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Inside Spotify's "Joe Rogan Experience"

Feb 4, 2022 1:26 PM 5 min read

Joe Rogan's controversial podcast has become the latest flavour of "misinformation" to take the media by storm.  

In case you're living in a bubble (a different kind from the 2022 Winter Olympics athletes!) and missed out on the flavour, here's what happened. The widely popular podcaster Joe Rogan, who is famed for his outspokenness and iconoclastic ideas (if that's one way to put it), brought on Dr. Robert Malone as a guest. Malone is a vaccine scientist/vaccine skeptic who has been discredited by many in the medical community for his disapproval of vaccines. 

In the three-hour episode, Malone makes a variety of claims about vaccines and other issues like these - a third of the population has become "hypnotised" through "mass information psychosis" as if in Nazi Germany and wrapped up in whatever Dr. Fauci (White House chief medical advisor) feeds them.

Now, anti-vaxxer ideas such as these aren't uncommon, especially in the US where COVID vaccination has become an increasingly politicised idea. But it becomes a problem when it takes lift from being a fringe theory to a widely disseminated commentary in a podcast that is #1 in more than 90 markets on a streaming service that is #1 in the world. (More on the "Joe Rogan Experience".)

That's the conversation which Spotify has found itself in over the past week. Many prominent artists (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell etc.) have left the platform and users have unsubscribed to its service. Is it getting an easy ride when it comes to tackling misinformation whereas tech peers like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have made more efforts to reign it in?

To Moderate or Not to Moderate?

Content moderation on social media is an issue that merits attention in line with the rise in fake news, hate speech, violence, misinformation, pornography, drug abuse, bullying etc. On the web lately (who are the moderators?). Lack of moderation is what could have arguably led to the concerted attack on US Capitol Hill a year ago and it is what conclusively led to the terrorist attacks in Christchurch and El Paso

Faced with increasing backlash to regulate what's shown and shared on their platforms, social media companies have introduced different types of compliance mechanisms to flag and block objectionable content. In the month of December alone, Google removed 94,173 posts in India. Meanwhile, Facebook, no wait, Meta (can't seem to get our heads around it!) removed 1 crore 93 lakh posts as well. 

But when it comes to comparatively less conspicuous platforms, like Spotify, the errors, or even absence of moderation seem like a trivial truism. There seems to be a certain double standard that popular-yet-relatively less expansive platforms enjoy with content compliance. 

And what's more surprising is that the non-compliance isn't due to the absence of a framework. Spotify has specific rules detailing what is and isn't allowed on the service (specifically prohibiting messages which say COVID isn't real, eating bleach cures diseases and vaccines lead to death).

And yet, the culture of "You can say what you want - we're on Spotify" is commonplace. For context, these were Joe Rogan's words of assurance to one of his guests when she paused to joke that she would be arrested for what she said next. 

This is where the question of celebrity influence becomes important to note.


Not Your Average Joe

"The Joe Rogan Experience" has been broadcast exclusively on Spotify since 2020 under a deal estimated to be worth $100m. It attracts a staggering audience of 11 million per episode.

As a former taekwondo champion, comedian, martial arts commentator and host of Fear Factor, Joe Rogan has an enviable following online. In the last 12 years, he has hosted close to 1,000 guests, including the likes of Elon Musk, Edward Snowden and Oliver Stone. 

The quorum of guests on his show is as varied and eccentric as their opinions. From topics like flying saucers, psychedelic drugs, red meat and fitness, Joe Rogan has hosted some of the most nonconformist discourses with great liveliness. His political incorrectness has come to be widely appreciated by his fans while drawing criticism from detractors who often label his show as a "veritable megaphone of right-wing lies".  

Be that as it may, the golden goose worthiness of Rogan's show is a value too lucrative for a streaming giant to compromise, especially given the company's radical efforts to take over the podcast space.

Since 2019, Spotify has spent more than $500m to acquire companies in the emerging podcast marketplace. This is an area that Spotify has begun to recognise as "ripe for the taking" considering the rimming revenues from the music business (70% of Spotify's music revenue reportedly ends up going back as royalties). 

This sidelining of artists and musicians on the platform is an issue that has been long contended. In fact, the "swiftness" with which Spotify removed Neil Young's content over Joe Rogan has drawn widespread criticism from the industry with many others threatening to pull out their own content as well (e.g. Nils Lofgren, India Arie, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash). 


With or Without Spotify

Although Spotify has quietly removed 42 episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience already, one wonders if it's a measure too little and too late. The company's quarterly earnings report that was announced yesterday was largely underwhelming and led to shares dropping as much as 18%. An argument can be made that the impact on earnings was a direct result of the ongoing scuffle. 

But then again, does Spotify face any real competition? Apple Music, which is thought to be its closest rival, has often been favoured by artists on account of its affirmation towards musicians and larger royalty margins. For every $1 that a musician makes on streaming services, it takes 315 streams on Spotify but only 128 on Apple. "

But then again, Apple Music's notoriously terrible UX and the user inconvenience of moving data from one app to another are some of the considerations which make leaving Spotify a task easier said than done. The power that Spotify has over both the music and podcasting industrial complexes is a reminder of just how much credit earnings do to a company over content regulation. 

So, the question is, with earnings taking a dump in the third quarter, will Spotify be now more motivated to cater to compliance in content moderation? Or will The Joe Rogan Experience simply turn out to be a blip in the journey of the public's perception towards streaming platforms?

Either way, the debate over misinformation versus dissent is here to stay.


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