Audio streaming giant Spotify takes a crash course in the tension between free speech and the need to protect the public from harmful misinformation.
The Swedish platform, which has 400 million active users, has faced a barrage of criticism over misinformation spread on its most popular podcastthe Joe Rogan experience.
Rogan, a former Ultimate Fight commentator and TV presenter, has argued healthy young people should not be vaccinated against COVID. This is against the medical advice of governments around the world, not to mention the World Health Organization.
A recent episode of his podcast, featuring virologist Robert Malone, attracted reviews from public health experts on his various conspiratorial claims about COVID vaccination programs.
There have been many calls for Spotify to deplatform Rogan and its interviewees. Rock legend Neil Young has issued an ultimatum that Spotify could stream either Rogan or Young, but not both.
Read more: Neil Young’s ultimatum to Spotify shows streaming platforms are now a battleground where artists can leverage power
Spotify co-founder Daniel Ek has since promised to label controversial COVID-related content with links to a “hub” of reliable information. But he refrained from pledging to remove disinformation outright.
In a statement, Ek noted:
We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users. In this role, it’s important to me that we don’t take the position of content censor while ensuring that there are rules in place and consequences for those who break them.
Does it go far enough?
Freedom of expression is important, but so is preventing harm. When what is advocated is likely to cause harm or loss of life, a line has been crossed. Spotify has a moral obligation to restrict speech that harms the public interest.
In response to the controversy, Spotify also publicly shared its rules of engagement. They are comprehensive and proactive in helping to educate content creators about boundaries that should not be crossed, while allowing freedom of expression within those constraints.
Did Spotify fulfill its duty of care to customers? If it enforces the rules as stated, provides listeners with links to reliable information, and refuses to let contentious but profitable content creators off the hook, that’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Platform or publisher?
At the heart of the problem is the question of whether social media providers are platforms or publishers.
Spotify and other Big Tech players say they’re just providing a platform for people’s opinions. Corn regulators are starting to say no, they are in fact publishers of information and, like any publisher, they must answer for their content.
In the United States, these platforms enjoy immunity from civil and criminal liability under a federal law of 1996 which shields them from liability as sites hosting user-generated content. As US companies, their actions are primarily based on US law.
It’s an ingenious business model that allows Facebook, for example, to turn a steady stream of free user-posted content into $28 billion in quarterly ad revenue.
Established newspapers and magazines also sell advertising, but they pay journalists to write content and are legally responsible for what they publish. No wonder they are in trouble to survive, and it’s no wonder tech platforms are keen to avoid similar liabilities.
But the fact is, social media companies make editorial decisions about what appears on their platforms. It is therefore not morally defensible to hide behind the legal protections granted to them as platforms, while they operate as publishers and derive considerable profits from it.
How best to fight misinformation?
Disinformation in the form of fake news, intentional misinformation and misinformed opinion has become a critical issue for democratic systems around the world. How to combat this influence without compromising democratic values and freedom of expression?
One way is to cultivate “information literacy” – an ability to discern misinformation. This can be done by getting into the habit of sampling news from across the political spectrum and then averaging the message to the moderate middle. Most of us confine ourselves to the echo chamber of our favorite source, avoiding opposing opinions as we go.
If you don’t sample at least three reliable sources, you don’t get the complete picture. here are the characteristics from a reputable source of information.
Read more: Disinformation mongers are everywhere on the internet. But the real problem comes from us
Social media, meanwhile, should invest in artificial intelligence (AI) tools to sift through the deluge of content in real time and flag potential fake news. Progress has been made in this area, but there is still room for improvement.
The tide is turning for big social media companies. Governments around the world are crafting laws that will force them to be more responsible for the content they post. They won’t have long to wait.