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NULab Core Faculty John Wihbey on if Spotify Should Remove Joe Rogan

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From News@Northeastern

By Molly Callahan

Spotify has pledged to add an advisory to content that addresses COVID-19, the latest development in a standoff that has made the world’s largest music and podcast streaming platform another testing ground for the controversy over misinformation. But is it enough?

“From a research perspective, it is totally unclear to me how the practice of applying labels can be effective in an audio environment,” says John Wihbey, associate professor of media innovation and strategy at Northeastern, who studies misinformation online. “New techniques and technologies will need to be developed and tested rigorously to handle these problems. Otherwise, attempts to warn users can be just window dressing.”

john wihbey wearing button down shirt and blazer

John Wihbey is an associate professor of media innovation and strategy in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The news comes after several prominent artists, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Nils Lofgren, said they would remove their music from Spotify as long as the platform continues to host provocative podcaster Joe Rogan, who has questioned the need for young people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and has hosted guests on his show who have  promoted conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

It’s worth noting that Spotify doesn’t just host Rogan’s podcast. It paid more than $100 million for the exclusive rights to “The Joe Rogan Experience” back in 2020—one of the largest such deals in podcasting, and a move that has earned Spotify significant ad revenue.

In mid-January, 270 scientists, medical professionals, and scholars called on Spotify in an open letter to “immediately establish a clear public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.” They criticized an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” in which Rogan interviewed Robert Malone, an infectious-disease specialist who was banned from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

Twitter is among many platforms that have, since the pandemic began, adopted content-moderation policies to limit COVID-19 misinformation being seen by millions of users—policies that have been cheered by some and bemoaned by others.

Rogan himself has been highly critical of them, saying in his episode with Malone that tech companies “clearly [have] a censorship agenda when it comes to COVID, in terms of whether or not you’re promoting what they would call ‘vaccine hesitancy.’”

If Spotify were to remove Rogan’s podcast from its platform altogether, the decision would likely reinforce the type of “censorship” narrative Rogan posits, Wihbey says, adding it could inadvertently broaden his reach even further, exposing more people to bad information.

Removing Rogan’s podcast could set off a new flurry of coverage from news outlets and other right-wing personalities sympathetic to Rogan, giving more oxygen to his original show than ever before—a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect, Wihbey says.

In 2003, a picture of Barbra Streisand’s beachfront home was posted online as part of a public collection of images displaying coastal erosion. In response, Streisand sued the photographer for invasion of privacy, and the media attention surrounding the lawsuit made the photo of her house go viral. In the month before the lawsuit, the picture had been downloaded only six  times, including twice by her lawyers. In the month following, it was downloaded close to half a million times.

“Sometimes censorship efforts have precisely the opposite effect,” Wihbey says. “The question is whether deprecating Joe Rogan’s program would achieve anything meaningful or whether it would just serve as an example.”

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