Joe Rogan’s COVID-19 scandal exposes one epic truth about Spotify, says scientist

The music streaming service has become an information highway.
Grant Currin

Spotify — a music streaming service used by more than one in four adult Americans — has found itself in the middle of a misinformation scandal. But the truth is far bigger than a single podcast, one researcher tells IE.

The background: Musicians and podcasters, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young among them, have removed their songs from Spotify to protest the untrue remarks by a physician and infectious disease researcher, Robert Malone, made on The Joe Rogan Experience, the platform’s most popular podcast.

In an open letter sent earlier this year, 270 medical professionals said the interview was one of many “mass-misinformation events” that happen on the platform.

The rub: Researchers who study misinformation point to a larger problem about the rapid development of digital media and global information platforms.

“Joe Rogan is not the issue. The issue is Spotify.”

Spotify’s move into podcasts has helped the platform grow to 180 million paid subscribers and 406 million users, according to the company. It’s transformed the music streaming service into an audio platform where a lot of people are getting information about the world. Spotify paid a reported $100 million to license Rogan’s show, which is the most popular of the 3.6 million podcasts on the platform, with an estimated audience of 10 million listeners.

For Dominique Brossard, a social scientist who studies science and media, the scandal around Rogan misses the point. Science communication researchers are still “arguing about how much being exposed to misinformation actually impacts people’s behavior,” she said.

There isn’t compelling empirical evidence that shows Rogan is making a material impact.

Broussard tells IE the problem is far larger:

“Is the problem misinformation? No, the problem is the new information ecology… and big corporations trying to make money,” she said. This isn’t the first time technological changes and business innovations have re-made the media landscape.

The printing press, radio, TV, cable, and the Internet have all brought about genuine revolutions in the way information travels through society. Spotify’s 2015 decision to add podcasts to its library is another such change.

“Spotify is not just a music streaming platform anymore, it’s an informational platform,” Brossard said. That shift brings with it questions about what kind of editorial standards the platform should adhere to, or if everything on it should be regarded as entertainment. Since market forces drive how platforms like Spotify operate, those questions about “regulation of the information environment” should be determined democratically, she said.

“This [goes] way beyond just misinformation,” she said.

Spotify has reacted to the scandal by making some (small) changes 

Spotify has continued to stand by Rogan, but it’s announced some changes. Spotify founder Daniel Ek published a blog post on the company website this week announcing its rules and approach to Covid-19.

The rules tell creators to “avoid” making content that promotes violence, hatred, or illegal activities.

The rules also ban false or deceptive medical information that’s dangerous, like asserting that some diseases (including Covid-19) aren’t real, that consuming bleach will cure illness, and purposely infecting oneself with Covid to build immunity. 

Interestingly, one of the featured podcasts on the in-app Covid-19 hub for reliable info, Science Vs., has stopped uploading episodes to protest the misinformation on the platform, saying they do not think the new rules “go far enough,” in a statement on Twitter.

Rogan has defended himself by saying he doesn't know if what his guests are saying is true. "I'm not a doctor. I'm not a scientist. I'm just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations with them," he said in a video .

While it seems unlikely the scandal will do lasting damage to Spotify, the scandal shows that it has become a major fixture in the complex, overlapping network of platforms where content can easily spread at a massive scale — and have consequential impacts on the real world.

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