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Spotify science podcaster hits out at Spotify’s response to Rogan backlash

By | Published on Tuesday 1 February 2022

Joe Rogan

Statements made on Sunday evening by Daniel Ek and Joe Rogan may have slightly slowed down the momentum of the big old Spotify backlash kickstarted by Neil Young last week, but it seems likely bolder commitments will be needed to successfully navigate the current COVID misinformation controversy. Certainly that’s what Wendy Zukerman reckons. And she, in case you wondered, is the host and executive producer of Science Vs, a popular podcast owned by, oh look, Spotify.

Ek and Rogan were forced to comment after Neil Young demanded that his music be removed from the streaming platform in protest at misinformation about the coronavirus and COVID-19 vaccines that has featured on the hugely popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast, which is exclusively distributed by Spotify.

Young’s protest was motivated by a recent open letter signed by more than 250 scientists and medics which said Rogan’s podcast had “a concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic”. That letter took particular aim at a recent edition of the podcast which featured controversial COVID vaccine critic Dr Robert Malone, although the experts said they also had more general concerns about alleged COVID misinformation that has been given credibility on the Joe Rogan Experience.

With plenty of other artists coming out in support of Young – and some also threatening to pull their music from the service – Spotify boss Ek issued a statement on Sunday evening insisting that his company had existing policies to tackle misinformation and other harmful content uploaded to the company’s platform, but admitted that it needed to be more transparent about those policies.

He also said that Spotify would start signposting information on COVID-19 that is widely endorsed by the medical and scientific communities alongside any podcasts that discuss the virus, the vaccines and the pandemic.

Those commitments – although welcomed – haven’t really placated many of those who spoke out against misinformation on the Rogan podcast.

Most critics have pointed out that while Spotify should have rigorous and transparent policies for dealing with harmful content contained in third party podcasts pumped into its platform – just like all the social media and user-upload platforms do – when it comes to the Joe Rogan podcast the company could and should do more to tackle COVID misinformation, because it basically owns the programme.

In his video statement on Instagram, Rogan did say that he’d try harder to research his more controversial guests so that he is in a better place to challenge their more controversial opinions and statements. And he added that he recognised the need to counter-balance controversial guests with other experts. Which he already does to an extent, but those other experts usually appear weeks later, rather than right alongside the controversial opinions.

However, Rogan stood by his decision to book controversial guests, insisting that people like Malone have solid credentials, even if their opinions are disputed by the scientific consensus.

Among those who reckon Ek and Rogan still have more to do to tackle the distribution of dangerous misinformation on Spotify – including in the Joe Rogan Experience – is Zukerman, whose Science Vs podcast is made by Spotify-owned Gimlet Media, and which sets out to take on “fads, trends and the opinionated mob to find out what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between”.

In an open letter to Ek posted to her Twitter feed yesterday, Zukerman wrote: “Throughout the pandemic, Spotify has given Science Vs the resources we needed to produce accurate content about the coronavirus. For more than six months, we’ve been encouraging our listeners to move to Spotify and telling them that this is the company that supports us to create factual episodes that are grounded in science. Spotify’s support of Joe Rogan’s podcast has felt like a slap in the face”.

Taking on the Malone episode of the Joe Rogan Experience in particular, she continued: “As Science Vs will show in an upcoming episode, during Rogan’s interview with Dr Robert Malone, information about the vaccines is repeatedly taken out of context. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that contradicts some of the claims in the interview – but it’s nowhere to be found in the episode. Rogan’s show leaves the audience with a skewed and inaccurate view of the COVID-19 vaccines. And Spotify has done little to address this”.

Noting Ek’s statement at the weekend, she said: “On Sunday, Spotify published its platform rules, but we do not think they go far enough. Until Spotify implements stronger methods to prevent the spread of misinformation on the platform, we will no longer be making new Science Vs episodes, except those intended to counteract misinformation being spread on Spotify”.

“We understand that moderating content across a large platform can be difficult, but we think Spotify has a responsibility to do more”, she added, before offering to help her paymaster work out what else could be done. “Our next step will be looking into the effectiveness of various strategies that tech platforms are using to combat misinformation, and we’re happy to discuss our findings with you”.

“More broadly – as Spotify acknowledges that its position in the tech world has changed from music platform to publisher of exclusive content – this is an opportunity to learn from past industry mistakes and set a new standard for promoting evidence-based content. We hope Spotify rises to the challenge”.

It remains to be seen what further statements Spotify makes on this whole hoo haa – and that may well depend on the extent to which this current backlash continues.

However, it seems likely that – beyond any ramping up of the company’s platform-wide systems for dealing with harmful content – more coherent editorial policies for what are basically Spotify owned podcasts will also be required.

And that might involve more joined up thinking between the different podcasts it has acquired or exclusively licensed, given that within the group Spotify arguably already has the expertise it needs to deal with the editorial problems that have been raised about Rogan’s show.