chimed in on Dr. Malone’s claims. After Rogan’s episode with Dr. Malone, the New York Times fact-checked eight of their claims. Dr. Malone was banned from Twitter for disobeying the service’s COVID-19 misinformation. For Spotify’s part, Ek revealed that the streaming service will add content advisories at the beginning of podcast episodes that discuss the virus, but the CEO failed to mention Rogan or Young in the statement. 70 episodes of Rogan’s podcast that included racially insensitive language were quietly removed from Spotify sometime on February 4. The next day, Rogan posted an apology video to his Instagram apologizing for his usage of the n-word in his older podcast episodes.
Despite these actions, every other episode is available, reaching an estimated 11 million listeners per episode. Spotify is struggling to uphold the standards and policies of typical media sites because of how important it is to them to keep Rogan; he is the star of their most popular and profitable podcast.