The Question Behind Spotify and Joe Rogan
Sometimes a CEO says something so wrong-headed about corporate priorities that the statement cries out for a close read. Such is the case with Daniel Ek, chief executive of Spotify, and what he said this week about Joe Rogan and misinformation on the Spotify platform.
Most of you probably know the basics of the Joe Rogan controversy already. Rogan is the host of a popular podcast hosted by Spotify. On Dec. 31, Rogan posted an interview with one Robert Malone, a supposed immunologist who these days spends his time pushing disinformation about the safety and efficacy of covid vaccines. Twitter, for example, has already banned Malone for his quackery, although right-wing media still hang on his every word.
As Rogan’s interview with Malone gained traction among conservatives and anti-vax conspiracy theorists, credible doctors decided they’d had enough. Hundreds of them signed an open letter to Spotify, demanding that Spotify do better at policing Rogan and the nonsense he disseminates to his 11 million listeners.
Then musician Neil Young, the polio survivor who keeps on rockin’ at age 76, pulled all his music from Spotify rather than share the platform with the likes of Rogan. Other musicians such as Joni Mitchell, India.Arie, and Nils Lofgren followed suit.
Spotify finally announced this week that it will start adding content advisories to Rogan episodes that discuss Covid-19. The company also published new policies for content creators (like Rogan) who use the Spotify platform, and promised to test “ways to highlight our platform rules in our creator and publisher tools to raise awareness around what’s acceptable and help creators understand their accountability for the content they post on our platform.”
Their responsibility for the content published on Spotify’s platform. That’s really the heart of the matter, isn’t it?
Spotify, Harm, and ‘Censors’
What caught my eye was how Ek, Spotify’s CEO, tried to frame his company’s role in this mess. In that announcement of Spotify’s new rules, Ek first said this:
We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users. In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.
My beef with that statement is the word “censor.” Companies don’t censor. Governments censor. Companies edit, review, and otherwise decide what material they might publish to their audience, but they don’t censor. Only government officials censor, a concept that traces back to the ancient Romans, who elected two censores at a time to supervise public morals.
Ek, however, and like so many executives at social media firms these days, uses the word “censor” as a neat way to absolve himself of responsibility for the company he runs. We can’t control what the users of our platform do, this thinking goes, that would be censorship!
Another one who has tried this argument is, of course, Mark Zuckerberg. During the 2020 elections, Zuckerberg appeared on Fox News (a telling thing unto itself) to talk about social media companies’ responsibility for fact-checking false and malicious statements made on their platforms by President Trump or other politicians.
The entire interview was 20 minutes long, but the money quote was this statement from Zuckerberg:
“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
Understand what Zuckerberg did there in those two sentences. He cleverly cloaked an outrageous stance in meek, prohibitive terms — but an outrageous stance it remains. Because if you rephrase Zuckerberg’s point in affirmative terms, it would be something like this:
“I just believe strongly that people should be allowed to say whatever they want online.”
That doesn’t sit in your brain as well, does it? If anyone can do anything they want online, that has the power to cause enormous harm to innocent people. Somebody has to be accountable for causing such harm to innocent parties. That’s both common sense and the fundamental principle of tort law.
Ek just doesn’t want that person to be him. So he, like Zuckerberg, evokes the specter of censorship and uses clever phrasing to dodge the real question here: How much responsibility does a technology platform have for the unethical or illegal uses of its product?
We’ve Been Here Before
The thing is, society has already answered this question. We already do hold other platform companies accountable for the misconduct of third parties using said platform.
For example, imagine if Uber said, “Any driver at all can use our app to pick up passengers. It’s not our responsibility if the driver has a terrible driving record or a rap sheet longer than a Cadillac.” Society wouldn’t stand for that reckless attitude, and indeed, Uber does perform background checks on its drivers. AirBnB also performs background checks on both hosts and guests, for much the same reason: society believes that the company does bear some responsibility for how others use its platform.
That’s exactly the point medical professionals made in their letter to Spotify: that the company is responsible for the content Rogan publishes under its name and financial support. As they said:
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Rogan has repeatedly spread misleading and false claims on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine,” the letter said. “This is not only a scientific or medical concern; it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform.”
Now re-read Ek’s statement about wanting to “help creators understand their accountability.” He’s trying to pass the ethical buck away from Spotify to, well, anyone else.
That’s the ethical and legal conundrum society has to address, sooner rather than later. My gut tells me that people like Ek won’t like the answer.
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