Spotify: power brings responsibilities
The controversy over Joe Rogan’s Spotify podcast and its repeated sharing of COVID-19 disinformation begs the bigger question of how companies that dominate a market should be held accountable. While Spotify has taken some steps to clarify what constitutes disinformation, it has stood by the podcast. It is now facing growing pressure to take responsibility for the content it produces and distributes. As a market leader, it is rightfully a target of advocacy and campaigns. Being in the listening business, it should make sure it hears critical voices and does not provide a platform for spreading disinformation and sowing division.
Over the two years of the pandemic so far, many have become more aware of the insidious power of disinformation. But many have also fallen under its spell and are making choices that put lives at risk.
Disinformation can come from unexpected sources. Most of the attention has fallen on the social media giants, but the controversy over Spotify’s Joe Rogan Experience podcast should focus fresh attention on the unsuspected spaces in which disinformation is spread – and the responsibility of companies to prevent disinformation rather than profit from it.
Backlash to pandemic myths
The dispute didn’t start with legendary Canadian rocket Neil Young and his ultimatum that Spotify choose between his music and the Rogan podcast – but it was his intervention that made the headlines and brought matters to a head. Folk superstar Joni Mitchell quickly backed Young, but Spotify made clear which side it was on, forgoing precious music inventory to stick with its podcast.
Concerns had first been raised in January, when 270 US health professionals signed a letter urging the audio platform to put in place a ‘clear and public policy to moderate misinformation’. They did so after controversial virologist Robert Malone appeared on the show, shortly after he’d been banned by Twitter over COVID-19 disinformation. He falsely claimed that people who get vaccinated after having the virus are at greater risk of adverse side effects.
This wasn’t the only demonstrably false claim made by Rogan and his guests. Another guest promoted Ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug for animals, as a supposed COVID-19 cure. Rogan inaccurately claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine is ‘gene therapy’ and poses health risks for young people that are worse than catching the disease. Taken together, such inaccurate claims might dissuade many listeners from receiving proven, life-saving vaccines.
This is disinformation on an epic scale. Rogan’s reach is huge. Each episode is said to have 11 million listeners.
In essence, Spotify is being held to the Peter Parker Principle: with great power comes great responsibility.
Although Spotify didn’t take down Rogan’s podcasts, Young’s stance had rapid impact. Content warnings were added to podcasts containing obvious COVID-19 disinformation along with links to pages providing accurate information. Rogan promised he would try harder to challenge controversial views.
But it seems unlikely he’ll significantly change the formula his fans enjoy and that made him famous: an eclectic choice of guests, who have included numerous conspiracy theorists and far-right figures, and a conversational style, which means incorrect assertions and inflammatory opinions are rarely challenged by the host.
Once Rogan was put under the spotlight, more controversy ensued. Singer India.Arie compiled and shared a video showing Rogan using racial slurs multiple times in earlier podcasts; she insisted her music also be removed from the platform. Rogan apologised and took down numerous episodes. Spotify condemned these and promised to invest US$100 million in content from ‘historically marginalised groups’.
Spotify also announced it had developed content guidelines. It begs the question of why it hadn’t done so before this controversy erupted.
The business bottom line
Spotify is standing by Rogan’s podcast because it makes sense for its business model and financial bottom line. Having started out as a music streaming service, in recent years it’s invested heavily in podcasts. In 2020 it paid Rogan a reported US$100 million to make his podcast exclusive to the platform. It’s also reportedly spent over US$1 billion in recent years to buy podcast companies. This is an investment the company simply could not walk away from.
There’s sound market logic in Spotify’s extension into the podcast arena. Long the cherished haunts of amateurs and enthusiasts, podcasts are increasingly professionalised and dominated by big names. For many people, their favourite podcasts have become an essential part of their weekly conversation. Spotify wants people to keep coming back, paying their subscriptions to assure continued access. It also makes money selling advertising on podcasts produced by its companies – and for exclusive podcasts with millions of listeners, that’s a lot of money.
By investing in podcasts, Spotify seeks to limit the leverage of record labels – who could at some point seek to remove their catalogues and set up their own services, as has happened in the highly fragmented streaming video market – and keep more of the subscription money for itself.
Spotify knew what it was getting when it signed Rogan to an exclusive deal. His demographic – chiefly young US men – come with disposable income that make them a key market for subscription services. Edginess plays well with them. Spotify may have regarded some controversy as effectively priced in – or even better, as part of its marketing strategy.
But as it prioritises and pays for exclusive podcasts, Spotify increasingly becomes unable to claim – as social media giants have long attempted – that it is merely a tech platform, providing the services through which content producers and content consumers come together. It has become a producer of content, in effect a media company, and on that basis must be held to a high standard of responsibility if podcasts it finances and directly profits from spread public health disinformation – or, for that matter, racist content.
Power and responsibility
Responsibilities must be greatest for businesses that dominate markets. Spotify is unquestionably the market leader for audio streaming. It has around 365 million annual users, approximately 165 million of whom are paid subscribers. It’s way ahead of its nearest rival, Apple Music, which last reported 60 million users. For podcasters looking to monetise their output, Spotify increasingly looks like the only game in town.
This isn’t the first time Spotify has been accused of abusing its market power. It’s long been the subject of criticism from musicians over limited royalties and a lack of transparency about these. It’s accused of developing its dominant position while paying little for music’s creative lifeblood. Campaigns such as Justice at Spotify, from the US Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, point out that on average artists get only US$0.0038 every time a song is streamed, meaning that it takes 263 plays to make US$1.
As a dominant player, Spotify is a fair target for advocacy. It should expect to face calls to act responsibly. And this is the essence of this controversy. Of course in polarised times, events quickly become seen through the prism of broader culture wars. But Rogan is no free-speech warrior and those pulling their music and podcasts from Spotify are not trying to cancel or deplatform him. People are free to decide not to use the service or remove their content from it – and they must use the few tools they have available to call the company to account.
In essence, Spotify is being held to the Peter Parker Principle: with great power comes great responsibility. People expect the market leader to take responsibility for both its action and inaction – and they are right.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Spotify should consult widely to develop stronger content guidelines to prevent the spread of disinformation and hate speech on its platform.
Civil society should work to further develop fact-checking services to help combat disinformation.
Spotify should engage and negotiate with industry bodies, including musicians’ unions, to develop a plan to pay fairer and more transparent royalties.
Cover photo illustration by Cindy Ord/Getty Images