Spotify is at the center of a growing controversy over COVID-19 misinformation on its platform: Two music legends, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, along with at least one other high-profile musician, said they were pulling their music. Over 200 health experts signed onto an open letter accusing Spotify of “enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research.” And even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who have a content deal with Spotify, have expressed “concerns.” Facing increasing scrutiny, both Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and podcaster Joe Rogan released statements over the weekend attempting to mitigate the public backlash before more join in on boycotting the platform.
Rogan—who recently hosted Robert Malone, a controversial medical doctor and infectious-disease researcher who promoted a “mass formation psychosis” conspiracy theory, on his podcast—apologized to Spotify and thanked the company for supporting him. “I’m very sorry that this is happening to them and that they’re taking so much heat from it,” Rogan said on Sunday in a 10-minute video statement posted on Instagram. Spotify obtained exclusive rights to The Joe Rogan Experience in 2020, when it struck a reported $100 million deal with Rogan. Financially, that contract has paid off for Spotify, as Rogan’s show and his millions of listeners have played a key role in helping the tech company’s plan to grow its user base through podcasting. But Spotify’s association with Rogan has also caused the company headaches, particularly due to his pandemic-related content, such as when Rogan endorsed the use of ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19 and advised “healthy” young people not to get vaccinated. (Rogan did clarify that he’s “not an anti-vax person” after the White House shot down the latter claim.)
Rogan has largely remained unshaken throughout his past controversies. (In August, Ek made a public stand in support of the podcaster’s creative independence, stating that Spotify will not censor the content of Rogan’s show.) But Rogan’s tune seemingly changed in light of Young and Mitchell’s boycott of Spotify—protests that came after Rogan’s recent episode with Malone, in which the guest made “several falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines,” according to the open letter from medical experts. (Malone had already been permanently suspended from Twitter and saw an unofficial upload of his podcast episode with Rogan swiftly removed by YouTube.)
“If there’s anything that I’ve done that I can do better is have more experts with differing opinions, right after I have the controversial ones,” Rogan said on Sunday. “I would most certainly be open to doing that. I would like to talk to some people that have differing opinions on those podcasts in the future. We’ll see.” He went on to say that while he schedules his own guests, he does not “always get it right.” Rogan also noted that his intention with the show has always been “to create interesting conversations and ones that I hope people enjoy,” adding, “I’m not trying to promote misinformation, I’m not trying to be controversial. I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than to just talk to people.”
But as tech observers have pointed out, Spotify isn’t only a platform dealing with content moderation—it has a high-profile contract with Rogan. “Spotify is leaning directly into the comparisons to Facebook and YouTube; it lets them run the ‘content moderation is an impossible challenge’ playbook instead of the ‘we bought and distribute this media property’ playbook,” as The Verge’s editor in chief Nilay Patel noted on Twitter.
In his own statement, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek did not mention Rogan by name but alluded to the backlash that the podcast has caused.