Obamas still silent as Prince Harry and Joni Mitchell weigh in on Spotify’s Joe Rogan Covid controversy

The streaming service has moved aggressively to become a top podcast destination in recent years, with Joe Rogan as its crown jewel

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Sunday 30 January 2022 16:46
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Rock legend Neil Young made headlines this week for deciding to leave Spotify in protest, arguing podcaster Joe Rogan, one of the streamer’s biggest stars, was using the service to broadcast inaccurate Covid information to his millions of listeners.

Backing up Mr Young, some of the platform/s marquee names like Prince Harry and Joni Mitchell have begun to sound off on the controversy and urge the streaming service to rein in Covid misinformation.

Meanwhile, Barack and Michelle Obama, who have an exclusive podcast deal with the service, have remained silent, despite their work elsewhere urging Americans to get vaccinated and stop the spread of the coronavirus. The controversy began on Monday when Young posted an open letter announcing his intentions to leave the service over the treatment of the pandemic on The Joe Rogan Experience, the service’s most popular podcast. Spotify paid Rogan an estimated $100m to secure the show as an exclusive.

“I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” Young wrote, later adding on his website that “SPOTIFY has become the home of life-threatening COVID misinformation. Lies being sold for money.”

Public health experts have long warned that Joe Rogan’s podcast features incorrect — and potentially harmful — information about the coronavirus.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Rogan has repeatedly spread misleading and false claims on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine,” a group of hundreds of doctors wrote in an open letter to Spotify about the show earlier this month. “He has discouraged vaccination in young people and children, incorrectly claimed that mRNA vaccines are ‘gene therapy’, promoted off-label use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 (contrary to FDA warnings), and spread a number of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.”

A recent episode, aired on 31 December, 2021, featured Dr Robert Malone, a doctor who had been suspended from Twitter for violating its policies on Covid misinformation. On the show, Dr Malone said vaccine proponents had “hypnotised” the public and compared pandemic policies to the Holocaust.

As of December, Rogan said he wasn’t vaccinated because it “doesn’t make sense” to get the jab since he had a previous case of Covid, which he treated in part with medicines like ivermectin, which experts have warned is not appropriate for coronavirus cases. The host has claimed he’s “not an anti-vax person” and said he does “encourage many people to take them,” while maintaining that young and healthy people don’t need the vaccine.

The Independent has reached out to Joe Rogan for comment.

Spotify has increasingly moved to become a podcasting platform in recent years, signing lucrative exclusive deals with stars like Kim Kardashian West, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the Obamas, actor Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert show, and the hugely popular Call Her Daddy podcast from Barstool Sports, now the number two show on Spotify behind Joe Rogan. When reached by The Independent, none of these top names responded. Thus far, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been the most vocal of Spotify’s top talent about the issue.

According to a statement released by their non-profit Archewell, the pair said they have been working since last April to express “concerns to our partners at Spotify about the all too real consequences of Covid misinformation on its platform.”

“We have continued to express our concerns to Spotify to ensure changes to its platform are made to help address this public health crisis,” they wrote, adding, “We look to Spotify to meet this moment and are committed to continuing our work together as it does.”

Prince Harry has previously criticised Rogan’s handling of pandemic information. Last May, while speaking on the Armchair Expert podcast, the royal said Rogan, a comedian and mixed martial arts enthusiast, should “stay out of it” when it comes to medical advice.

“I think the issue is, in today’s world, with misinformation [being] just endemic, you’ve got to be careful what comes out of your mouth,” Harry said. “News doesn’t exist in just news anymore. It’s splattered all over the place. So people listen to Joe Rogan and say, ‘Oh, if he says that... There’s a [sense] of, ‘Don’t listen to me’ – well, don’t say that. Just stay out of it. ... If you have a platform, with a platform comes responsibility.”

Mr Shepard added that Rogan was “ridiculous” and “stupid” on Covid issues, but entitled to his opinion.

Other musicians have joined the royals in calling out Spotify, as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren and folk singer Joni Mitchell have pulled their music from the service in recent days.

The streaming service needs to change its policies because “irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives” Mitchell said of the decision.

Their strong stance on Covid has earned them praise from others in the industry.

“If all artists were as punk rock as Neil Young maybe we wouldn’t be getting absolutely screwed by corporate streaming companies,” musician Margo Price tweeted.

British singer Kate Nash commented: “I really admire Neil Young for pulling his music from Spotify.”

Both artists remain on Spotify.

Others have noted that few artists have the financial security in the age of streaming to jettison Spotify.

“It rocks that Neil can take his music off S*****y but the fact remains that the vast majority of us can’t afford to do that because the (very meagre) royalties are one of the few ways to cobble together any semblance of a living,” wrote Steve Sladowski, guitarist of the rock band Pup, on Twitter.

The Independent has reached out to Spotify for comment on the specifics of its Covid content policies and whether Rogan will face any repercussions.

“We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users. With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators,” the streaming service said in a statement earlier this week. “We have detailed content policies in place and we’ve removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to Covid since the start of the pandemic. We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon.”

The music streaming giant, which has an audience of roughly 299 million podcast listeners each month, has previously said it bans “false or dangerous deceptive content about COVID-19, which may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.”

It has also gone to bat, however, for its biggest podcast star, who frequently interviews controversial guests with fringe opinions on climate change and gender issues.

“We want creators to create,” Daniel Ek, the chief executive and co-founder of Spotify, told The Financial Times in 2020 amid controversy that Rogan had interviewed infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. “It’s what they do best. We’re not looking to play a role in what they should say.”

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