On Sunday, Spotify’s CEO responded to growing complaints from musicians and listeners about the role of Joe Rogan, the streaming service’s star podcaster, in spreading what has been widely criticized as coronavirus misinformation. Last week, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – two musical icons whose cultural influence is far greater than their streaming tracks – removed their music from Spotify to protest the platform’s support for Rogan.
“We know we have a crucial role to play in supporting the creator’s expression while balancing it with the security of our users,” CEO Daniel Ek, one of Spotify’s founders, wrote in a public letter. “In that role, it is important to me that we do not assume the position of content censor and at the same time make sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”
Ek did not specifically mention Rogan, who has drawn complaints for his interviews with vaccine skeptics. This month, a group of more than 200 professors and public health officials called on Spotify to remove a recent episode of Dr. Robert Malone, an infectious disease expert who included “several lies about Covid-19 vaccines,” according to the experts’ letter.
Last week, Young and Mitchell cited these complaints as they removed their music from Spotify, sparking debate across the music industry about the role artists can play in determining where their music should be heard. Young called Spotify “the home of life-threatening Covid misinformation”; Mitchell wrote, “Irresponsible people are spreading lies that cost people their lives.” In response, many users have swarmed social media to show support for Young and Mitchell and to say they are canceling their Spotify subscriptions, even though the service has not disclosed how many accounts were canceled.
More broadly, the issue has ignited new debate on issues of free speech on the Internet and on political polarization in the coronavirus era. Technology and social media platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have been widely accused of playing a prominent role in spreading untruths about the virus and the vaccines to prevent it. But some advocates of free speech have also defended these outlets to allow open debate, and services like Facebook and YouTube have proclaimed their records of removing what they see as clear misinformation.
Ek said Spotify would add “content advice” to any podcast episode that includes a discussion of coronavirus, and direct listeners to a “Covid-19 hub” with facts and information. This hub includes links to health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as podcasts from news sources such as the BBC, CNN and ABC News. Rogan, a comedian and actor, signed an exclusive podcast deal with Spotify in 2020 that has been reported to be worth $ 100 million, though Spotify has not confirmed that figure. His show is the most popular on Spotify.
Ek also wrote that the service is publishing for the first time its platform rules, which deal with dangerous, misleading, sensitive and illegal content. Among them are rules that block “content that promotes dangerous false or dangerous misleading medical information that could cause offline harm or pose a direct threat to public health”, including denying the existence of Covid-19, or “promoting or suggest that vaccines approved by local health authorities are designed to cause death. “
On Wednesday, when Spotify began removing Young’s music, the company said it has “removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to Covid since the start of the pandemic.” Rogan’s episode with Dr. Malone remains available on Spotify.