Publishing & Responsibility
Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 8, 2022
We’re going through another national spasm over seemingly unrestrained broadcasts of misinformation and racial slurs.
The protests over the podcasts by outspoken commentator Joe Rogan have renewed talk about freedom of speech even if the speech is somehow socially noxious. As we know, a small, but growing number of musicians and performers now want to pull their music from Spotify because it doesn’t want to curb Rogan, though they have added a warning note.
And the conservative Rogan has added a dollop of distaste by owning up to using racial epithets, um, liberally, and feeling an urge to apologize for years of demeaning words.
Naturally, our culture divide has also pushed counter-voices ready to defend the freedom to say dumb, unfounded, medically unsubstantiated things about Covid or any other subject Rogan wants to touch. That freedom, which I am enjoying here, is what makes America Great, right?
But the question here is not so much for Rogan — who likely could find other hosts than Spotify if that company were to bend to protest. On Friday, Rogan apparently pulled about 70 episodes of his podcast from Spotify without explanation other than his public apology concerning racial insults.
Rather, this issue is about what Spotify, largely owned by Google, and other social media companies see as their responsibility. It is about what passes these days as community responsibility amid an accepted drive for profit at any cost.
And it comes as we see continuing attempts in Congress to criticize social media laxness over content that is demonstrably false or that is subject to perceptions of political decision-making by both the Left and Right. It comes as conservatives want to ban books over inclusion of words or scenes or lifestyles that they would prefer not be taught in school.
It comes after years of declining trust in the media at all levels, the measurable move of audiences to believe only sources with whom they agree, and years of Donald Trump preaching that the media are the enemy of the people, message of the 1882 Ibsen play.
What Spotify Says
The heat grew intense enough for Spotify CEO Daniel Ek to offer a 15-minute speech to his employees, an audio obtained by The Verge and distributed by The New York Post, among others. Ek justified standing behind podcaster Rogan, proudly stating that the service is “not in the business of dictating the discourse” of its content creators.
“Spotify is for allowing conversation and sparking thought,” he said, noting that it offers 11 million creators and 3.6 million podcasts. “I know some of you feel disappointed, or angry, or even hurt, by some of this content and the fact that it remains on our platform,” Ek said. “There are many things that Joe Rogan says that I strongly disagree with and find very offensive,” Ek added. But Rogan is “the number one podcaster in the world by a wide margin,” Ek stressed. Rogan has been key in driving toward the service’s dream of eventually having “50 million creators and a billion users,” Ek said. He said it was “really critical that creators are able to use their voice independently” and that Spotify has “diverse voices.”
The takeaway, once again, is that doing business as a platform does not come with the responsibilities normally associated with publishing — including the legal responsibility to apply some rigor to avoid the pitfalls of libel, slander or serious error.
Interestingly, this incident comes at the same time that The New York Times has been hauled into court by Sarah Palin, the politician, to face her defamation lawsuit over an editorial published in 2017. That editorial bemoaned the turn to weapons in politics after the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise on a baseball field, and linked Palin’s aggressive politics to efforts to target opponents’ districts using a crosshairs map. The Times published a correction, but never apologized to Palin, prompting the lawsuit.
The 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision called New York Times v. Sullivan set rules for libel cases, exempting public officials, underlying truth as a basic defense, and setting “malice” as a standard for defamation. All those are at issue in this case at a time when the Supreme Court justices have a conservative bent, and it is possible the longtime protections are at issue.
In this case, The Times said it make a mistake, corrected it, and argues that Palin’s reputation has not been damaged.
But the bigger point here is responsibility.
That’s why Facebook and its leader, Mark Zuckerberg, or Twitter or Google and other Big Tech companies face constant criticism now despite the divide in Congress. Republicans see efforts by Facebook and the others as using technology to still conservative voices, including and specifically Donald Trump’s. Democrats see Big Tech as failing to do enough to stop misinformation about elections and Covid treatments.
Through it all, the technology companies see themselves as platforms, not publishers, and they insist that they work like the telephone company, only carrying messages. Yet, they are spending increasing time, effort and money to stop or at least label messages, posts and searches that they acknowledge are spreading misinformation about voting and campaigns, and about bad medical advice.
So, we have The New York Times, which, as a publisher, says it spends an all-out effort to be rigorous about not distributing bad information in court to defend a mistake. And we have Spotify insisting that there is no real need to rein in a podcaster who makes his living by talking up controversy about alternative medicines, for example, or dropping racial epithets.
Surely, individual podcasters and writers have some responsibility to work rigorously to label what they know to be is true from what clearly is not, to live by some kind of standard.
But somehow, social media companies think their job is marketing and counting profits, not policing their content. That’s why Congress eventually will find a way to limit their exemption from regulation, and courts are likely going to find ways to insist on news companies’ responsibilities when the results are deemed hurtful and wrong — whether the “malicious” standard eventually hold or not.
As usual, we’re fighting about the wrong issues.