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Spotify’s Alex Jones Problem

The conspiracy theorist puts the streaming platform in a complicated position.

I figured we would see a story like this soon enough.

Spotify found itself under fire earlier this week for continuing to host podcasts by Infowars, the deeply troubling media company by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (whose “beliefs” include, by the way, the idea that the Sandy Hook shootings were fake). As The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported, some of this pressure took the form of users threatening to cancel their paid subscriptions to the music streaming service. That pressure campaign appeared to have started after Jones urged his listeners to subscribe to his show through Spotify because “big tech giants” are currently “censoring” them harder than ever. Facebook and YouTube had both suspended Jones and his company’s content from their platforms last week, citing violations of policies around hate content/speech.

Yesterday, Recode reported that Spotify finally opted to remove multiple episodes ofThe Alex Jones Show from the platform, also citing policy violations around hate content. “We take reports of hate content seriously and review any podcast episode or song that is flagged by our community,” a Spotify spokesperson told Recode. “Spotify can confirm it has removed specific episodes of The Alex Jones Show podcast for violating our hate content policy.”

The episode highlights a problem podcast-hosting platforms were bound to confront at some point or another: its responsibilities when it comes to balancing content moderation against upholding the open-publishing ethos of podcasting. I wrote about this last month, when discussing the increasing number of stories about white nationalist podcasts in mainstream media and what the trend might mean for the podcast ecosystem:

Consider it the double-edged sword of podcasting’s historically-defining trait as a contemporary torch-bearer for the open internet. Low barriers to entry means anybody can publish, which means that, well, anybody can publish.

It’s haunting to see this development trickle out into the open as we continue to watch the saga of Facebook and misinformation play out. I reckon this is something that Apple Podcasts — and now, Google Podcasts — might end up having to messily grappled with in the not far future. Buckle up for another edge to, and another round of, questions about the governance and policy roles of platforms policing their spaces… and the slippery nature of bad faith actors.

I’ve seen a couple of folks broadly linking Spotify’s situation here with another somewhat similar-seeming story from earlier this year. In May, back when the streaming service initially rolled out its “Hate Content & Hateful Conduct” policy — in part to promote “openness, diversity, tolerance and respect.” The company immediately enforced its “Hateful Conduct” policy by removing R. Kelly and XXXTentacion’s music from its curated playlists, ostensibly due to the various allegations of abuse made against the two artists. The move sparked strong polarized reactions. Writing for The Daily Beast, Aram Sinnreich summed the perceptual conundrum well:

Seen from one perspective, the industry-defining streaming music service is a golden beacon, a bright light piercing the gloom of a profit-hungry, dangerously amoral industry, thanks to its renewed commitment to ethical business practices. Shift your vantage point a bit, however, and it’s a dark and sinister censorship machine—a bleak harbinger of our technodystopian future in which unaccountable internet services become our nanny bots, removing any power or responsibility from human end-users sucking at the silicon teat.

Spotify would later reverse its position on R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, ultimately choosing to kill its “Hateful Conduct” policy altogether.

This Alex Jones situation is significantly different. The material within the episodes themselves were deemed to contain harmful material, and the removal was not pegged to Alex Jones or Infowars’ various controversies outside of the platform. (Besides, as mentioned, the policy for stuff like that is now dead, anyway.) And so, as far as the removal is concerned, the decision strikes me as pretty cut and dry, especially when you consider that the podcast as a whole is still on the platform, with only specific episodes found to be direct violation struck from the inventory.

Of course, the broader issue here is really the concern that Spotify is relatively ill-equipped to actually handle the stickier places that hate speech struggles can take you: the world of innuendos, of talking in coded language, of harmful impacts that incurred through the most indirect of means. Of bad actors mobilizing infinitely quickly to take advantage at whatever policy loophole they can find. This isn’t a problem unique to Spotify, or the universe of content-distributing platforms. It’s also a problem faced by the legal, judicial, and political systems we have in this country.

But the problem that is specific to Spotify and other such platforms is the fact that they are collectively being pushed into a position they’re neither equipped nor particularly psyched to adopt: to make what amounts to be editorial decisions. The pursuit for them, as always, is to see if they can stake, and enforce, a space between straightforward neutrality and straightforward editorialism. Given the polarized state of the universe right now, I doubt they’ll be allowed to find that.

Two side notes:

  • I wonder how other platforms, like Apple and TuneIn and iHeartMedia and whatnot, are thinking about/handling this? Maybe they won’t end up having to — Jones didn’t specifically highlight them anyway.
  • Will Sommers once wrote a guest column for Hot Pod, by the way. I thought it was pretty good: “Notes on Conservative Podcasts.