Bootleggers & Baptists: XL- Joe Rogan: Team Spotify v. The Medical Establishment

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INTRODUCTION:

Veteran stand-up comedian, mixed-martial arts commentator, and podcaster; Joe Rogan has come under fire for promoting COVID-19 misinformation. Business Insider lists six examples of Rogan proliferating misinformation about COVID-19 within the past two years. Arguably the proverbial “straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back” was last month (episode # 1757)when Rogan had a controversial virologist, Dr. Robert Malone, on as a guest. Prompting 270 medical experts to send an open letter to Spotify to address the inaccurate information disseminated through Rogan’s podcast. The letter expressed: “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy..”.

However, is this statement even true? Do platforms have a responsibility (legally or morally) to moderate and suppress factually incorrect content? Even though Spotify is a Swedish-based company, this rhetoric parallels the talking points of the Section 230 debate in the United States. Section 230, in most instances, shields service providers from liability for the media generated by content producers. This amendment of the Communications Act of 1934 (230 falls under the Communications Decency Act of 1996). Section 230 states :

‘….‘(c) PROTECTION FOR ‘GOOD SAMARITAN’ BLOCKING AND SCREENING OF OFFENSIVE MATERIAL.— ‘‘(1) TREATMENT OF PUBLISHER OR SPEAKER.—No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. ‘‘(2) CIVIL LIABILITY.—No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of— ‘‘(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or ‘‘(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1)….” (p.84).

This subsection of Section 230 could easily extend to streaming services. Spotify exercises no editorial discretion and merely provides the tools to content creators to distribute music and podcasts. ****Ethically, there are free speech concerns regarding social pressure to moderate and censor content. While the First Amendment only protects citizens from government censorship, it is evident that Spotify is not troubled by the content produced on Joe Rogan’s podcast. If Spotify takes any action, it would be due to public scrutiny.

BOOTLEGGERS AND BAPTISTS:

The outcry for Spotify to address the JRE podcast’s proliferation of misinformation may not have manifested in a formal policy proposal, but there are still individuals that stand to benefit. Making the JRE controversy a perfect scenario for a Bootleggers and Baptist (1983) coalition dynamic. One subset of the coalition acting as the public face presented the moral argument for Spotify acting against Joe Rogan. Quietly, lurking in the background, are the callous beneficiaries hoping their ulterior motives are not recognized. 

The Baptists in this scenario are the experts that drafted the open letter to Spotify and other notable public health professionals that have vocally expressed condemnation of Rogan’s commentary on the pandemic. One of these renowned crusaders is Dr. Katrine Wallace of the University of Illinois, who catastrophically describes Rogan as “a menace to public health,” particularly for espousing anti-vaccine rhetoric”. Whether or not you find this statement hyperbolic or false, it still conveys an ethical concern for the influence of Rogan’s podcast influence on public health. Therefore, making Wallace and like-minded professionals Baptists. Although, there is the potential that Wallace is a Dual-Role Actor, simultaneously being concerned about public health and seeing an opportunity to raise her public profile. After all, she is a blogger.

There are two categories of Bootleggers that operate as silent beneficiaries in this scenario. The first group is the other Podcasters that distribute their content through Spotify. If the JRE podcast becomes removed from Spotify or suffers other forms of sanctions, that would mean less competition for Tim Ferriss. The second category of Bootleggers would be the medical establishment. Not to treat this faction as an amorphous blob, considering it is a collective consortium of various people, organizations, and businesses, it would be nearly impossible to identify all the potential players in the subset of the anti-JRE coalition. The vast networks of the medical establishment are so pervasive it has even been referred to as the Medical-Industrial Complex, paralleling the concept of the Military-Industrial Complex.

There are a lot of individuals that stand to profit from keeping the status quo intact. Any professional possessing heterodox perspectives stand potentially disrupt the current public consensus resulting in fewer profits for pharmaceutical companies and other appurtenant facets of the industry. Over the past couple of years, there has been an ongoing assault on expert consensus. In a world of “alternative facts, the gap has continued to widen between popular opinion and professional consensus. Few things can be threatening as a credentialed professional who holds positions that go against the grain of the establishment. These individuals appeal to a public that is disillusioned and skeptical of expertise. The medical establishment aimed to reclaim its throne by targeting influential voices that have contrary views. In the hopes that people will stop patronizing herbalists and reading articles written by Robert Malone. When persuasion is ineffective, censorship becomes the preferred mechanism. 

POTENTIAL SOLUTION?:

The problem remains of how do we distinguish fact from fiction? Is it Dr. Malone or the medical establishment that is being dishonest? The average American citizen lacks the knowledge, time, and resources to effectively qualify the claims of either faction in the COVID debate. This situation parallels the phenomenon of rational ignorance examined in Public Choice Theory; deference to experts and public figures is cost-effective to the average layman. No need to read dozens of medical journals filled with opaque jargon. When there are have several sets of experts with competing opinions whom do you listen to? It is possible to find an expert in any field that can confirm our priors.

One brilliant suggestion comes from UCF professor and scholar Enrique Guerra-Pujol, who suggests we should utilize prediction markets to assess the veracity of conspiracy theories. In any decision-making process, we are grappling with the fact that no one can have all the information. As stated in the Hayekian Knowledge Problem; information is naturally dispersed, meaning effective top-down decision-making is impossible. If we could hypothetically remedy this by creating an incentive-based mechanism that can aggregate all perspectives on a given topic we will have a better (not perfect) outcome. By including the vaccine skeptics rather than excluding them, they become part of the validation process. When we look at range-voting in jury trials it becomes quite apparent that even including erroneous perspectives does not drastically impact the overall outcome.

Perhaps instead of capitulating to public pressure to remove all of Joe Rogan’s “COVID episodes, Spotify could run a user poll or a modified prediction market (to avoid the ire of SEC and CFTC) to get the listener feedback on the veracity of the content of these episodes. Instead of removing the episodes, if deemed to be inaccurate, Spotify should merely place disclaimers.

****Correction- The 230 immunity argument does not hold up for two reasons:

  1. Spotify does exercise editorial discretion.
  2. Spotify may satisfy the legal definition of a publisher.