Facing a growing crisis last week that was set in motion, in part, by Bay Area musician Neil Young, Spotify rushed to make a public pledge about dealing with misinformation on podcasts — but the company stopped short of saying it would pull down any content or end its relationship with controversial anti-vaxx bro Joe Rogan.
After Young announced early last week that he wanted all of his music removed from Spotify's platform unless they removed content by vaccine "skeptic" and pandemic denialist Joe Rogan — the most popular podcaster on Spotify — the company received a fair amount of negative media attention. On Friday, recent Kennedy Center honoree Joni Mitchell joined in Young's protest and announced she would have her music removed from Spotify as well. Meanwhile, Spotify's share price sank last week, wiping out $2 billion in its market value, as Reuters reports.
This latest dustup followed an appearance by anti-vaccine pundit Dr. Robert Malone on the December 31 episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, in which Malone shared some of his misinformation about vaccines and mandates. That led directly to an open letter signed by over 1,000 doctors and scientists asking Spotify to address the problem of "mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform." Young cited that letter in his protest announcement last week.
Both Young and Mitchell survived polio as children. In her statement, Mitchell said, "Irresponsible people are spreading lies [on Spotify] that are costing people their lives" and "I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue."
But controversy over Rogan in particular dates back further than this, where Spotify is concerned. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, whose Archewell Foundation has partnered with Spotify in a content deal, publicly expressed their disapproval of Rogan's vaccine comments last spring.
In 2020, Rogan signed a reported $100 million deal to give Spotify exclusive streaming rights to his podcast, which draws an estimated 11 million monthly listeners.
On Sunday, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek issued a fairly wishy-washy statement that comes from the school of wishy-washy statements we've all been familiar with from people like Mark Zuckerberg, when faced with content-moderation fights. Ek said "there are plenty of individuals and views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly," but he said the company doesn't want to "take on the position of being content censor."
Still, in response to "feedback," Ek said the company would try to be more transparent about its content moderation policies for podcasts, and would make a half-hearted effort — a la Facebook — to add warning labels to some content.
The company also made public its content rules, which Ek claims have been in place "for many years," but just weren't made public. The company says it bans content that suggests COVID-19 is a hoax, and content that suggests that vaccines cause death. It also bans content promoting the drinking of bleach — but apparently doesn't have a problem with Joe Rogan promoting the use of ivermectin, the horse de-wormer that bizarrely became a suggested treatment for COVID among conservatives and Fox News enthusiasts despite there being no medical evidence of its effectiveness. Ivermectin promotion likely should fall under the "dangerous content" category given how many right-wing morons have landed in the hospital because of it, but Spotify can't afford to lose its #1 podcaster.
Spotify also says it will begin adding "a content advisory to any podcast episode that includes a discussion about COVID-19," directing listeners to refer to official information about the virus and vaccines. But, you know, this is too little too late at this point, and Joe Rogan has likely done most of the damage he's going to do. (Rogan, in case you missed it, was infected with COVID last summer after months of encouraging young people not to get vaccinated, and announced he was taking a "vitamin drip" and ivermectin to treat it.)
"I want you to know that from the very first days of the pandemic, Spotify has been biased toward action," Ek said. "I trust our policies, the research and expertise that inform their development, and our aspiration to apply them in a way that allows for broad debate and discussion, within the lines... That doesn’t mean that we always get it right, but we are committed to learning, growing and evolving."
Joe Rogan offered his own half-apology via an Instagram video, saying, "If I pissed you off, I'm sorry. I will do my best to try to balance out these more controversial viewpoints with other people's perspectives so we can maybe find a better point of view."
Rogan added, "I’m not trying to promote misinformation, I’m not trying to be controversial. I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than to just talk to people."
Rogan has taken the often-used stance of right-wing "skeptics" who are merely "having conversations" with people with "differing views," and he's "not a scientist" so he can't claim to know who's right.
We'll see this week if any more artists join in the movement of removing their content from Spotify.
The hashtag #BoycottSpotify has been modestly trending on Twitter for several days, but Spotify's stock price, which sank last week, rebounded over 12% on Monday — and Citigroup changed its rating of the stock from "neutral" to "buy."
Update: As New York Magazine writes, this whole controversy was kind of dead on arrival, and Spotify has wagered, probably safely, that no one is going to care in a few days. Also, when it comes to hypocrisy, we don't have to look much farther than Young, who was encouraging fans to stream his catalogue on Amazon Music, even though Amazon has done plenty to hawk fake COVID cures and profiting off counterfeit masks.