While tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have increased efforts to tackle misinformation on their platforms, Spotify has so far escaped a similar level of scrutiny
“You can say whatever you want – we’re on Spotify.”
Those were Joe Rogan’s words of reassurance to a podcast guest when she paused to joke that she would be arrested for what she said next. “Like, YouTube’s not gonna pull it,” he went on, prompting her laughter. “We’re in a weird realm.”
The remarks, made during Rogan’s interview with Canadian anti-transgender writer Meghan Murphy last August, reflects a difficult truth for the world’s largest music streaming platform as it seeks to extend its dominance, and becomes a media company in its own right.
Under heavy political pressure tech giants like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have increased efforts to tackle misinformation on their platforms during the pandemic, tightening their rules and hiring third-party fact-checkers (albeit with limited success).
Audio streaming platforms like Spotify have so far escaped a similar level of scrutiny. But the Swedish-based, public company is now being forced to grapple with questions of its responsibility over misinformation and pseudoscience as it makes exclusive multimillion-dollar deals with popular podcasters.
Its flagship grab is undoubtedly The Joe Rogan Experience, Spotify’s number one podcast, whose colourful and free-wheeling host was paid a reported $100m in early 2020 for exclusive rights to his show.
This week, Rogan once again proved the tricky balancing act for Spotify. In a four-hour interview, broadcast on Tuesday, he gave the self-help author and anti-feminist mystic, Dr Jordan Peterson, a platform to claim without evidence that climate science has no basis in reality, and that solar power kills more people than nuclear.
It’s the latest example of Rogan and his guests appearing to have free rein to spread false claims and conspiracy theories, which in the past have spanned topics from the coronavirus vaccine and Dr Anthony Fauci to transgender people.
In some instances, Rogan’s words appeared to break with what Spotify has said publicly about Covid-19 misinformation.
The streaming service has previously told news outlets that it bans “false or dangerous deceptive content about COVID-19, which may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.”
It also claims to have removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Yet no misinformation policy is listed in Spotify’s user guidelines or in summaries of prohibited content on the company website. Spotify did not respond to a list of questions from The Independent seeking clarity on its policies surrounding misinformation.
Spotify has a hate speech policy on its website banning content that “expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence” against people based on characteristics such as race, sex, and sexual orientation.
“Rogan has showed time and time and again that he will misinform his audience on Spotify and won’t face any repercussions for doing so,” says Alex Paterson, a senior researcher with the left-wing campaign group Media Matters for America, who listened to over 300 hours of the podcast in 2021.
“Spotify’s complete failure to mitigate Rogan’s harmful rhetoric about the pandemic demonstrates clearly that when it comes to their top podcast host [the stated] policy is just a hollow PR strategy.”
‘There’s no such thing as climate’
Rogan, who is also a stand-up comedian and a combat sports commentator, was Spotify’s most-listened podcaster in both 2020 and 2021.
Before his deal with the company he had an estimated 11 million downloads per episode, although that figure likely included some automatic downloads that were never listened to. According to Chartmetrics and Viberate, two analytics companies, his audience is mostly young men aged 18-35 in English-speaking countries.
That is a familiar audience to Dr Peterson, who is not a climate scientist but a clinical psychologist who became famous for his anti-political correctness views, attacks on the trans community, arguments that white privilege isn’t real, and defence of the patriarchy.
“Climate is about everything, okay,” says Dr Peterson on the episode. “But your models aren’t based on everything. Your models are based on a set number of variables. So that means you’ve reduced the variables – which are everything – to that set.
“Well, how did you decide which set of variables to include in the equation if it’s about everything? […] Because your models do not and cannot model everything.”
At one point, Rogan acknowledges that his guest “went on these rants” but continues the conversation on climate change. Dr Peterson then alleges, with zero factual basis, that “more people die every year from solar energy than die from nuclear”.
Asked what he means, Dr Peterson laughs and says: “No, you fall off the roof when you’re installing it … gravity!” He describes this as a “good example of unintended consequences”.
Dr Peterson’s claims were widely panned as “climate denial”, “wackadoo” and “completely wrong”. John Cook, who studies climate change denial narratives at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub in Melbourne, Australia, toldThe Independent that they were “very old, debunked arguments that I’ve seen a million times over the last decade and a half”.
Dr Cook added: “He talks as if he’s saying something insightful, but it’s a complete misunderstanding of how science works.”
Dr Peterson did not respond to a request to comment from The Independent.
Climate denial is nothing new, and has been around for as long as scientists have been sounding the alarm on the fact that humans are causing the steep rise in global temperatures, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. It’s less common, however, for climate myths to be pumped into the auditory canals of millions with only a glancing, credulous attempt at being challenged.
“Podcasts are very intimate,” says Dr Cook. “It’s like you’re listening in on a conversation.”
Rogan’s “just asking questions” style – in which he seeks out fringe figures with unusual perspectives and mostly listens non-judgmentally – actually plays into a highly common climate denial tactic, Dr Cook notes, that of spuriously casting doubt on scientific conclusions.
Joe Rogan vs Neil Young
Rogan’s statements about Covid-19 and its vaccines have attracted anger, as has his choice of guests to discuss the pandemic.
One recent interview was with Dr Robert Malone, an infectious disease specialist banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation. Dr Malone has questioned the Covid jab’s effectiveness and falsely suggested that millions of people had been hypnotised into believing that the vaccines work to prevent serious disease.
Rogan has claimed that young people and children should not get the vaccine and inaccurately stated they are “gene therapy”. He has promoted the anti-parasite drug Ivermectin, whose effect on coronavirus remains unclear, and suggested that prolific conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was right to worry about microchips being hidden in Covid vaccines.
On the other hand, Rogan has also given a platform to an authoritative medical figure, Dr Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN.
Still, Mr Paterson of Media Matters for America says: “[Rogan] plays a crucial role in the right-wing echo chamber by amplifying vaccine sceptics and coronavirus conspiracy theorists,” says Mr Paterson, of Media Matters for America.
Dr Malone’s appearance prompted a group of doctors and scientists to sign an online petition calling on Spotify to adopt policies to prevent the spread of misinformation on its platform.
“By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals,” the letter read. It had been signed by more than 1,300 people as of Friday.
The veteran rocker Neil Young took issue with Rogan’s coronavirus misinformation and asked Spotify to remove his music this week.
“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” he wrote on his website.
Spotify has removed Young’s music from the platform, saying: “We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon.”
The Joe Rogan episode with Dr Malone remains available.
Announcing his Spotify deal in 2020, Rogan stressed to his audience that “it will be exactly the same show” and that “Spotify won’t have any creative control”.
Since then, he has repeatedly boasted about his freedom. “Spotify has given me no pushback whatsoever. It’s been amazing,” he said in September. And in May, he said: “They’re f***ing great. They don’t say s***.”
He added: “I tested it, too – like when I brought Alex Jones on? I was like ‘let’s see! You guys talk a lot of s***, let’s see!’ That f***ing guy is right way more than he’s wrong.”
Taking the biggest bite
All this comes as Spotify colonises the podcasting industry at breakneck pace.
Having launched in 2008, it is already the world’s largest music streaming service, according to Midia Research, controlling one-third of the market compared to 15 per cent for its next largest competitor, Apple music.
The company reports that it has 381 million users, including 172 million subscribers, across 184 markets and hosts 70 million tracks, including more than 3.2 million podcast titles. Some estimates now suggest it has a bigger podcast audience than Apple, the free app that comes pre-installed on every iPhone.
Among the 20,000 podcast episodes that Spotify claims to have removed due to vaccine misinformation include that of Australian anti-vaxxer and celebrity chef Pete Evans.
The policy applies to music too: Spotify reportedly nixed a controversial anti-lockdown song by Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown last March.
In 2018, it deleted several episodes of Infowars, a radio show hosted by Alex Jones, for hate speech. The interview with Mr Jones on The Joe Rogan Experience, is still available.
Spotify has not left Rogan completely alone. It has removed as many as 42 episodes dating from before his exclusive deal with the streaming service, including interviews with far right figures such as activist Milo Yiannopolous and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes.
Spotify’s chief executive, Daniel Ek, has said that he does not believe Spotify has any editorial responsibility over its podcasts.
“We have a lot of really well-paid rappers too that make tens of millions of dollars, if not more, each year from Spotify,” Mr Ek told Axios last year. “And we don’t dictate what they’re putting in their songs, either.”
Audio misinformation is harder to challenge
Until recently misinformation on Spotify has “flown under the radar” compared to social networks such as Facebook, Dr Cook says.
One reason is because audio content is more difficult to search through and scrutinise compared to the short snippets of text, often tied to a URL, found on other platforms.
In the past, Dr Cook’s team has used artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse data from blogs and think-tank publications, but he says that would be much harder to do with podcasts.
That makes it more difficult to track and challenge the reach of climate misinformation on Spotify – even as the company boasts about its own green credentials and says it is “listening to the science”.
“This is a really massive problem,” says Dr Valerie Wirtschafter, a senior data analyst at the Brookings Institution, who has studied how disinformation spread through podcasts on the “Big Lie” – that victory had been stolen from Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Dr Wirtschafter and her colleague Dr Chris Meserole, director of research for Brookings’ AI and Emerging Technology Initiative, are undertaking new research which will analyse 79 podcasts and 37,000 episodes for verifiable falsehoods on the Covid pandemic, while also exploring broader disinformation including climate denial.
Figuring out the reach of audio disinformation is critical due to how listeners respond to the medium.
“The [podcast hosts] are in your ear, you’re often listening to them alone, you choose when to start these episodes,” Dr Wirtschafter says, noting that research has shown that people are more likely to incorporate information they hear from podcasts into their beliefs.
“There’s an intimacy factor,” she added. “These hosts often develop identities, personalities that people gravitate toward. That’s really important in this conversation. On the flip side of that intimacy, there’s this implicit level of trust that gets built. But that podcaster could be anybody.”
Why Spotify needs Joe Rogan
The big question is: will Spotify ever part ways with its number one podcasting star? According to John Sullivan, a professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania who studies podcasting and tech industries, that is not likely.
“Spotify honestly couldn’t have cared less about Joe Rogan; what they wanted was Joe Rogan’s audience,” says Professor Sullivan.
He argues that Spotify should not be seen as a media company, because its game plan is simply to suck as much of the podcast industry into its platform as possible, with each exclusive content deal a means to that end.
Traditionally, podcasts have been distributed via web links that made it hard to measure their audience and almost impossible to censor them.
By contrast, Spotify is “a very sophisticated surveillance machine” that tracks every second of its users’ listening, helping it develop recommendation algorithms that keep subscribers on board and sell targeted adverts aimed at non-subscribers.
As such, Prof Sullivan says the company needs to grow as big as possible as quickly as it can so that it can become dominant before regulators and politicians grow restive.
If it can get to that point, then, like Facebook, it will be rich enough to resist or adapt to whatever new regulations come its way.
“At the moment it’s fair to say that Spotify needs [Rogan] more than the other way around,” says Prof Sullivan. “It’s in a moment now where it’s trying to maximise its growth as quickly as possible. Someone like Joe Rogan is in an ideal position, because he holds the keys to that growth… so that probably gives him a level of confidence about saying and doing whatever he would like.”
He adds that Spotify’s reported $100m investment in Mr Rogan will make it harder to give him up, to say nothing of the public firestorm it could ignite by “deplatforming” him.
The current approach may already be bearing fruit. According to Chartmetrics, Joe Rogan’s followers on Instagram are posting about Spotify more often over time, having started out less interested in it than the average user.
However, musicians might be able to force its hand if they follow the path of Young and pull their content from the service. A big enough boycott, Prof Sullivan says, would bite into Spotify’s core revenue.
In the meantime, Dr Cook believes that Spotify’s supposed rules against dangerous Covid-19 misinformation should be extended to other kinds.
While many tech giants put false Covid claims in a different category, saying they can directly cause harm to life and limb, Dr Cook says this is short-sighted.
“Covid misinformation is much more immediate,” says Dr Cook. “People will hear something, and then they’ll step outside and not wear a mask, or they won’t get vaccinated, or they won’t socially distance.
“Climate misinformation is more complicated, because it’s such a holistic issue. It’s long-term, it’s global. It’s harder to get our head around, but the threat is actually much greater than Covid misinformation because it’s this existential problem on a global scale, decades and centuries into the future.”