On December 30, 2021, celebrity podcaster Joe Rogan hosted Dr Robern Malone on his Spotify-exclusive Joe Rogan Experience (JRE). And then, as the trouble-inviting episode aired, unbeknownst to anyone involved at the show or at Spotify, all hell broke loose.
Let’s look at the sequence in which the events unfolded, and where they lead us in the present.
Who is Joe Rogan?
Joe Rogan is a lot of things, including a former stand-up comedian. He is perhaps more fresh in our collective memory from his early 2000s stint as the host of the game show Fear Factor. In 2019, Rogan launched the JRE podcast, and by 2015, it was one of the most popular podcasts in the world, garnering millions of regular views per episode. Why? Because his roster of guests is usually made up of comedians and famous guys, including Elon Musk.
Remember this meme of Elon smoking weed?
It’s from JRE.
So it’s no surprise that a show that dabbles in controversial content and things like marijuana endorsement attracts loads of attention.
Moving on, there are three more things to keep in mind about Rogan and his podcast—1. Spotify gained exclusive distribution rights for US $100 million with Rogan (Note: On February 17, The New York Times reported that Rogan was paid at least $200 million to commit for three and a half years. As of writing this, Spotify has not commented on this correction); 2. JRE attracts an estimated 11 million viewers per episode; 3. His podcast is known to give airtime to controversial sides of many issues.
And who is Dr Robern Malone?
No, he is not related to the tat-faced rapper Post Malone, who, by the way, has also been a guest at JRE.
The most relevant way to introduce him today is by quoting The Atlantic: the vaccine scientist who spreads vaccine misinformation (the irony!). But in his words, Dr Malone is a virologist who is also one of the (self-proclaimed) inventors of mRNA technologies. A day before he went on air with Rogan, Dr Malone was banned from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
And (oops), he did it again.
So what happened in this episode?
On the episode in question (#1757),—still available on Spotify, strangely—Dr Malone expressed false beliefs aplenty, crossing the COVID-19 misinformation line by miles. His claims included that the only reason why vaccines have been effective is because of “mass formation psychosis”. Running for over three hours, the conversation went into a false likeness between the vaccine and Nazi medical experiments, an unfounded suspicion about President Biden not actually being vaccinated, and largely erroneous interpretations of official data and guidelines.
(The New York Times has done a fact-check on the entire interview which you can read here.)
Once the episode was broadcast, things got ugly. Obviously.
A letter to Spotify by only over 200 health professionals
Following the broadcast, over 270 doctors sent an open letter to Spotify, referring to JRE as a “menace to public health”. The letter, calling on Spotify to tighten its reins on potentially harmful content being pushed out on the platform, said: By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.
Then came Young, Like a Hurricane
Soon after (January 24), Canadian-American singer Neil Young announced that he wishes to pull his music off of Spotify if they didn’t remove JRE from their platform. According to Rolling Stone, the Grammy award-winning artist said Spotify “can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Folk-jazz singer Joni Mitchell followed suit, threatening to remove her music from the platform as well if Spotify did not take action against Rogan.
According to Spotify, Young attracts nearly 6,027,000 listeners a month and Mitchell receives a little over 3,738,000 listeners. Even when the two are put together, the number comes nowhere near JRE’s 11 million listeners per episode.
Wake up, Spotify
On January 30, Spotify cleverly made public its content policy on COVID-19, leaving many of us wondering: why wasn’t this done sooner? As far as content moderation goes, Spotify took an approach similar to Facebook—using warning labels and directing users to information hubs, as opposed to taking direct action against creators. So at this point, a big looming question is this: Should Spotify exercise editorial say over potentially harmful content?
Let’s look at an online survey that asked this exact question.
The study, by Signal Hill Insights, was conducted after the controversy. The two sample groups were made up of 1,513 Canadian adults and 1,514 American adults. The results show a polarization: “Canadian adults lean towards feeling Spotify has a responsibility to exert editorial control over the podcast. Meanwhile, American adults are divided between wanting Spotify to impose controls and feeling that Joe Rogan should be free to feature whatever content he feels would interest his audience.”
Can of Worms
So while Spotify users are canceling their subscription in protest and more creators and fans are expressing concerns about this misinformation-enabling ecosystem, another Grammy-winning singer, India Arie, shared something on her Instagram.
In this clip, Rogan is seen using the n-word on air on multiple occasions. In one of them, he even likens a situation of being in a place with Black people to being on “Planet of the Apes”.
But aside from citing his unhealthy “language about race” as the reason for her music to be taken off Spotify, Arie highlights yet another important issue: “Spotify is built on the back of music streaming” and still doesn’t pay artists nearly enough.
Aerie said in one of her Stories that Spotify only pays artists 0.003–5% but has a $100 million deal with Rogan. “So they take this money that’s built from music streaming and they pay this guy [Rogan] a hundred million dollars…just take me off, I don’t wanna generate the money that pays him…”
A study was recently conducted by Tim Ingham in Rolling Stone, demonstrating a major disparity between Spotify’s top 57,000 artists—representing 0.8% of its earners. In the “Loud & Clear” explainer by Spotify, the platform said 90% of its royalties are shared among these 57,000 artists. However, according to the study, Spotify paid roughly $5 billion in royalties—90% of which would be $4.5 billion.
The former Ultimate Fighting Championship color (pun not intended) commentator took to Instagram to apologize in this regard, saying he was only using the n-word in context.
What is Spotify saying now?
Spotify started by removing JRE episodes from its platform which seemed to be connected with the controversy. As of writing this, 113 JRE episodes are missing from Spotify, according to the JREMissing website, which is dedicated to keeping a track of the same. However, the recently deleted episodes don’t seem to be connected with the COVID-19 controversy. It’s unclear as to what policies these episodes broke which resulted in their deletion.
According to a report by The Verge, Dustee Jenkins, Spotify head of global communications, had earlier told employees on Slack that a team reviewed multiple controversial JRE episodes and found that they didn’t meet the threshold for removal.
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, in his blog, said the following about the situation: “It is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them … We have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely-accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time.”