This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The fields of the national discourse are everywhere polluted with falsity, lies and propaganda, we are told, and in the absence of a functioning regulatory state to appeal to, culture is called upon to clean up the mess.
The cycle is by now familiar: A private company — usually a tech company with a market capitalization in the tens or hundreds of billions — lends a provocateur a microphone, and sometimes a paycheck to boot. (In an attention economy, the distinction between the two can prove elusive.) The provocateur goes on to amplify claims that are inaccurate, inflammatory, even harmful. Objectors call for the provocateur’s microphone to be taken away, which invariably invites accusations of “censorship,” “illiberalism” and, of course, “cancel culture.”
The embattled speaker of the week is Joe Rogan, the host of the world’s most popular podcast. A few weeks ago, 270 doctors, physicians and science educators signed an open letter calling on Spotify, with whom Rogan has a $100 million contract, to “establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation” after Rogan broadcast falseand misleadingclaims about Covid and coronavirus vaccines. Soon after, artists no less iconic than Joni Mitchell and Neil Young announced they would be withdrawing their music from Spotify because of its association with Rogan.
What does the furor over Rogan suggest about the merits and flaws of pressuring tech platforms to combat misinformation? How should a company balance the values of free speech and public health when one of its biggest moneymakers puts them in tension? Here’s what people are saying.
When speech is ‘dangerous’
Rogan, a self-described “moron,” has a habit of stoking controversy. (Just last week, he claimed it was “very strange” for anyone to call themselves Black unless they’re from the “darkest place” of Africa.) But amid a public health crisis, the signatories of the open letter argue, his Covid statements are “not only objectionable and offensive, but also medically and culturally dangerous.”
The reason for their concern is evident. Covid is still killing more than 2,500 Americans a day. Despite having first access to the best vaccines in the world, the United States ranks behind some 60 countries with respect to vaccination and booster rates, and has a much higher death rate per capita than its peers.
“In a matter of days, the United States will reach the ignominious number of 900,000 confirmed deaths, more than half of which occurred well after vaccines were widely available to high risk (by age or immunocompromised) status,” Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, writes. “It is now inevitable that we’ll soon see that toll rise to more than a million American lost lives, and we know that well over 90 percent of these deaths were preventable with vaccination.”
Some of the speech at issue:
Of the coronavirus vaccines, Rogan said, “If you’re a healthy person, and you’re exercising all the time, and you’re young, and you’re eating well, like, I don’t think you need to worry about this.”
When Rogan himself came down with Covid, he claimed he was treating himself with ivermectin, a drug that has become a popular vaccine alternative despite opposition from federal health authorities.
In Rogan’s final episode of 2021, he interviewed a scientist named Robert Malone, who likened the vaccine mandates to Nazi-era oppression and said Americans were trapped in a “mass formation psychosis.”
Just how many Americans Rogan’s pronouncements might have dissuaded from getting vaccinated is impossible to know. But with an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, his influence is “tremendous,” the signatories say.
Platform, or publisher?
In the throes of similar controversies, social media networks like Facebook have argued that they are merely platforms, not publishers, and aren’t responsible for moderating content that doesn’t violate their (shifting) terms of service. But commentators have pointed out that Spotify, unlike those other companies, directly paid $100 million for the exclusive rights to Rogan’s podcast, and the company has noted that his show has increased its ad revenue.
“Spotify doesn’t get to just put a content warning on Rogan’s episodes and treat him like they would any other podcast because he’s not any other podcast,” the tech journalist Ryan Broderick writes. “He’s their podcast.”
Appealing to tech companies to curb the spread of speech deemed dangerous has proved effective in some cases. “You can see it with villains as diverse as ISIS, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones,” the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote last year. Peter W. Singer, a co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” told her, “Their ability to drive the conversation, reach wider audiences for recruitment, and, perhaps most importantly to a lot of these conflict entrepreneurs, to monetize it, is irreparably harmed.”
[Read more: “Deplatforming: Following extreme internet celebrities to Telegram and alternative social media”]
With Rogan, though, Spotify has options besides canceling his podcast, Jill Filipovic writes. “They, obviously, don’t want to be a censorship machine, but they could remove episodes that further dangerous untruths, something they’ve already done with Rogan in the past, taking down an episode featuring his interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and another that featured fascist sympathizer Gavin McInnes,” she argues on CNN’s website. Otherwise, “if Rogan’s podcast is more akin to music than a truthful exploration of ideas featuring serious experts, then the company should categorize it as fiction or fantasy, and make clear to listeners that what they’re hearing is as divorced from reality as Major Tom was from planet Earth.”
The case against calling the Big Tech police
It’s wrong. Asking Spotify to crack down on Rogan may offend those who subscribe to the traditionally liberal view that the answer to bad speech is more speech. “Joe Rogan has a right to be wrong, and I have a right to hear him and his guests be wrong, if I want to,” Rod Dreher of The American Conservative writes. “Of course Young and Mitchell have the right to pull their music from Spotify, but do they really want to start this war? As artists, do they really want to put themselves in the position of playing self-righteous censors (because that’s what they’re trying to do: compel Spotify to cancel Rogan’s show).”
[Read more: “The Dangerous Appeal of Neil Young’s Righteous Censorship”]
It’s unsustainable. It should be said that Young denies that he’s trying to censor anyone; he’s merely exercising his right to free association. “Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information,” he wrote.
But what other commitments might such a principled stance compel? As Nick Gillespie of Reason points out, Young has an official channel on YouTube, which Joe Rogan is also on. “Should Neil Young, in the name of consistency, issue an ultimatum to YouTube and then bolt when the service refuses to yield to his demand?” he asks. The logic, taken to its conclusion, would end with “all of us at our own paywalled sites, secure in our purity of association but with much less to talk about,” he adds.
It’s a superficial solution. In Jacobin,Branko Marcetic argues that Rogan is a symptom of a larger problem of institutional mistrust. How, after all, did people come to look to him for medical advice in the first place? In Marcetic’s view, the blame falls at least in part on the political and public health establishments, which failed to communicate effectively during the pandemic. “If Spotify booted Rogan and the U.S. government banished him to the Arctic, you would still get Covid misinformation and mistrust, because of both these factors and the messaging failure that’s been endemic to U.S. institutions throughout these confusing, frustrating two years,” he writes.
[Read more: “Bad News”]
It entrenches corporate power. Social media giants may be private companies, but they’ve also become points of entry to a de facto public square. For some, like the Times Opinion writer Jay Caspian Kang, that’s all the more reason to refrain from begging that they more rigidly enforce boundaries of socially acceptable speech.
“Nothing a tech company will do to suppress content on its platform will violate the First Amendment, but that’s also the problem we’re facing: There’s very little recourse for the silenced,” he wrote last month. “Cheering on the dismissal of toxic politicians, celebrities and thinkers, and arguing that private companies like Twitter can do whatever they want” if they are following their own terms of service, he added, “give social media companies license to do just that: whatever they want.”
If not Big Tech, then who?
Would it be preferable — more democratic, perhaps — if the power to moderate content belonged to the government rather than tech companies? “At least governmental speech restrictions are implemented in open court, with appellate review,” Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert, wrote in The Times last year. “Speakers get to argue why their speech should remain protected. Courts must follow precedents, which gives some assurance of equal treatment. And the rules are generally created by the public, by their representatives or by judges appointed by those representatives.”
Of course, as Emily Bazelon has written for The Times Magazine, Americans are deeply suspicious of letting the state regulate speech, too: “We are uncomfortable with government doing it; we are uncomfortable with Silicon Valley doing it. But we are also uncomfortable with nobody doing it at all. This is a hard place to be — or, perhaps, two rocks and a hard place.”
For Ben Wizner, the director of the A.C.L.U.’s Speech and Privacy Project, the solution may lie not in transferring Big Tech’s power to the state but in breaking it up. “We need to use the law to prevent companies from consolidating that amount of power over our public discourse,” he said last year. “That does not mean regulation of content. It would mean enforcing our antitrust laws in the U.S. We should never have allowed a handful of companies to achieve the market dominance they have over such important public spaces.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Spotify Isn’t Really About the Music Anymore” [The Atlantic]
“Spotify Is Getting the Full Joe Rogan Experience, and It’s Awkward” [The New Republic]
“The Spotify Backlash Never Had a Chance” [New York]