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Neil Young, left, and his former Spotify stablemate, podcaster Joe Rogan, right (Image: Tina Tiller)
Neil Young, left, and his former Spotify stablemate, podcaster Joe Rogan, right (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONBusinessFebruary 4, 2022

It’s cool that Neil Young is off Spotify. But he’s still on Facebook and YouTube and Amazon and…

Neil Young, left, and his former Spotify stablemate, podcaster Joe Rogan, right (Image: Tina Tiller)
Neil Young, left, and his former Spotify stablemate, podcaster Joe Rogan, right (Image: Tina Tiller)

Neil Young has revived music as protest for 2022. But Spotify is the least of our misinformation platforms, says Duncan Greive – and Neil’s very available on them all.

It’s now 10 days since Neil Young asked to have his music removed from Spotify to protest Covid-19 misinformation associated with the wildly successful Joe Rogan Experience podcast, also hosted on the subscription audio platform, and the furore it prompted shows no signs of abating. It has not quite become a boycott, despite him having been joined by a smattering of other artists, mostly ‘70s icons and friends like Joni Mitchell and his sometime bandmates in Crosby, Stills and Nash. But it has set off another wave of debate about the role of technology platforms in society, and whether they are neutral platforms, which let everyone operate between some very broad guardrails, or publishers, which bear responsibility for what occurs on their sites. It’s an important conversation, but so far it seems to be conducted far too narrowly to truly address the underlying issue.

Rogan’s podcast is among the world’s most popular, and consists largely of lengthy, digressive conversations with an extremely wide variety of public figures, from scientists to pop culture figures to MMA fighters to businesspeople to academics. Elon Musk famously smoked weed with him; Bernie Sanders’ supporters were alternately mortified and thrilled by his appearance on the show. But Rogan much more commonly hauls people out from relative obscurity to a brief audience of millions, his interviewee choices driven largely by his own hyper-online curiosity.

He belongs to a category of person who likes to figure things out for themself, and is somewhat suspicious of received wisdom. The phrase “do your own research”, or DYOR, has become popular among crypto people lately, but really describes a whole realm of internet culture. The internet has enabled curious people to head to search engines and social platforms to immerse themselves in all kinds of arcane subjects, all the while silently training free platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Facebook to serve them more of the same so that they stay longer, and can be served more and better advertisements.

Podcast superstar Joe Rogan, pictured in 2013 (Photo: NBC Universal via Getty Images

This is the animating spirit of a lot of people sitting on a continuum between contrarian and conspiracy theorist, and beyond the most egregious (Alex Jones for example, who Rogan has also hosted) it seems hard to know where the ban-line should be drawn. As Rogan points out in his video apology-slash-explanation, the people he interviews about Covid are credentialed scientists with long and distinguished CVs, and are as such exactly the kind of authority figures we’re supposed to trust. He also rightly points out that the scientific consensus around issues like how Covid-19 is transmitted, the efficacy of cloth masks and whether the vaccinated can catch and spread the virus has evolved over the course of the pandemic. This is the nature of science, but it’s also the kind of thing which people like Rogan and his audience can seize upon as evidence that we should question more consensus opinions and change our minds more readily than we do.

Neil Young is not entirely in a different category to Rogan, incidentally. Over the years he has endorsed a political spectrum ranging from Ronald Reagan to Bernie Sanders, been pro-and anti-the war on terror, and is a devout environmentalist who’s broken with the scientific consensus on genetic modification. His music has ranged from folk rock to harsh experiments in guitar feedback to electronic meanderings so obtuse that he was sued by his own label for making unrepresentative music. Essentially, he’s also a guy who likes to figure things out for himself.

Musician Neil Young, photographed in 2018 (Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW)

Here I should also declare here that I am a devout fan, owner of over a dozen Neil Young LPs and his excellent biography, Shakey. I also should declare a near-total indifference to Joe Rogan. I’ve listened to precisely one episode, an interview with fitness weirdo David Goggins, at the recommendation of my friend and colleague Madeleine Chapman. I adored this emotional and strange conversation, but never was tempted to return for more of the Joe Rogan Experience.

The idea of a veteran protest singer using what remains of their influence to call attention to vaccine misinformation hosted by a multi-billion dollar tech company is deeply attractive, which is why this has become such a flashpoint of a story. Yet I find myself irked by the logical inconsistency of Young’s stance.

That’s because he remains on Facebook, a far greater and more efficient distributor of anti-vaccine information than Spotify could ever dream of being. He remains on YouTube, the platform which allowed the Covid conspiracy theory film Plandemic to rack up millions of views, and took until 2019 to de-monetise anti-vax channels. In the wake of the Spotify spat, Young has taken to promoting a free trial of Amazon Music, despite an anti-vax book topping its Covid category last year. All these platforms remain more invested in reach and quarterly earnings than truly addressing misinformation.

Supporters of Young point to the fact that Rogan is not just any other podcaster on Spotify, but its most richly rewarded talent, and brought there on an exclusive deal. This is used to bolster the claim that Spotify is not, in fact, a neutral platform, but in fact engaged in selecting, funding and promoting certain podcasts over and above others. They say it’s more like Netflix in this instance, which went through (and ultimately stared down) its own similar conflagration regarding a Dave Chapelle special last year.

This is entirely fair – but which platform is truly neutral? While claiming (when it suits them) to be analogous to the telephone or postal service, every one of the five biggest tech companies exerts similar levels of editorial control. All have gotten into the habit of paying for content, deliberately selecting creators from newsletter authors to news organisations to influencers. Even the constantly refined algorithms which decide what you’ll see, the decisions about which content to surface, which to demonetise, which to ban – these are all fundamentally editorial and programming decisions, the only difference being that some are made by code, others by moderators and still others by marketers.

Which is to say that the “neutral platform” argument has been decaying for years. All the big five tech companies – Apple, Amazon, Alphabet/Google, Microsoft and Meta/Facebook – are now manifestly media companies, with huge advertising businesses and thousands of staff making decisions about what their audiences see, hear and interact with. They all do so with barely any of the strict guidelines that govern content regulation in what remains of the traditional media industry.

It’s a small beat in the enormous, era-defining reality in which the offline world is carefully managed and has enormous amounts of policy around it, while the online wildlands are ever stranger, with crypto and content and gaming all merging into something new and exciting and terrifying, beyond tax and regulation and with no real sense that anyone wants to wrestle with what that means.

Which makes this an entertaining but ultimately banal side dish to the main course of figuring out what to do with the biggest companies in the world – and what they’re doing to us.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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