ISTM # 39 Spotify, Free Speech & Regulation

I’m in the process of moving my music collection from Spotify to Apple Music. I hope that I’ll be one of millions who do so and that perhaps you will join us. The issue is, of course, about Neil Young and Spotify, but it is bigger than that: It is about the future of truth on the internet.

Young has demonstrated that he is a class guy: He did not suggest boycotting anyone, nor did rant, rave or point any accusing fingers: He just asserted that he did not wish to share a social platform with someone who spreads false, malicious, and dangerous lies. He simply announced he was leaving and said why, in clear, calm, non-confrontational terms.

As of this writing, 23 other prominent artists have followed Young’s lead as well as listeners and readers, like me: I have no idea how many of us there are, and I imagine Spotify isn’t sure yet either, but I hope the numbers are large enough to scare them into reversing policy.

In the end, their decision will be based largely on economic considerations, as well they should.

In the last few days, I’ve seen many inaccurate assertions that Young is trying to suppress free speech, when in fact he seems to have gone out of his way to say nothing personal about Joe Rogan’s content or Spotify: He just said what he has was doing–presumptively at significant cost—and has moved on.

 Others have stayed behind, ranting about the issue of free speech, or somehow believe that this inalienable right has no limits. In fact, it has lots of limits, as anyone ever trained in journalism or public communications can tell you. They know that it is unlawful to publish false, malicious information that causes people to lose lives and property. In the US, this has been the case for over 200 years. It remained true long before we had the Worldwide Web and since then we have had the tech industry trying every clever sidestep they could think of to sidestep this pressing and divisive issue.

While everyone seems to be talking about free speech, I believe the issue is about spreading dangerously false information on social networks.

Manure Spreader

I never paid attention to Joe Rogan until this incident occurred. For me, he was just one more ranting white male arguing nonsense about Donald Trump winning the last election and that the January 6 Insurrection was about patriots trying to save democracy.

I sampled some of what Rogan had to say and was repulsed. I learned that he believes gun-toting is a Constitutional right, but mask mandates are an aberration of freedom. I watched enough of his podcasts in ten minutes to know that I wish to see no more.

He’s a former standup comedian, turned podcast celebrity, who has built an enormous audience by never letting truth interfere with what he says to incite raging anger.

I would summarize my sense of Rogan, by saying he is a masterful spreader of verbal manure and I regard him as the sort of person from whom reasonable should just walk away.

I rarely rant like this about anyone, but I think Young is right. Joe Rogan’s deliberate lies are dangerous and are likely to result in death and suffering: But he is one of many, and Spotify’s decision to keep spreading Rogan’s manure is the same sort of decision I would expect from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the remainder of the pack.

In that light, Spotify is far from alone. Almost every social platform hosts and enables people who push aside facts, to raise ruckus from which they can personally profit as do the platform providers.

I also don’t mean to vilify Spotify, a platform that I have loved until this happened. As a publicly traded company, they are obliged to protect shareholder equity. As a stockholder, I expect companies to protect my investments and for Spotify shareholders, Joe Rogan represents far more money than does Neil Young. That is why I would like to be counted as someone who wants to make Rogan less valuable.

The issue is not new. The argument that social networks should not be responsible for what is said on their platforms has been put forward for many years now. This Libertine-sounding philosophy has prevailed and has been distributed by nearly all the PR and corporate communication folks at the social networks.

A storm has been gathering for years over this and Spotify has inadvertently been where inevitable lightning has struck and ignited a wildfire that was bound to happen, because the fuel has been gathering dangerously.

Defining Social Media

When social media was merely a place where lonely geeks shared thoughts and jokes on blogs, podcasts, and wikis, it was fun to realize that each of us could say whatever we felt like saying and our readership of a few hundred people could engage in conversation with us. It didn’t really matter that we didn’t have any rules for our engagements: we were just a few people talking to people like ourselves.

But we soon grew up to be dominated by Goliaths like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and today, instead of dozens of folk visiting blogs, we now have millions engaged in social media.

Today, social media has become where most of the world gets its information. I saw this day coming and had hoped that the new media would have the integrity of the NY Times, and now it seems like most of it doesn’t even comply with the standards of the NY Daily News.

The evolution of social media from obscurity to obscenely powerful has evolved with blinding speed. To keep up the pace, complex ethical issues got continuously pushed aside. If traditional media was once considered the message, today, it has been dwarfed by social media. Difficult issues have been brushed aside because there was a constant stream of new thoughts, ideas, things to watch, laugh at, raged at, and of course shared with friends including friends we have never met in real life in a place we call social networks.

In our haste, we have skimmed right over certain fundamental issues, such as who owns social content. Who’s responsible for slander, fraud, hate and so on? What laws—if any—govern social media, and if there are none, what new laws—if any—should be imposed?

About 20 years have gone by since these issues were first debated. For those same 20 years, the network providers have side-stepped and tap-danced until Neil Young got really mad and walked out a virtual door.

Now that a real conversation appears to have begun, let us hope it continues and let us dream wildly that the debate can be continued with reason and civility.

Social vs Traditional

I first tried to answer that question back in 2006 when I wrote Naked Conversations, a book that argued that social media was a digital update of traditional media. Even though content was being produced mostly by citizen journalists, it needed to be governed by the rules and regulations that newspapers, radio, and television adhered to.

This included laws against libel and slander. I believed it should be made unlawful to publish false and malicious content designed to hold people up to scorn and ridicule:

If something posted on a social platform caused loss of property or life, then those who posted it should be held accountable—just as happened when a traditional media organization publishes similar content.

I think that if Joe Rogan lies about Covid and people make decisions based on those falsehoods, then he and the platform hosting it should be held accountable. In Rogan’s case, people may have died because they trusted him and the platform and followed really harmful advice.

Why should Spotify, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter not be held as accountable as the NY Times, ABC News, or your local news station?

The Phone Company Defense

The social platform companies had an answer, and they were armed with teams of very talented lawyers, and they had obvious platforms where they could argue cases to millions of people: the Phone Company metaphor.

The big social network leaders, particularly Mark Zuckerberg , argued that social networks were like phone companies: Like AT&T or Verizon, they had neither knowledge nor control over what people said on their platforms. They just provided the enabling technology.

This seems to me, yet another case of manure spreading. These social media magnates were ignoring the blatantly obvious fact that phone conversations are generally private, while social platforms are public. If you lie on the phone, you deceive one person, but if you do the same thing on your social network, you can deceive millions of people.

When Joe Rogan lies to 11 million people, each of them can use their social networks to spread his manure to hundreds of millions of trusting friends and they can do it very fast.

Lately, Zuck has modified his rhetoric and Facebook policy in this area as have Twitter and YouTube. Public opinion has mounted against them, and the sentiment is trending upward. Congressional committees keep making noise as if they were actually intending to do something, which I think will eventually happen but only after great damage is done.

The social network companies are all using skilled professional communicators to let us know about the thousands of hateful posts they’ve taken down, while failing to mention that millions of them—including Joe Rogan’s—continue untrammeled.?

I believe that eventually such laws will pass, and that social and traditional media will be regarded just as media. Until then, these companies will manage to move at the speed of a crippled snail on a sedative.

Parler Tricks

As the largest social networks start dumping loathsome content in slow motion, they create new business opportunities for some who seem to rejoice in manure wallowing.

Parler, the newest and possibly fastest-growing of major social networks, positions itself as the champions of free speech in social networking. They feel no remorse for the fact that its platform was instrumental for organizers of the Jan. 6 rebellion. Apparently, they think sedition is a good and lawful activity.

What should be self-evident is that there must be limits to freedoms and they usually involve protecting life and property. There are prevailing laws everywhere that I can think of EXCEPT when it comes to social media where the abuses are becoming so dangerous that some are seeing a threat to our democracy. Why can Joe Rogan say with impunity on his podcast what no one at the NY Times or on NPR can legally say?

Join Me

This is an argument that has made me blue in the face many times over the past 20 years. I have no illusions that the need for such laws will eventually be produced hopefully in my lifetime.

The reality of the situation is the best we can do is to follow Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Peter Townshend, Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and 20 other music luminaries away from Spotify and help make it in their interest to wash the manure off their platform.

Please join me.


Shel Israel writes books, speeches, byline articles and white papers for tech business executives. ItSeemstoMe (ISTM) is his personal blog. Email him at [email protected]to subscribe. Just say “subscribe” in the subject line.