Let’s talk about…Online misinformation

How culpable should we hold online platforms for misinformation?

No one’s arguing that free speech isn’t the inalienable right that it is, but being able to say whatever you want doesn’t really mean you shouldn’t take the time to consider the impact of your words

Despite being streaming giant Spotify’s most popular podcast, ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ seemed in genuine danger of being removed from the platform in the wake of recent controversy regarding Covid misinformation. Two particular interviews were responsible for prompting the backlash, as they both saw their interviewees make quite controversial claims about the pandemic, ranging from doubting the validity of official Covid numbers to the suggestion that the pandemic was pre-planned and that vaccines kill.

  Obviously, the spreading of Covid misinformation on a platform as large as Rogan’s has potential to result in serious and even deadly consequences. For this reason, criticism was thrown not just at Rogan, but also at Spotify for hosting the podcast, with calls for the show to be de-platformed. The streaming service received an open letter signed by 250 doctors, which called for a misinformation policy to be implemented, saying, “Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research”. Big-name artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell withdrew their music from the platform in protest, and several celebrities, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, expressed their serious concern over the issue.

  Joe Rogan ended up posting a video in which he pledged to try harder to ‘balance out’ the controversial opinions expressed on his show with opinions that actually reflect the mainstream scientific consensus. Spotify also responded to the backlash by implementing advisory warnings to podcasts discussing Covid. That, for all intents and purposes, was that.

  However, regardless of the dust being settled on the issue in a lot of respects, debate continued online around what distinguishes misinformation from free speech. In the wake of people criticising his podcast’s promotion of misinformation, Rogan had gone the ‘free speech’ route, insisting he was merely debating the issues – and the ‘free speech’ defence became the primary argument of those who felt the podcast hadn’t done anything wrong.

  It feels like many people online see the concept of ‘free speech’ as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card, something you can claim in order to absolve yourself of any hurtful or unverifiable thing you say. Of course, there is obvious harm to presenting unverified opinions as facts, but even when it comes to more opinion-based issues, the ‘free speech’ defence falls short. No one’s arguing that free speech isn’t the inalienable right that it is, but being able to say whatever you want doesn’t really mean you shouldn’t take the time to consider the impact of your words. Yes, everyone’s opinion is valid, but that doesn’t take away from the merit of thinking about how what you say affects people.

  Where the ‘free speech’ defence falls especially weak are in the instances where the statements in question could cause direct harm to a number of people. Rogan’s podcast regularly draws in 11 million listeners, and so there’s no denying the influence his opinion – and the opinions he endorses – have. Broadcasting misinformation can completely change how people react to public health guidelines and alter the entire trajectory of how we’re recovering from the pandemic, so it’s only fair to acknowledge the added responsibility associated with having a large audience.

  That same responsibility, to avoid enabling misinformation and to uphold public safety, lies with Spotify and all online platforms. In fairness, the wide spectrum of opinions –ranging from banning those who share controversial opinions to claiming it’s all fair game under free speech – makes it a difficult problem to address in the correct capacity, and so, the implementation of an adversary warning may seem like a sort-of middle ground between the two sides. However, in cases like the recent Rogan controversy, it’s easy to see the financial motivations at play alongside motivations to quell backlash.

  In May 2020, Spotify paid $100 million as part of a licensing deal with Rogan to become the exclusive hosts of his podcast. Online platforms tend to respond to backlash about misinformation by stating that they are a platform for people to express opinions, not an endorser of those opinions. However, even if you don’t agree with the sentiment that a larger platforms equals added responsibility, it’s fair to say that you can’t exactly call yourself a separate party to the content you host if you’re willing to fork up $100 million to host it in the first place.

  Rogan’s podcast is Spotify’s number one earner, and the streaming service has profited a lot from the show being so controversial – all press is good press after all. Rogan was under heat for pushing pseudoscience since before his deal with Spotify, so it’s clear that their priorities lie with what’s profitable, over actual concern over misinformation. This is made only more clear by the fact that no action was taken on adding adversary warnings until big-name celebrities began withdrawing their support for the platform.

  This recent controversy has served to highlight a number of issues that have become increasingly pressing in the past while. Disagreement over where the line gets drawn between expressing an opinion and contributing to misinformation is a point of contention that has had added gravity due to the pandemic, and the entire situation served to shine a harsh light on how big companies like Spotify prioritise money over everything else.

  There has been a slow trend towards cracking down on misinformation and hate speech across a number of platforms in recent years, which is encouraging, but there is a bit to go yet. In the end, at least this situation had the silver lining of Spotify being forced to make some sort of move towards being more responsible and not endorsing harmful content for the sake of some money…. though, at the same time, it did take them losing money to do it.