Spotify faces its Facebook moment as musicians boycott platform over Joe Rogan podcast

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Joe Rogan announces the fighters during a ceremonial weigh in for UFC 264 on Jul. 9, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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Spotify has found itself in hot water over concerns that its popular podcast star Joe Rogan is spreading coronavirus misinformation, in a controversy that echoes the crises faced by Facebook and other social media giants in recent years.

The music streaming platform is being boycotted by legendary musicians such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who have slammed its decision to continue hosting Rogan’s popular podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

Rogan has sparked controversy with accusations that he is repeatedly spreading conspiracy theories about Covid-19, and for promoting the use of ivermectin — an anti-parasitic drug used mainly on animals — to treat coronavirus symptoms, despite warnings that there’s no proof it can be effective at treating Covid.

In December, 270 science and health professionals wrote an open letter accusing Spotify of enabling Covid misinformation and calling for the company to introduce measures to address false or misleading claims about the virus.

On Saturday, Nils Lofgren, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, joined the chorus of musicians pulling their music from Spotify over the Rogan controversy.

Spotify on Sunday said it would add disclaimers to any podcast episodes that include discussion about Covid, and direct users to public health sites for more information. CEO Daniel Ek said the platform didn’t want to “take on the position of being content censor,” but would ensure there are consequences for creators who break its rules.

Rogan himself responded to the controversy late Sunday. In an Instagram post, he criticized news outlets for creating a “distorted perception of what I do,” and defended his decision to interview Dr. Robert Malone, an infectious disease specialist who was banned from Twitter for spreading Covid misinformation.

He apologized to Spotify, Young and Mitchell, pledging to “do my best to try to balance out these more controversial viewpoints with other people’s perspectives.”

“If I p—-d you off, I’m sorry,” he said.

Spotify’s Facebook moment?

The debacle has parallels with the scandals that have plagued Facebook and other tech giants over the years.

Facebook, which is now named Meta, faced mass boycotts from major advertisers in 2020 over criticisms that it wasn’t doing enough to tackle hate speech. And a data-sharing scandal in 2018 resulted in hundreds of thousands of users sharing the hashtag #deletefacebook in protest of the social networking site.

Meanwhile, YouTube dealt with an advertiser boycott of its own in 2017, when a flood of brands pulled advertising from the Google-owned video-sharing site over concerns about hateful and offensive content.

So far, Spotify has mostly eluded criticisms over its content moderation policies. But its push into podcasts, and its support for a controversial figure like Rogan, has now placed it firmly in the firing line.

For now, the stakeholders abandoning Spotify are its creators, not advertisers. Investors shrugged off the news Monday, with Spotify shares climbing around 1% in U.S. premarket trading.

But the backlash over Rogan threatens a key area of growth for the company, which has been spending aggressively on podcasts over the last couple years with exclusive deals and acquisitions of studios.

Several online platforms, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have faced criticism for failing to combat the spread of Covid misinformation with appropriate content moderation. Many of the companies took steps to remove such material and add labels directing users to information from public health authorities.

There’s one big difference this time around, though: While Facebook and other platforms have been criticized for allowing toxic material shared by its users, Spotify’s controversy is over a celebrity that it has paid millions to be the exclusive distributor of their podcasts. The company signed Rogan in 2020 in an exclusive podcasting deal reportedly worth $100 million.

“The Joe Rogan Experience” is one of the most popular podcasts in the world, topping Spotify’s global rankings for 2021. Rogan previously claimed the show is downloaded over 200 million times each month.

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