Modern internet has sent the attention economy into hyperdrive, plunging us into a world trapped in dopamine loops and filter bubbles that do not prioritise the truth, but whatever is most compelling. And that very often means whatever that riles us up. In reality, a healthy democracy urges one to mull over one’s opinions before expressing them. In the virtual world, however, attention accrues to those who do the opposite. Therefore, Spotify’s recent debacle — in which Joe Rogan (the freewheeling host of a wildly successful podcast that the streaming giant acquired through a ballyhooed US$100 million exclusive deal in 2020) precipitated a cascade of high-profile boycotts for spreading misinformation about Covid-19 — feels especially resonant right now.
Controversy sells, and tech firms are more than willing to invest in clickbait and exaggerated news feeds to court those who greedily seek it. Rogan was supposed to be Spotify’s biggest acquisition, a gold rush that would transform the Swedish company into a one-stop shop for all means of online audio. But did the streaming service get more than it bargained for when it made a Faustian pact with the world’s most famous podcaster?
One would think that our society has evolved beyond the point of turning to a former Fear Factor host and comedian who tested positive for Covid-19 and imbibed an array of drugs — including horse deworming agent, Ivermectin — for medical advice. One would, however, be wrong. Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, reportedly brings in an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, most of whom tune in to his interview with anti-vaxxer Dr Robert Malone and far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of fake news website InfoWars, who overplays the risks of giving children the polio vaccine and claims that masks are futile against the spread of the coronavirus. The latter is the same rabble-rouser who terrorised the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School victims by calling the shooting a hoax.
Rogan’s backlash finally boiled over earlier this month when 270 doctors, physicians and science educators urged Spotify to “take action against mass-information” on The Joe Rogan Experience, in the hope of preventing listeners from being further hoodwinked by Malone’s questionable credibility. It was rock veteran Neil Young who delivered the ultimatum by pulling his entire catalogue from the streaming service in protest, and kicking off a small rebellion as Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell as well as podcasters such as comedian Stewart Lee and writer Roxanne Gay also withdrew their works. The domino effect continued to snowball, sparking internal unrest and discontent among Spotify employees who lambasted CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek for continuing to feature controversial guests.
Spotify’s Ek said ‘cancelling voices is a slippery slope’, after Rogan’s inflammatory remarks and use of racial slur in previous episodes sparked outcry
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Spotify is, to many, merely a streaming platform but like any ambitious tech behemoth, it desires to diversify and differentiate itself from other services to become more profitable. With that in mind, the company began to assert itself as a key player in the podcast industry, snagging rights to more shows, including from the Obamas. But listeners tend to forget that podcasts rose from the humble origin of homespun media, which means that even the most popular shows lack the kind of regulations that govern television and radio. Although 70 episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience were removed (none of them were related to Covid-19, strangely), Ek has publicly claimed that Spotify will not police its content but only add advisories to strike a balance between supporting creator expression and protecting the safety of the service’s listeners.
But therein lies the predicament: How do you draw the line between censorship and curatorship when an influential figure with the ability to command vast attention uses that power to warp reality? Spotify’s role, which used to offer just digital music, has been jolted into a different territory as its podcasting venture is giving the spotlight and megaphone to a purveyor of (mis)information. Ek is hiding behind the dubious argument that Facebook and YouTube perpetuate — that Spotify is merely a platform that distributes content produced by others, but is not exactly responsible for the output. Yet, the very fact that the company cherry-picked Rogan to be on its platform demonstrates that it is making an intentional choice about the content the podcast is disseminating.
Attempts to ban works of literature, muzzle public opinion or whitewash content to the extent of becoming anodyne are a form of censorship. Expressing moral discernment while affording enough room for a multitude of voices, and holding oneself accountable, are means of curation. In the case of Spotify, which has adamantly avoided labelling itself as a publisher, no one — not even its harshest critics — is asking the platform to play censor. But it should act like a media company to own up and uphold the guidelines it has set. Freedom of speech does not exist in a vacuum and it comes with consequences, after all.
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It seems possible that the mounting pressure from the Rogan episode will continue to engulf the streaming company if other artists threaten to walk — Taylor Swift fans are already calling on the pop superstar to remove her music in solidarity with other musicians. Little remedy has emerged from the Spotify camp to assuage public outcry though. Hoping to ride out the storm, it has promised to introduce new features that will promote higher-quality information. Meanwhile, Rogan — who has agreed on the merits of putting a disclaimer on episodes that discuss the coronavirus — has posted a conciliatory video on Instagram, pledging to undo the damage by “balancing things out” with “more experts with differing opinions”.
When Rogan announced his signing with Spotify, he had emphasised that the company would have no creative control over his podcast, which ranks No 1 in 93 markets, or the choice of guests on his show. But will this change following his heated fiasco? Experts weighed in that Rogan — whose listeners grew by 75% from the time he joined Spotify — will still be allowed to say whatever he wants as Ek’s all-creators-welcome stance seems to encourage any content, so long as it stays within the bounds of Spotify’s “moderation” rules. Case in point: The defiant podcaster had already returned to the airwaves after a week-long hiatus, this time claiming that lockdown does not stop the spread of coronavirus.
Misinformation is amplified by partisan actors, and plenty of bad actors are ushering the trend along. It is high time Spotify made a sound choice.