In 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg lived to regret some words uttered in defense of his platform’s hands-off approach to content moderation.
“What we will do is we’ll say, ‘Okay, you have your page, and if you’re not trying to organize harm against someone, or attacking someone, then you can put up that content on your page, even if people might disagree with it or find it offensive,’” he told Recode’s Kara Swisher.
Now, here’s what Spotify CEO Daniel Ek published on Sunday, responding to criticism about his platform’s hands-off approach to content moderation:
“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,” he wrote in a blog post published on Spotify’s website. “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.”
As you can see, Ek and Zuck said much the same thing: We don’t want to police content on our sites—that would be censorship, and censorship is wrong. Ek believes that he can use the Facebook Playbook to help Spotify navigate a crisis over Joe Rogan’s star attraction. Ek might end up with the same outcome Zuck found himself in, simultaneously a loser as a winner.
Ek was hit hard last week by Neil Young’s ultimatum. He threatened to remove his music from Spotify if the streaming app didn’t take action against Rogan, who has interviewed vaccine skeptics on his show, Joe Rogan ExperienceIn the recent months. Spotify didn’t, and Young pulled his catalog. In protest of Rogan, Joni Mitchell also removed her tracks from Spotify.
The artists’ decision to take down their songs comes only a couple weeks after over 200 professors and health care experts called on Spotify to better manage covid misinformation. The open letter from those scientists pointed specifically to an episode Rogan did with infectious-disease expert Dr. Robert Malone that included “several falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines.”
Spotify now finds itself in the same place as Facebook a few years back, having to face criticisms about its content. It’s really the first time Spotify has found itself under this much scrutiny over the matter, much like when the aftermath of the 2016 election forced everyone to consider, and reconsider, exactly what information existed, and should exist, on Facebook.
Facebook and Spotify knew the potential risks associated with their actions. In Facebook’s case, it fully grasped the real-world consequences of leaving problematic content up on its site—as internal company documents released by a whistle-blower last year make clear—but it also understood that erasing content would alientate users and reduce much of what generates the most engagement on its site. Rogan was offered an exclusive deal by Spotify in May 2020, at the peak of the covid wave. He’d been on the air for over 10 years at that point, his provactive schtick unmistakeable. (Even if Spotify had somehow convinced itself that Rogan was someone different, he made it quite clear to the company in October when he hosted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—who is otherwise banned from Spotify.) He had a loud mouth, and that’s exactly why Rogan’s show quickly became Spotify’s top podcast in 17 markets.
For a long time after 2016, Facebook didn’t budge on its content moderation stance: It wasn’t going to begin taking down stuff. Facebook eventually succumbed to the demands. Facebook has increased moderation over the years. The most prominent example is its suspension of Donald Trump. By one quite concrete measure, Facebook’s grind-it-out defense worked. Its stock price rests close to record highs even after last year’s whistle-blower revelations, its market cap nearly a trillion dollars. This is how Zuckerberg was victorious.
Ek appears to be inclined to echo Zuckerberg’s sentiments: Let the critics yell, but let us focus on the shares. It remains to be seen if Spotify’s investors will be as patient as Facebook’s. Last week, Spotify stock dropped 7.3%, a time when the Nasdaq rose 2.5%, a sign that Spotify shareholders perhaps won’t want to stomach as much as Facebook’s investors have.
Even if they do and Ek makes it through with his company and CEO title intact, it’s not like Zuckerberg has emerged from the last few years totally unscatched. He is now facing new regulation and the FTC’s keen interest in pursuing an antitrust case against him.
Probably the biggest piece of evidence that Zuckerberg’s play hasn’t fully worked: Despite all his efforts, we’re now not even suppose to call his company Facebook, the name Zuckerberg bestowed on it in his Harvard dorm room. Last year, he changed the name of Meta Platforms Inc. to avoid a reputation that was tarnished from debates about what should be on their site. There are few conversations quite like that about Rogan’s guests.