How society should deal with misinformation on Spotify

The popular audio streaming service Spotify has come under fire for hosting the podcaster Joe Rogan, who’s spread COVID misinformation to millions. After two high-profile musicians took their music off Spotify in protest, the platform has announced reforms. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The popular audio streaming service Spotify has come under fire for hosting the podcaster Joe Rogan, who has spread COVID misinformation to millions.

    After two high-profile musicians took their music off Spotify in protest, the platform has announced reforms.

    William Brangham has our report.

  • William Brangham:

    "The Joe Rogan Experience" is Spotify's most popular podcast, reaching at least 10 million people per show. That's far more than the most popular cable TV hosts. While

    And the stand-up comic and former reality TV star often talks with mainstream voices, like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson or writer Michael Pollan, he's also lent his ear to a slew of COVID conspiracy spreaders.

    Rogan himself has repeatedly sown doubt about the effectiveness of COVID vaccines.

    Joe Rogan, Host, "The Joe Rogan Experience": But, if you're like 21 years old, and you say to me, should I get vaccinated, I will go no.

  • William Brangham:

    After over 200 medical professionals wrote a letter to Spotify criticizing his work, Neil Young and then Joni Mitchell both pulled their music off Spotify to protest Rogan.

    Last night, Rogan offered something of a mea culpa, saying he will try and do better.

  • Joe Rogan:

    I'm not a doctor. I'm not a scientist. I'm just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations with them. Do I get things wrong? Absolutely.

  • William Brangham:

    And Spotify itself, while not mentioning Rogan directly, said it'll link any podcasts dealing with the pandemic to reliable sources of information.

    So, how should a company, or a society more broadly, deal with controversial and what many would argue is harmful information?

    For more, I'm joined by Sam Woolley. He's a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas and author of "The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth."

    Sam Woolley, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    As we just heard, in his defense, Joe Rogan just says, look, I'm just talking to a plethora of voices. And he pointed out that he has talked with other people who are supportive and vaccines, people like Sanjay Gupta and Peter Hotez and Michael Osterholm, all of whom have actually been on the "NewsHour," and that he is just hearing from a diversity of voices, and what's the problem?

    What do you make of that argument?

    Sam Woolley, University of Texas at Austin: Joe Rogan, he tends to cast himself as a man of the people.

    So, he certainly does this thing where he says, I speak to everybody. I want to appeal to people who are critical thinkers and who are open-minded.

    Part of the issue here is that, while, yes, he does host reasoned voices on his podcast, he also hosts extremists, and he also hosts people that spread misinformation. And that misinformation can be very harmful, particularly during a pandemic, when you have millions of people listening to it, thinking they're getting open-minded content or critical content, when, in fact, they're getting quite skewed and problematic content that can lead to people not getting vaccinated and, frankly, to death.

  • William Brangham:

    It seems like Spotify, as YouTube and Facebook and Twitter have all found, that there's money to be made in misinformation and disinformation and the outrage that it sparks.

  • Sam Woolley:

    Right. That's exactly true.

    So in my book "The Reality Game," I talk about this concept of manufacturing consensus, creating the illusion of popularity for content through all of these sorts of mechanisms, like algorithms on social media, that prioritize actually content that's more sensational or that provokes outrage, or does what we call rage-farming, in the place of actually hosting scientific content or good, quality content that helps people to understand what's actually going on from experts.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what Spotify has said in response to this is, OK, if you listen to any podcasts on our platform that have to touch — that touch on the pandemic in any way, we will also link you too smart, sound, fact-checked information.

    What do you make of their reaction to all this?

  • Sam Woolley:

    I think it's not nearly enough.

    Look, I'm not advocating for censorship. I'm not advocating for Spotify to kick Joe Rogan off of their platform. But what I do think is that Spotify gives Joe Rogan undue attention from millions of people.

    When you click on the — when you go on to Spotify, and you log in, you will see Joe Rogan's podcast oftentimes right there front and center. And, oftentimes, the algorithms will boost it because it's more popular than other, more quality podcasts.

    And so Spotify has actually going to do more through its algorithms to make sure that this content isn't reaching more people than, say, scientific content or content from people within the medical establishment who actually understand this in scientific terms.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, there are, though, people, a lot of people, who are calling for Spotify to kick him off. It seems like that's what Neil Young was, in essence, arguing.

    If Rogan were kicked off Spotify, wouldn't he just take his colossal audience somewhere else, and then be in some ways outside the checks and balances, however meager, as you put it, that Spotify is providing?

  • Sam Woolley:

    That may happen, although, that being said, with traditional media, especially with radio and TV, oftentimes, groups like the FCC are actively regulating what people can say and do on media.

    And that's not censorship. It's actually working to protect people in a democratic society. I mean, you can just ask Howard Stern what it looks like to be checked by the FCC, right?

    And so, if Joe Rogan were to go to a more popular radio station or another platform, he would probably be regulated or held in check in some way, shape or form.

    Spotify gives him a massive platform. Remember, this is — we're talking over 10 million people reached during his episodes.

  • William Brangham:

    So, moving beyond Joe Rogan and Spotify, how does a society deal with this issue, when you have got misinformation and disinformation out there, it's lucrative and everyone is carrying around one of these little broadcast devices in our pockets every day?

    How do we reckon with that?

  • Sam Woolley:

    Well, one of the things — I alluded to this concept that some people have called rage farming.

    One of the things to do is to not respond with anger when you see people posting things that are deliberately provocative, particularly when it's influencers or people that have a reason to try to get more attention on social media.

    So, recently, for instance, the Texas GOP spread some content that tied waiting in line for COVID to the necessity of waiting in line for elections. That was deliberately placed to try to get people to click on it, comment on it, and raise it up through the algorithm to be more popular.

    So, one of the things people can do is simply not engage. But there's also ways of responding to — with counterspeech to issues that are problematic and attempting to have civil conversations with other folks, rather than veering off into an aggravated or hateful conversation.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Sam Woolley at the University of Texas, thank you so much for being here.

  • Sam Woolley:

    Thank you for having me.

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