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When What You Thought Would Happen, Happened

When Spotify signed The Joe Rogan Experience to a hundred million dollar exclusive distribution deal this summer, practically everyone wondered how the audio streaming platform would handle the next time Rogan brought on Alex Jones, the notorious conspiracy theorist whose provably false and harmful provocations got his ass de-platformed by several major tech companies — including Spotify itself — in 2018.

Rogan had proven willing to give Jones a platform a few times before, engaging the conspiracy theorist in a distinctly Roganian “you’ve said some crazy stuff before but you’ve also said some controversial stuff I think you were right about so it all evens out for me” style of discourse that typically allows Jones to get off a high volume of conspiracy claims with Rogan only contesting some of those claims to the extent he’s interested enough to do so.

It took just under two months since The Joe Rogan Experience officially debuted on Spotify for the show to vault the company into that exact controversy everyone knew was coming. Last Tuesday, the podcast dropped a three hour-long episode with Jones, in which the conspiracy theorist, accompanied by the comedian Tim Dillon, did all the things you’d expect from the face of Infowars. Here’s The Verge with a partial summary:

Jones, who previously claimed that Sandy Hook was a hoax, also said that “a lot of studies show” that masks won’t protect people in large groups from getting COVID. (The CDC recommends people wear a mask “anywhere they will be around other people.”)

At another point, Jones exaggerates an incident in which an oral vaccine caused polio in recipients. Jones says the vaccine caused 100 percent of recipients to get sick after taking it, before Rogan pulls up an AP article that details the cases of two children who were paralyzed after receiving the vaccine. Dillon and Jones also claim that the Democrats are intentionally trying to keep the US economy down in order to get Trump out of office.

The episode drew a ton of criticism and negative coverage, as you would expect, but as The Verge points out, Rogan did again engage in some form of fact-checking, which does somewhat complicate the narrative around this specific situation, since Rogan advocates could argue (justifiably, I guess) that this isn’t simply a case where Jones was given free rein to spread misinformation. Indeed, the logic system does get a little tricky for those who wish to structurally push back against Rogan here: Spotify denying Rogan the ability to give Jones an appearance means that news organizations would not theoretically be free to engage Jones in a “properly” fact-checked podcast appearance should they wish to do so and still get distributed on the platform. Meanwhile, leaning on a framework where only news organizations get to do such things on the platform means that someone has to designate who gets to be a news organization on Spotify, which can be a dicey proposition.

That trickiness likely informed Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s response to a question raised about the incident during the company’s earnings call last Thursday, which leaned heavily on the notion of policy consistency. “We obviously review all the content that goes up” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Joe Rogan or anyone else. We do apply those policies, but it’s important to note that this needs to be evenly applied, no matter if it’s an internal pressure or an external pressure as well, because otherwise we are a creative platform for lots of creators, and it’s important that they know what to expect from our platform. If we can’t do that, then there are other choices for creators to go to so that consistency is super important.”

That response, by the way, was foreshadowed in a BuzzFeed News report that came out the day before the earnings call, which contained leaked emails featuring the company’s chief legal officer, Horacio Gutierrez, defending the show internally and providing talking points to Spotify management should they be made to publicly comment on the situation. One of those talking points was the aforementioned lean on content policy consistency.

Here’s the thing about this story for me: practically everybody knew in their bones that a Jones-Rogan situation was going to be inevitable under Spotify’s watch. So, why does it seem like the company didn’t entirely expect to handle something like this when they signed Rogan?

You can’t say the company didn’t have ample warning. In addition to Rogan’s entire track record, The Joe Rogan Experience gave Spotify two incidents around this general area the very month it debuted on the platform: the first is Rogan inadvertently reciting a debunked conspiracy theory about “left-wing people” being arrested for intentionally starting wildfires in Oregon, which he later apologized for, and the second is a guest spot by Abigail Shrier, whose book “Irreversible Damage” has been criticized for describing gender dysphoria as a “social contagion.” Furthermore, according to a Motherboard report, as a result of signing Rogan, Spotify started experiencing emerging tension with its workforce over content policy questions, which partly came through in a company town hall in which some employees raised concerns over Rogan’s history with comments considered transphobic. These things were light brushes compared to the Jones-Rogan situation, which presents the company with most extreme manifestation of this content moderation problem, but they nevertheless were signals that should’ve prompted Spotify to ramp up some process around pulling together a clear, consistent, and communicable content moderation policy as soon as humanly possible.

Let’s pull back for a second. Now, I don’t believe there’s any future in which Spotify does anything to rock the Joe Rogan boat. Don’t forget: Rogan is Spotify’s premiere signing in its push into podcasting, and as I’ve argued previously, The Joe Rogan Experience, whose intense popularity is uniquely significant for its capacity to draw new listeners onto the platform, is the piece that’s supposed to pull the company’s entire podcast bet together and take it to the next level. So, with that in mind, Spotify is more likely to tailor its content policy approach around Rogan’s needs than around anything else, because Spotify likely sees the upside of keeping Rogan happy being greater than the downsides he could bring to the business… even the risk of employee unrest, perhaps.

But however they land on content moderation, they have to land somewhere — and soon, too, because the Jones-Rogan situation is only one type of many, many big content risks the company will inevitably have to deal with in the days to come.

It’s often been asked of Spotify whether it’s a Netflix or a YouTube, with that inquiry generally being used as a way to think through how they should be held accountable for the content that flows through their pipes. That binary is false, I think, as the company has built its push into podcasting on the twin prongs of serving as a publisher of original content (substantiated by talent deals and various acquisitions) and serving as a platform (substantiated by acquiring the hosting platform Anchor). In other words, Spotify is effectively both Netflix and YouTube, and as such, they are exposed to being held accountable to either paradigm depending on the situation. In this specific context, they are responsible for The Joe Rogan Experience as a publisher in much the same way that… oh, I don’t know, YouTube is responsible for Cobra Kai. And someday — perhaps sooner than you might expect — they should be held responsible for hosting unambiguously bad or harmful actors on Anchor.

It’s a lot to think through, and for more insight, I thought I’d call up an expert source who’s been covering this type of stuff for years and years: Casey Newton.