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Joe Rogan and Spotify Have Successfully Profited From Bigotry

A debate is growing about Spotify’s choice to center The Joe Rogan Experience. Initially, Joe Rogan came under criticism for spreading COVID-19 misinformation (Forbes), prompting public figures to remove their content from the platform. But days later, artist India Arie shared a video showcasing how many times Rogan has used the N-word on his podcast, drawing more public outcry (Variety). Vice has a full analysis of the racial slurs that Rogan used (Vice).

TAKE ACTION

• Donate money directly to podcasters, musicians, and other content creators whose perspectives reflect the world you want to live in.

• Consider: does your view of the content you discover on a tech platform change if you know they paid to obtain it? 

Some blame “cancel culture” for trying to “censor” Rogan. But content moderation is quite different from censorship. Whether a streaming platform or a movie theater, any outlet decides what content to show or pass based on how they think it will affect their bottom line. Censorship is a restriction on media or speech imposed by the government with some sort of legal penalty as a consequence. The Chinese government is engaged in censorship when it blocks certain web pages from appearing in search results (MIT). Efforts to detain and silence journalists during political strife are also censorship, like how the U.S. imprisoned writers during the Civil War (Smithsonian). The U.S. deporting or refusing to admit immigrants who admit to being communists or anarchists is censorship (Immigration History, USCIS). The U.S. military rewriting movie scripts that don’t portray it in a positive light approaches censorship, as well (The Guardian). 

Spotify has exclusive access to Rogan’s podcast and could effectively end his reach to 11 million listeners (Quartz). But Spotify isn’t the government, and with 8.2M followers on Twitter, 14.5M on Instagram, and the notoriety to take his podcast elsewhere, Rogan would be just fine. If Spotify chose not to host his words, it wouldn’t be impossible for him to share them. He has significant power and privilege to have his views be heard. Trump was canceled from Facebook and Twitter, but he still has found ways to signal a potential presidential run in 2024. Although I think platforms have a responsibility to stop platforming harmful content, their actions alone aren’t going to prevent these people from being heard.

Content moderation isn’t new to Spotify. Last year, they removed several antisemitic, racist podcasts for violating their “hate policy” (Sky News). In May 2018, they removed R. Kelly’s music from official playlists, stating that they wanted their “editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values” (NBC News). And through all this current controversy, they quietly removed over 70 of Rogan’s podcasts (The Verge). They had removed an additional 40 episodes upon acquiring the podcast, many of which featured right-wing celebrities (Variety). But, as Media Matters emphasizes, their policies seemingly don’t apply to the hateful content still available on remaining podcast episodes (Media Matters).

In this case, Spotify isn’t merely a platform for Rogan’s work but a collaborator. Spotify paid his team over $100M to share his content in May 2020 (WSJ). It makes them not just a platform but a media company themselves. They have more direct responsibility for the content they create, and they have a clear financial tie to the success of Rogan’s podcast.

On Sunday, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek emphasized that Rogan is here to stay. In addition, the company committed another $100M to license content from “historically marginalized groups” (MSN). This might seem like a good gesture on the surface. But adding $100M of content from marginalized voices doesn’t offset the misinformation and bigotry that Rogan’s podcast has contained. Also, consider that out of a $200M combined commitment to content, half is going to one white man.

If Spotify’s decision enrages you, you’re welcome to cancel your subscription (here’s a list of alternative places to stream music). But if you’re concerned about censorship, focus your attention on the rise of classroom book bans that intentionally suppress stories from marginalized communities in our education system bolstered by state legislation against “critical race theory” (BBC). When it comes to platforms like Spotify, you have the right to choose what you listen to. But our students aren’t going to have the same opportunity in our classroom unless we protect it.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine and racist statements has prompted Spotify to address the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, which they spent $100M to publish exclusively on their platform.

  • Cries of censorship misrepresent the weight and impact of the term.

  • Harmful statements can’t be outweighed by an investment into content from “historically marginalized” groups.

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