The big takeaway from Spotify's Rogan problem: Platforms need rules

Spotify is entitled to run its platform however it wants, but without creating, explaining and enforcing the rules, companies wind up stuck between their business and their users.

Joe Rogan speaking into a microphone

To Spotify, picking a COVID-19 fight with Rogan will only make this a bigger story.

Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images

If you're going to pay Joe Rogan to make podcasts for your platform, you're eventually going to have to answer for what happens on those podcasts. And yesterday, after days of trying to ignore the issue, Spotify finally had to say something.

Here's a quick catch-up on the Rogan controversy: Spotify paid $100 million to make Rogan's podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, a Spotify exclusive. Since then, Rogan has continued to do what he always did, which is relatively frequently veer into deeply problematic content and misinformation, particularly when it comes to COVID-19. An episode from December was particularly controversial, causing a number of scientific and medical groups to accuse Rogan of "provoking distrust in science and medicine" and to urge Spotify to "mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform."

  • For a while, Spotify did nothing. This has become classic platform behavior: The first step when folks are upset about your content is to say nothing, do nothing, maybe eventually issue a statement that sort of decries the bad content but mostly says nothing. In many cases, that's enough, and things go away.
  • But this issue didn't go away. Neil Young became the first big-name artist to pull his music from Spotify "because Spotify is spreading fake information about the vaccines." Joni Mitchell and a couple of other artists have followed suit. Brene Brown also said she's stopping production on her popular podcast, though she hasn't explicitly tied the decision to the Rogan fiasco.

Spotify published a blog post yesterday that kinda, sorta addressed the issue. Rogan is never mentioned, but Daniel Ek's post did acknowledge that "you've had a lot of questions over the last few days about our platform policies and the lines we have drawn between what is acceptable and what is not."

  • Ek's post sounded eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the content moderation issues with Facebook and other platforms. He intimated that Spotify doesn't agree with what Rogan said, without ever explicitly saying so. And he said that "it is important to me that we don't take on the position of being content censor," which is a line straight out of the Mark Zuckerberg canon.
  • Spotify did make a few changes in response to the uproar: It published its content guidelines for the first time, and said it's working on adding a "content advisory" to every podcast that includes discussion of COVID that will direct people to accurate information about the subject. That's also what Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and others did in response to misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic.

Spotify is in a tough situation here. Moderating audio — on demand on Spotify or live on Greenroom — is hard, especially at scale. And it's even harder when the offending party is your flagship product, the show you spent a fortune to bring onto your platform. Was Spotify ever really going to take Neil Young's side instead of the most popular podcast on its platform?

Still, Ek's response rang hollow to many critics. Whether Spotify has a responsibility to moderate every podcast on its platform is a genuinely interesting question, and one the company should think deeply about especially as it continues to invest in technology that helps it understand what's happening on those shows. But there's less question as to whether Spotify has a responsibility for the shows it pays to produce and promotes aggressively to its hundreds of millions of users.

  • It wants to be seen like Facebook or YouTube: a more or less neutral platform on which people might sometimes post horrible things. But Facebook and YouTube aren't directly funding their most problematic contributors. And they're definitely not writing $100 million checks.
  • Spotify's newly published Platform Rules fall short of prescribing much of anything. As far as I can tell, Rogan didn't violate any of them. Even the section titled "What happens to rule breakers?" just says content might be taken down and accounts might be suspended. Even the rules aren't really rules so much as gentle nudgings.
  • But Facebook and YouTube do give those creators monetization and growth tools, and recommend their content to users. So ... is it that different for Spotify to just write Rogan a check? That's hard to know.

Spotify is clearly hoping people just move on. This whole thing is reminiscent of the uproar at Netflix over Dave Chappelle's special last year; in that case Netflix offered similar reassurances, nothing changed, and things quieted down. It's certainly clear to Spotify that picking a COVID fight with Rogan and his fans will only make this a bigger story, so it seems to hope that everyone will believe it cares about all this and find something else to worry about.

But the momentum against Spotify seems to still be building. "Delete Spotify" was trending on Twitter for a while, as was #spotifyexodus. Most of all, if other artists join Young in boycotting the service, it could change Spotify's calculus. It definitely needs Rogan more than it needs Young, but what about Ed Sheeran or Drake or Taylor Swift or Adele?

  • Rogan posted an Instagram video on Sunday night, saying he was sorry Young and Mitchell felt like they had to leave Spotify and that he could do a better job on "controversial" topics. But he's not taking down any episodes either. He also thanked Spotify for "being so supportive during this time."

The real takeaway is this: Platforms need rules. Those rules need to be clear, they need to be publicly accessible, and they need to be enforced equally across all users and creators. Spotify is, of course, entitled to run its platform however it wants. But if you don't create the rules, explain them, and enforce them, you're going to find yourself stuck between your business and your users. And that's not a good place to be.

A version of this story also appeared in today's Source Code newsletter; subscribe here.

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