Neil Young and the backlash of COVID-19 misinformation

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Music streaming service Spotify has drawn its share of criticism since its launch in 2008, mostly from artists accusing the company’s payout rate of being unfair. Now, the growing popularity of podcasts is bringing new controversy to the business. Spotify has provided Joe Rogan with a platform for what critics say amplifies right-wing misinformation about COVID-19 and climate change as well, and now musicians, starting with Neil Young, are making their voices heard.

Spotify: money talks

Young brought up the Joe Rogan issue earlier this week. As described in multiple reports, Young has posted an open letter on his official website explaining why he doesn’t want his music the same online platform with Rogan’s vaccine misinformation. The letter was quickly deleted, but Spotify got the hint. However, rather than remove Rogan’s podcast, the company removed Young’s music.

The emerging consensus among entertainment journalists is that Spotify’s decision to favor Rogan over Young was a foregone conclusion. The Swedish company paid Rogan $100 million for the exclusive rights to its “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast in 2020, and the multi-year deal is apparently working very well for Spotify’s bottom line. Rogan’s estimated audience of 11 million listeners per podcast translates into big ad dollars for Spotify.

Climate misinformation is also a problem

Rogan also lit another fire on Monday when he hosted clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, who peppered his appearance with specious claims about a fundamental flaw in models used by climatologists.

“In hesitant remarks, Peterson said that ‘climate doesn’t exist, does it? ‘,’ as CNN reported on Thursday. “He then went on to make fun of ‘climate types,’ which he said generally suggests that climate is about everything.”

Well-known climatologist Michael E. Mann was among many experts who took to social media to explain the science.

“Mann said Peterson’s claims were ‘absurd and false’ and seemed to boil down to the idea that climate science is so complicated that scientists could never model or understand it,” CNN reported.

Another brand reputation at stake

The twin outbreaks have sparked speculation that other influential musicians on Spotify may follow Young’s lead. After all, some of the world’s top entertainers, including Paul McCartney and Dolly Parton, have publicly supported COVID-19 vaccines. In particular, Parton donated $1 million to support research that helped develop the Moderna vaccine. Others have participated in public service advertisements supporting vaccination.

In this context, the Joe Rogan experience sticks out like a sore thumb.

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Earlier this week, Salon investigative reporter Kathryn Joyce claimed Rogan was responsible for popularizing Dr Robert Malone’s anti-vaccination views, promoting him as an influential “right-wing media star”.

“…Malone is probably best known as the ‘mass training’ guy who got kicked off Twitter and quickly went viral on Joe Rogan’s podcast – which, with around 11 million viewers per episode, has a wider audience than most news outlets,” Joyce wrote. She also observed that exposure to the Joe Rogan experience is the common denominator leading to a growing fusion between violent right-wing extremists and the anti-vaccination movement.

“It also helps explain why, among all the other reasons, the big anti-vax rally made headlines this week – its cynical invocation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington; Kennedy’s strategically inflammatory suggestion that unvaccinated Americans have worse lives than Anne Frank during the Holocaust; how it got Proud Boys and Groypers with anti-vaxxers in what is quickly becoming a unified far-right machine – Winning the warrants is also a media story,” added Joyce.

Malone is not the only example. Rogan also provided some sort of Twitter ban “insurance” to far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green. on COVID-19 misinformation. Indeed, it makes Spotify a safe haven for anti-vaccination extremists suspended or banned from other online platforms.

Inspired by Neil Young, Spotify users take action and competitors multiply

At the time of this writing, there has been no discernible movement towards a widespread boycott of Spotify by artists, at least not yet.

Platform users, however, are another story. Neil Young’s influence on popular culture extends far beyond his music, and his powerful advocacy for vaccination seems to have struck a chord among Spotify users.

Spotify users were already ready for a boycott last fall, when news broke that CEO Daniel Ek had invested 100 million euros ($111 million) in military technology company Helsing.

Neil Young’s surge has prompted many Spotify users to take action.

Many Spotify users are angry and jump ship competitors for their streaming music. The hashtag #BoycottSpotify is trending on Twitter, where several artists have promoted the deletion of their accounts,” said Digital Music News journalist Ashley King.

This dust doesn’t appear to have had a lasting impact on Spotify, but Neil Young’s letter has already sparked an intense wave of backlash from users, and this one could be far more damaging.

On Tuesday, a competitor to Spotify, Apple Music was already take hits at Spotify on Twitter and drawing attention to his own Neil Young catalog. Thusday, rolling stone journalist Ethan Millman noted that “Apple Music’s pinned tweet declares the platform “Home of Neil Young”, while the app offers a dedicated tab on its browsing page to Young titled “We Love Neil”.

Millman also caught wind of a potential move among other musicians in favor of Neil Young. He quoted Peter Frampton, who wrote “Yours, Neil. I’ve always been an Apple guy for streaming. No Joe Rogan for me thank you! on Twitter.

During this time, #boycottspotify hashtag exploded on Twitter. As with Frampton, many tweets recommend an alternative platform, like this cross-section of user “Teak:”

I just deleted Spotify from my phone. I will use Amazon music or Pandora for now. I don’t even like Neil Young’s music and totally support him. Spotify helps kill people by spreading false information, easy decision. #cancelspotify #RemoveSpotify #BoycottSpotify.”

Billboard also reports that Sirius XM relaunched his Neil Young channel for a limited series that debuted Jan. 27.

Other entertainment media platforms are also taking advantage of the Spotify boycott, by offering users detailed guidance on how they can delete their account.

When boycotts work

Consumer-led boycotts are notoriously difficult to maintain successfully. Starbucks is just one example of a leading company that has survived one consumer boycott after another over the years.

Corporate boycotts are another matter altogether. Over the years, boycott organizers have learned that put pressure on advertisers can be an effective action plan to change behavior on YouTube and other leading news and social media platforms. First brands have also learned to avoid bad behavior even before a boycott materializes.

In the wake of Neil Young’s letter, outrage over Spotify’s endorsement of the Joe Rogan Experience is beginning to seep into the realm of brand reputation. A list of the show’s sponsors is readily available online, and while most of the names belong to little-known consumer products, high-profile online platforms such as DoorDash, LegalZoom, and Zoom Video Conferencing also make the list. It’s only a matter of time before the boycotters start to turn up the heat.

Consumer boycotts are most likely to work when the brand reputation is already in decline. By backing Joe Rogan over Neil Young, Spotify may be on solid footing for now, but it’s also prepared for future risks.

Image credit: Reet Talreja via Unsplash

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