(NEW YORK) — After managing to avoid the same level of scrutiny as fellow tech giants such as Twitter and Facebook for years, streaming service Spotify has now found itself at the center of a scandal involving the platform it gives to those disseminating misinformation about COVID-19.
The saga stems from episodes of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, which critics said peddled dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines to his millions of listeners. Spotify made headlines back in 2020 for reportedly licensing a $100 million deal to exclusively host Rogan’s often controversial namesake podcast.
Following immense backlash that included artist Neil Young yanking his music from the platform and a petition demanding action from Spotify signed by hundreds of doctors, scientists and public health professionals, Spotify responded late Sunday by saying it will add a “content advisory” label to any podcast episode that includes a discussion about COVID-19 and directs listeners to its “COVID-19 Hub” for up-to-date information on the virus as shared by public health authorities.
The streaming service, however, stopped short of removing any podcast episodes that have been criticized for spreading misinformation about the virus. A contrite Rogan said he supports Spotify’s decision in a 10-minute video posted to Instagram on Sunday, and he promised to add more guests with “differing opinions.”
While experts say Spotify’s actions are a good starting point, many say they remain skeptical of how effective these advisory labels will ultimately be at undoing or curbing the real-world damage caused by virus misinformation online.
“What we know is that it’s not going to have a strong effect in terms of changing people’s minds,” Ellen Goodman, a professor at Rutgers Law School whose research focuses on information policy law, free speech and media policy, told ABC News of adding fact-checking labels to misinformation. Goodman stressed that most of the research on this topic, however, looks at traditional social media platforms versus streaming services like Spotify.
Goodman said that existing research on this topic has shown that it is unlikely people’s opinions are going to be changed by something like a fact-checking label, especially for content on “something as polarizing as vaccines.”
“The evidence shows that it probably doesn’t do a huge amount to dissuade people from their priors,” she added. “But, also, the evidence shows that if they’re not coming into it with a prior, like they’re not in one camp or the other — it’s hard to imagine that there are people like on the fence about this issue — but if there are such people, then disclaimers can be effective.”
In a company blog post on Sunday announcing the updates, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said, “Personally, there are plenty of individuals and views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly.”
“We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users,” Ek added. “In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”
Goodman, meanwhile, told ABC News that she thinks it’s “nonsense to say that they don’t want to censor.”
“It’s not censorship, it’s making choices,” she said. “They are exercising editorial control when they decide what to put on their platforms and whatnot, and what to promote, and obviously this was a huge business deal for Spotify.”
“They are making their choices; they have a right to make those choices,” Goodman added, saying that having decided to host Rogan’s podcast, the company likely knew the kind of content moderation challenges this could present, adding, “but those are the kinds of editorial decisions that media platforms make all the time.”
Another problem many platforms have had with the labeling approach to misinformation is that it can open a whole can of worms for companies then deciding what rises to the level of meriting a label and what doesn’t, Goodman added, saying navigating these tripwires has proven especially difficult for social media giants in recent years.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology similarly warned on a 2020 study that putting warning labels on fake news can carry a catch of making people more readily believe other false stories that aren’t tagged, and that there is no way fact-checkers can keep up with the stream of misinformation to combat this so-called “implied truth effect” caused by the addition of just some labeling.
Epidemiologist Dr. John Brownstein, the chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor, was one of the signatories of the headline-grabbing petition from scientists and doctors slamming an episode of Rogan’s podcast that featured a doctor who has been banned from Twitter for COVID-19 misinformation.
“It’s a good starting point,” Brownstein said of Spotify’s response, but he expressed frustration at how rapidly a public health campaign can be “undermined by a very, very small minority.”
“We’ve seen this movie play out before, where you can undo massive amounts of public health advance through even the smallest amount of objection,” he added. “We saw this with the linkage between vaccination and autism, where even though that research in itself was debunked, that that false linkage still persists today.”
“Regardless of a warning, I think people will ultimately still listen,” Brownstein said of content advisory labels. “A warning won’t necessarily have a major impact necessarily on how people absorb the information.”
He said he believes tech platforms bear a “massive responsibility” in figuring out “how not to provide equal footing” to false information about science and in quelling its spread, especially during a public health crisis.
“They need to find ways to not perpetuate rumors or misinformation about vaccines that ultimately cost lives,” Brownstein said. “There’s a responsibility, because these are not just sort of online chats, this is information that translates to someone’s decision about getting a vaccine.”
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