In a statement released Sunday, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek says he believes his company has done too little to inform its creators and users about its content policies, leading to “questions around their application to serious issues including COVID-19.” The company is embroiled in a controversy over false claims related to COVID-19 and vaccines on the Joe Rogan podcast. Musicians such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell left the platform in protest of its failure to take action on Rogan’s podcast, costing the company billions in value on the stock market.
Earlier this month, hundreds of doctors, nurses, scientists, health and other professionals addressed Ek in an open letter, calling on the streaming media platform to “implement a misinformation policy” in the wake of controversy over podcaster Joe Rogan’s promotion of an anti-vaccine and anti-mandate rally with discredited scientist Robert Malone in an episode of his podcast published on December 31st. The rally, which took place on January 23rd in Washington DC, featured anti-vaccine personalities including Malone, and was attended by far right extremists.
Rogan, who has a $100 million deal with Spotify, has repeatedly spread vaccine misinformation and discouraged vaccine use. On the December episode that attracted attention, Dr. Malone falsely claimed millions of people were “hypnotized” to believe certain facts about COVID-19, and that people standing in line to get tested as the omicron variant has driven record new cases of the virus was an example of “mass formation psychosis,” a phenomenon that does not exist.
Ek acknowledged the criticism from medical and public health professionals. “We have had rules in place for many years but admittedly, we haven’t been transparent around the policies that guide our content more broadly,” he said.
He also said the company would append a content advisory to any podcast that includes mention of COVID-19:
We are working to add a content advisory to any podcast episode that includes a discussion about COVID-19. This advisory will direct listeners to our dedicated COVID-19 Hub, a resource that provides easy access to data-driven facts, up-to-date information as shared by scientists, physicians, academics and public health authorities around the world, as well as links to trusted sources. This new effort to combat misinformation will roll out to countries around the world in the coming days. To our knowledge, this content advisory is the first of its kind by a major podcast platform.
The platform policies published to the Spotify newsroom address dangerous, deceptive, sensitive and illegal content. Rules around dangerous “false” and “deceptive” medical content including provisions related to COVID-19:
Content that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information that may cause offline harm or poses a direct threat to public health includes, but may not be limited to:
● asserting that AIDS, COVID-19, cancer or other serious life threatening diseases are a hoax or not real
● encouraging the consumption of bleach products to cure various illnesses and diseases
● promoting or suggesting that vaccines approved by local health authorities are designed to cause death
● encouraging people to purposely get infected with COVID-19 in order to build immunity to it (e.g. promoting or hosting “coronavirus parties”)
The policy also addresses civic misinformation, bigotry and harassment, among other harms. Ek said the policy is “being localized into various languages” and that the “new effort to combat misinformation will roll out to countries around the world in the coming days.”
The Wall Streeet Journal reports that Rogan will not face censure; the shows containing false claims about the virus and vaccines will remain on Spotify. The Verge had previously reported that the company’s internal review concluded that the falsehoods on Rogan’s show did not meet the threshold for removal.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.