Do streaming platforms like Spotify have a responsibility to protect their listeners from misinformation, or is this a disruption to freedom of speech?
I don’t like Joe Rogan and I don’t want to like Joe Rogan. I am, however, (and against my better judgement) intrigued by Joe Rogan. He draws in millions of listeners, as he free-wheels with (mostly male) guests in hours-long podcasts spanning topics from human-optimisation to politics to conspiracy theories. He’s undoubtedly controversial, regularly divisive, and has recently made headlines for racism and spreading Covid-19 disinformation.
Rogan plays up his persona as a freethinking everyday guy, encouraging listeners to draw their own conclusions from his rambling conversations with guests. His own politics are murky; he endorsed Bernie Sanders, many of his guests and fans are liberal, yet he also hosts many controversial (often far-right) figures such as Proud Boy founder Gavin McInnes and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. If there’s a loose thread that ties his guests together it’s a tenuous one of anti-establishment sentiment and penchant for voices obscured in the mainstream.
Given his fondness for controversy and conspiracy, it’s unsurprising that Rogan uses his podcast to platform some pretty dubious voices, adding his own scepticism about the pandemic and vaccines into the mix. When Rogan released an episode with vaccine sceptic Robert Malone late last year, Neil Young gave Spotify an ultimatum – his music or Rogan’s podcast. Spotify chose Rogan. Several other artists including Joni Mitchell and Roxane Gay have followed Young, concerned about the promotion of misinformation. With the embers of that fire still burning, a compilation video of Rogan repeatedly saying the n-word emerged.
Having put out half-baked apologies, Rogan still seems to be responsibility-adjacent. Whenever criticism has come his way, Rogan has shouted: “free speech!” because he’s just a “regular guy” who “talks shit” for a living. To pretend that he’s a regular guy is delusional, but that’s part of his ploy. To argue that in the name of free speech, literally anything goes when 11 million people are listening, is both dangerous and shirks responsibility. He’s a quasi-journalist without accountability.
Back in May 2020, Spotify acquired exclusive rights for The Joe Rogan Experience, paying somewhere in the region of US $100 million for the honour. This shifted Spotify from a streaming platform to a publisher, a role that it keeps trying to dodge. Like Facebook and Twitter before it, Spotify argues it bears no responsibility for the content on its platform. Funny though, Spotify never uploaded all of Rogan’s back catalogue; many of his most controversial episodes never made it to the platform, though divisive guests have appeared since. They’ve drawn a line somewhere, but Spotify CEO Daniel Ek still doesn’t think “silencing Joe is the answer”.
The difficult thing is, though, that even if Spotify “silenced” or “cancelled” Rogan, he wouldn’t actually be cancelled. His audience is too large and they’d migrate to wherever he moved, and if they’re as ardently free-speech and anti-establishment as Rogan himself, they’d probably only become more hardened and loyal.
Spotify is emblematic of broader issues of corporate responsibility and new forms of media that we haven’t fully figured out. As technology has grown and evolved, we haven’t really kept up, and the Rogan-Spotify nexus has shown us what happens when no one takes responsibility. Rogan, his listeners, and their revenue are prioritised in an entertainment economy that lusts after controversy. It’s not an issue of free speech or censorship, it’s editing, and in Joe Rogan’s case, it’s quite literally just taking your job seriously.
Rogan may well take on more responsibility for the information he platforms on his show, and Spotify might take on more obligations as a publisher. Realistically though, they’ve all profited from controversy. What Rogan says has implications, and he and Spotify need to take responsibility for it. Unfortunately, though, there’s more money in controversy.