Spotify’s new COVID-19 policy doesn’t fix its Joe Rogan problem

Spotify would like everyone to think its policy issues have been solved.

The company is currently facing a double-edged exodus as, on the one hand, celebrated artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are pulling their work off the platform while, on the other hand, so many users are canceling their paid Premium subscriptions that the unsubscribe feature is reportedly struggling to keep up. It’s certainly possible that the twin happenings aren’t directly linked, but Young laid his decision (which Mitchell supported in solidarity) at the feet of Joe Rogan, the controversial Spotify-exclusive podcaster who speaks to a millions-strong audience.

In the midst of all this upheaval, Spotify responded on Sunday with a publicly available version of its platform rules and a clarification on how it will treat podcast discussions of COVID-19 moving forward.

The reason for the move is articulated best in an open letter that circulated recently in which more than 250 “scientists, medical professionals, professors, and science communicators” signed off on a call for the company to clarify its policies and “take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform.” The letter specifically cites the Joe Rogan Experience podcast and its host, who has perpetuated inaccurate or false information about the ongoing global pandemic.

Spotify’s Sunday announcement, which co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek shared on Twitter, makes no mention of Rogan or his podcast nor does it address the specifics of any recent events that led to the move.

“You’ve had a lot of questions over the last few days about our platform policies and the lines we have drawn between what is acceptable and what is not,” the post reads. “We have had rules in place for many years but admittedly, we haven’t been transparent around the policies that guide our content more broadly. This, in turn, led to questions around their application to serious issues including COVID-19.”

The post goes on to acknowledge that Spotify has “an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely-accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time.” In that spirit, the company landed on one concrete step aimed at COVID specifically.

“We are working to add a content advisory to any podcast episode that includes any discussion about COVID-19. This advisory will direct listeners to our dedicated COVID-19 Hub, a resource that provides easy access to data-driven facts, up-to-date information as shared by scientists, physicians, academics, and public health authorities around the world, as well as links to trusted sources.” The post goes on to note that the advisories mark a “new effort to combat misinformation” on the platform.

The COVID-19 Hub, which is already live, is something akin to a Spotify playlist. Rather than linking to outside sources, the hub gathers together podcast series from BBC World Service, Politico, CNN en Español, ABC News, and Bloomberg that all focus on public health matters generally and the pandemic specifically. Rogan’s podcast is not included, obviously.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with directing users toward educational content that has the potential to clear up misunderstandings about the facts of the pandemic. But Spotify’s approach is eyebrow-raising nonetheless, since this would-be “new effort to combat misinformation” doesn’t… really… do that?

By flagging every single COVID-related podcast discussion with an advisory, Spotify is implicitly putting Rogan’s proclivity for junk science on the same footing as any deeply researched, science-first podcast tackling the same topic. It’s a dodge: By lumping all COVID discussions together under one umbrella, Spotify gets to say, essentially, “Some of this is right and some of this isn’t, and we’re giving you the tools to decide for yourself.”

Spotify is implicitly putting Rogan’s proclivity for junk science on the same footing as any deeply researched, science-first podcast tackling the same topic.

A noble idea, perhaps, but one that doesn’t quite live up to its ideal in reality. This might not be true of every listener in Rogan’s audience, but plenty of people are willing to simply take what’s said by him and his guests at face value. Many of those same people have spent years, whether they realize it or not, as soldiers in a war on truth and reality. And since they’ve already bought into Rogan’s ignorance-fueled worldview, sticking a bunch of fact-filled audio hours in front of them ain’t it.

Spotify’s newly published platform rules don’t exactly promise a safer and more truth-centric environment, either. The “dangerous content” section of the rules that govern COVID-19 is filled with vague, easily subverted language that reads like a bunch of loopholes for people like Rogan to leap through.

Content creators are barred from calling COVID-19 or certain other diseases “a hoax or not real.” They’re not permitted to encourage “the consumption of bleach products to cure various illnesses and diseases.” They also can’t suggest that approved vaccines “are designed to cause death” nor can they encourage people to get themselves infected on purpose, to build immunity.

It all sounds great until you look closer. Content creators may not be able to call COVID a hoax, but that doesn’t prevent them from, say, drawing an equivalency between the illness at the heart of our global pandemic and the seasonal flu. (Only one of those has killed more than 5.6 million people since 2019, and it ain’t the flu.) Similarly, disallowing any suggestion that the vaccines are “designed to cause death” won’t actually disrupt efforts to make people doubt vaccine effectiveness or safety. And the bleach thing… that was one dumb news moment of many for Donald Trump, but it’s also something that was quickly denounced pretty much everywhere.

The calls for Spotify to take action may be framed around the company’s sorely lacking public-facing platform rules and policies, but the intent behind those calls when it comes to purveyors of bullshit like Rogan is much simpler and more straightforward: de-platforming. Young made it clear when he called for his own music to be taken down: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

That’s a step Spotify is apparently unwilling to take, and it’s left the company dealing with a mess of its own making. Content advisories do little to clean that up. Rogan could easily bounce back from a de-platforming; his podcast was massively popular before the Spotify deal, and it’s not like he’s the only podcaster who preys on people’s ignorance. Steve Bannon’s show, for example, can still be found on Apple Podcasts, iHeart, and elsewhere — ironically, Spotify kicked out Bannon in 2020.

Rogan’s commitment to spreading harmful ideas and false understandings is a public menace. Even if a de-platforming fails to shut him down completely, the controversial host who commands a loyal audience that brings in millions of weekly listeners will continue to be treated like a serious person for as long as platforms like Spotify continue to give him oxygen.

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