I’ve been following Casey Newton’s work for closely quite some time now, particularly over the past few years as he’s zeroed in on covering tech platforms and content moderation as a senior editor at The Verge. Among his many achievements there, he broke huge stories about the horrible working conditions for Facebook’s outsourced content moderators as part of his broader reporting on Facebook, and he also started a newsletter called The Interface that focused on the intersection of social media and democracy.

Newton recently left The Verge to launch Platformer, his own independent newsletter on Substack — which, by the way, is another platform that I personally believe should be held to the same kinds of platform-publisher questions nowadays — where he continues to stay on the beat. In case it isn’t crystal clear by now, podcasting falls well within this discussion these days, as perhaps they should always have been, and I figured Newton’s insight into Spotify’s predicament would be useful to set the frame for what’s to come.

***

Hot Pod: Based on your experience, what do you see when you look at Spotify’s situation over the past week?

Casey Newton: I think we’re in the early stages of seeing Spotify eventually come around to implementing many more restrictions on the content that even their own podcasts will include.

So, let’s back up for a second and talk about the bigger shift that we’ve been seeing in the tech industry more broadly. At the beginning of a tech platform, we mostly just see that company as infrastructure. It is a tool that helps put a thing into the world. The early days of Twitter, certainly. Substack is in that zone right now, though recent developments suggest that people are beginning to see it a little differently now.

That early stage is the Wild West. People will post whatever and the platform is barely going to investigate abuse because they see themselves as a tool and not responsible for the content of anything its users publish. As the years go on, these platforms get bigger and more powerful. As their audience share grows, we stop thinking of them as simple infrastructure and start thinking of them as true publishers who should be responsible for the content on their platforms.

This is all preamble to talk about where Spotify is right now. Before they started buying, licensing, and hosting podcasts, you could argue they were a podcast player like any other. Now, there are a lot of bad actor podcasts out there, and if one of them were on Spotify’s platform, they could argue they were just a tool for spreading the thing. We saw this with Alex Jones when they took him off the platform a few years ago.

For the most part, though, Spotify has been generally reluctant to intervene in things like this. They had the whole R. Kelly issue on the music side a few years ago, but they were able to just say: “Have your feelings about artists, but we believe in making a super broad range of content available and we’re not going to weigh in every time an artist does a bad thing, and we’re not going to necessarily remove them from playlists.

None of those music controversies ultimately went anywhere, and while there may have been angry blog posts and critical news reports, they haven’t been called before Congress or whatever. It hasn’t been a major scandal.

I think you’re going to start to see that turn with the Joe Rogan thing. This is their show pony. This is their biggest original content deal ever, and he is a problematic figure. In this Alex Jones situation, Rogan brought on somebody who has been de-platformed by many of the biggest platforms in the world. So I suspect this is the moment where Spotify is crossing over being understood as infrastructure towards being regarded as a publisher in a big way. Because they’re paying Joe Rogan’s salary, they’re responsible for him in a way that even YouTube is not responsible for hosting Joe Rogan, as he was just uploading videos there.

HP: What does it mean to be responsible for Rogan?

Newton: That’s a great question, and I think it mostly hinges on another question, which is: what should Spotify’s publishing standards be?

That should be a process that involves a lot of stakeholders and a lot of thought. They should be bringing in people who have worked on this issue for other platforms. They need to be gaming out scenarios. Of course, they could land in a bunch of places in that process — and, by the way, one of those places could be, “We don’t care if our podcast hosts bring on people who have been deplatformed elsewhere, we’re going to enable more speech than any other platform, and here’s why.” They can say that, and it feels like they basically tried out that argument on the earnings call this week.

I’ve seen this play out so many times before, and I feel like I’m watching the first act of a movie I’ve already seen. Now, the second act of that movie is: there will be more controversies about more podcasts, and then there will be a series of articles laying out the most problematic podcasts on Spotify and how much is being paid for each of them, and then there’s a continuous drumbeat of leaks from inside Spotify. Some employees quit, some employees write Medium posts about why they quit and how toxic the environment has become, and then Spotify comes out and says, “We hear you, we’re going to adopt some real community standards now, here are the new rules going forward.”

Of course, maybe that won’t happen. But right now, I don’t see a world in which it doesn’t.

HP: I get the sense from what you’re saying that there are two layers to dig through here. The first is Spotify not yet having a coherent content policy that can be consistently applied across their various business lines. The second layer, which is perhaps more the heart of it, is how it feels like Spotify still hasn’t really committed to the reality of the situation they got when they pushed into podcasting both as a publisher and a platform. There’s a bit of wanting to have its cake and eat it too: “We’re for all sorts of speech, but we’re still the friendly Swedes in the room.”

Having seen this movie several times before, what’s the appropriate move for a platform at this point in the story?

Newton: I think platforms would do well to approach these problems with humility, especially at this early stage. It should be okay for them to say: “We’re relatively early in our journey as a publisher that is acquiring and promoting podcasts under our own name, we understand that there are valid questions about the kinds of podcasts are being distributed on our platform, and we want to think about what the rules should be for that so we can adequately communicate them.”

I would start there. You could look at what Zoom did earlier this summer when they experienced all that crazy growth during the pandemic and journalists started uncovering all these problems: encryption issues, security holes, so on. Then Zoom said, “You know, you’re right, we were not prepared for this level of scrutiny, we’re going to take the next ninety days, we’re not going to ship a new feature, we’re going to bring in a bunch of security consultants and stress test the platform, and then we’ll go back to making new features after we figure all that out.”

And that’s exactly what they did. They later publicized what they found and the changes they made, and I would argue that Zoom is on better footing now than before they undertook that process.

I’ve been sort of laughing as I’ve watched Spotify’s early responses to its situation, because all those responses seem to suggest that they think they’re only going to get this problem once. Like, “if we can just get through the controversy around this one Joe Rogan episode, we can put this issue to rest forever.” That’s just not what’s going to happen here.

HP: Who would be the key player within Spotify to watch on this specific issue moving forward?

Newton: So, the kinds of folks within big companies who typically work on problems like this… well, they go by many names, and there still isn’t really a consistent name for this team, but the name you hear the most is “Trust and Safety.”

The weird thing about Trust and Safety is that it’s a baby industry. There wasn’t a professional trade association for employees working in Trust and Safety until this year. It was founded by this woman named Clara Tsao, who is a really interesting thinker. One of the big points that she’s made over the years is that one of the reasons these [content policy] issues have been so acute is that it’s not even seen as a proper career path for people. If you want to be in the business of managing content policies inside platforms, the path to do so is really murky.

Content moderation is usually a backwater. It’s usually the first thing a tech founder will give up as soon as they can, because the tradeoffs are hard and people will be unhappy no matter the decision you take.

My sense is that Spotify doesn’t really have a Trust and Safety team or equivalent. I’m sure they have people working on these issues, but the question is whether they are empowered. I believe there hasn’t been real community standards set for podcasters on the platform just yet. Will they undertake a real process to carve out actual community standards? Because over the long run, they’re not going to find it workable for Daniel Ek to keep responding on earnings calls to a quarter’s worth of complaints about that.

HP: Does it bother you to keep seeing this story play out over and over again?

Newton: Nah, it just makes me excited. I feel like I ended up in this weird niche as a journalist where I’m always writing about these same issues, and I’m happy to repeat myself, you know? I don’t actually have to do a lot of work. It’s just, “We’re in act one now, class, anybody wants to guess what happens next?”

For this Jones-Rogan situation, I’m not really that bothered. I think Jones has actually been effectively de-platformed, and yeah, Rogan has said some anti-trans stuff that’s gross and upsetting, but I wouldn’t put Joe Rogan on my top ten list of worst content problems on the internet. There are other ones that have definitely bothered me way more, a lot of it on Facebook.

But I was talking with someone a few years ago — I won’t say his name, but he’s a billionaire tech founder — and he was saying, “You guys really aren’t studying podcasts enough.” He brought up people like Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, and Jordan Peterson, and he said, “People are spending four or five hours a week with these guys, and most journalists aren’t listening to these podcasts, so there are these huge surging currents of thought in America that are really underexplored.”

And I started thinking about that for myself. A podcast I’ve listened to for over ten years now is the Savage Lovecast, and I’m now at a point where all my opinions about sex and relationships are just Dan Savage’s opinions. That is one situation where I thought I had really firm opinions about certain things, but over ten years, Dan just wore me down, and now all my opinions are basically his opinions.

Now, I believe his opinions are good, and if he’s radicalized me about anything, it’s just to be, like, a good and loving partner, you know? But if you apply that framework to listeners of these other kinds of podcasts… The scariest stuff here isn’t when a podcast host has a bad guest on, but when you get somebody with a genuinely pernicious ideology podcasting that maybe starts out being really innocuous but gets really dark over time. That’s a much harder problem for a platform like Spotify to solve, because you don’t want them policing thought, but what happens when you get something like a Stefan Molyneux? What happens when you have certain kinds of people banned on YouTube, and they start becoming the next generation of popular podcasts on Anchor? Will Spotify intervene there?

That, I think, is the bigger and more interesting question.

***

You can find Platformer, Newton’s newsletter, here.

I run this thing.