“A few people tweeting that they’re cancelling their Spotify subscriptions does not a firestorm make,” we wrote in our news bulletin yesterday, about the initial responses to far-right conspiracist Alex Jones guesting on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
Well, later that day the flames began to spread, as major media outlets picked up on Jones’s appearance despite his own podcast having been removed from Spotify.
BuzzFeed also had a scoop: an internal memo from Spotify’s general counsel Horacio Gutierrez giving fellow executives ‘talking points’ to use if they were pressed on the topic.
“Spotify has always been a place for creative expressions. It’s important to have diverse voices and points of view on our platform,” was one of them. “We are not going to ban specific individuals from being guests on other people’s shows, as the episode/show complies with our content policies,” was another.
None of this is a Get Out Of Jail Free card for the controversy, though. We’ve seen other big tech platforms, from Twitter to YouTube, grapple with how to deal with misinformation (be it on vaccines, masks or elections) that falls outside their rules on hate content.
Also, Joe Rogan’s show isn’t just an independent podcast uploaded to Spotify’s platform: it’s a show that Spotify paid a rumoured nine-figure sum to secure exclusivity to, and is promoting heavily on its service. Spotify may not have editorial responsibility for its content, but it’s more than just a neutral platform distributing it.
Variety pointed out that Rogan did challenge some of Jones’s claims during his show: a factor in Spotify’s decision not to take any action against it. It’s also important to note that with exclusivity yet to kick in, the Alex Jones episode is available on Apple Podcasts and YouTube among other platforms, so they’re part of this debate too.
But this is the important moment for Spotify. For music, having a strong policy on hateful content is obligatory, including partnerships with the right organisations to determine what counts as hateful, and a willingness to take prompt action when that music slips through the net.
Spotify has done both of those. But spoken-word content – podcasts – brings a whole extra layer of moderation responsibility, particularly around misinformation.
Or to put it another way: “It’s important to have diverse voices and points of view on our platform” is an argument that every significant social platform has now accepted needs to evolve if those points of view are spreading lies about elections; encouraging people not to vaccinate their children; or repeating dangerously-inaccurate information about Covid-19.
Such content might not be removed entirely: approaches include hiding it behind misinformation warning messages, or down-weighting it in on-platform recommendation algorithms. The point is, you need a policy setting out what’s unacceptable, and what you’ll do about it.
(Spotify’s podcasting terms do include a line on not uploading content that is “fraudulent, false, deceptive, or misleading” by the way…)
Spotify’s push into podcasts has been brilliant for the company’s market cap, but whatever your political inclination or views on Alex Jones, it’s clear that it has also brought the company (and any other music streaming service piling merrily into spoken-word content) important new challenges around moderation and misinformation.
An ‘audio first’ strategy has huge potential rewards, but they come with new responsibilities which can’t be shrugged off, even if they might lead to tension with your flagship podcaster.