How Joe Rogan thrust Spotify to the forefront of the biggest debate plaguing Big Tech

joe rogan youtube
Former "Fear Factor" host Joe Rogan.YouTube/Fear Factor
  • Joe Rogan is once again swept up in controversy over misinformation on his wildly popular podcast.

  • A recent episode riddled with falsehoods ignited a firestorm, with several artists threatening to leave the platform.

  • Rogan has lauded phony COVID-19 cures and advised young adults not to get vaccinated on his show.

In 2001, Joe Rogan began hosting the hit cable show "Fear Factor" alongside contestants eating cockroaches and confronting their arachnophobia.

Twenty-one years later, Rogan is at the center of controversy over the false information on his wildly popular podcast "The Joe Rogan Experience."

The podcast's exclusive home on Spotify has drawn the music streaming platform into a years-long struggle to balance freedom of speech and content moderation on the internet. In the process, the comedian and former reality show host has emerged as a central figure in the cultural and political clash.

Spotify and Rogan teamed up almost two years ago

Spotify paid a reported $100 million for the rights to "The Joe Rogan Experience" in May 2020, a move that put it up against Apple and Google in the podcasting race. Rogan, whose show was already immensely popular, quickly became an even more controversial figure — and presented Spotify with one of its first major moderation challenges.

Rogan has lauded the horse drug ivermectin — which is disproven as an effective medicine against the disease — as a COVID-19 cure, said Americans were "hypnotized" into wearing masks, and has advised young, healthy people that they don't need to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (while claiming to be pro-vaccine.)

In response to criticism, he said on his podcast: "I'm not a doctor — I'm a fucking moron. I'm not a respected source of information."

Respected or not, an estimated 11 million listeners tune in to each of his episodes on Spotify, and his show was the site's most popular podcast of 2021 globally.

Supporters of his show laud him for what they say is his openness and willingness to discuss controversial topics.

His critics — which now include Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Neil Young, and hordes of scientists — lambast him for giving a megaphone to guests that spout misleading comments about the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual harassment, conspiracies, and other topics without providing fact-checks or rebuttal.

So then what happened recently?

Neil Young
Artist Neil Young.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Songwriter Neil Young gave Spotify an ultimatum last week: stand up to misinformation and stop airing Rogan's show or take his music down.

"I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them," Young wrote. "They can have Rogan or Young. Not both."

CEO Daniel Ek and his company, which has always stood behind Rogan — much to some employees chagrin — sided with the podcaster. The Verge reported Friday that a Spotify exec concluded Rogan's material "didn't meet the threshold for removal."

Young's music is no longer discoverable on Spotify — he tweeted to his followers last week that they can find his discography on Amazon Music. Fellow artists Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren are following suit.

Other musicians, some of whom don't have the right to remove their music because of recording label deals, are changing their profile pictures to read "Delete Spotify."

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Some Spotify artists are adding "Delete Spotify" to their profiles.Spotify

For Rogan's part, he responded Sunday by apologizing and promising to make his show more balanced.

In a video message, he said he would "try harder to get people with differing opinions" on his show and would "do my best to make sure I have researched these topics, the controversial ones in particular, and have all the pertinent facts at hand before I discuss them."

Is this a content moderation problem?

Neil Young and Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan and Neil Young's row sparked Spotify customers to boycott the platform.AP

Going forward, Spotify said Sunday that it believes in welcoming a diverse array of voices and perspectives, which means "some content on our platform may not be to each individual's liking or is content that Spotify endorses."

It did, however, advise creators to avoid promoting false and deceptive medical information that could cause offline harm.

"Breaking the rules may result in the violative content being removed from Spotify," it said. "Repeated or egregious violations may result in accounts being suspended and/or terminated."

The fallout has reignited the conversation about the delineation of platform versus publisher: does the streaming company merely license and air musicians' work? Or is it tasked with moderating podcasts to which it holds exclusive rights? It's a debate that has also ensnarled sites from Facebook and Twitter, to Youtube and Reddit and more.

"Spotify is leaning directly into the comparisons to Facebook and YouTube; it lets them run the 'content moderation is an impossible challenge' playbook instead of the 'we bought and distribute this media property' playbook," Nilay Patel, the editor of The Verge, said on Twitter recently. "This is like HBO responding to criticisms about drug use on Euphoria by saying content moderation at scale is a difficult problem."

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