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The Hatecast

The Hatecast

Spotify’s Joe Rogan controversy last month has lifted the lid on how podcasts are moderated on major tech platforms – or, rather, how they aren’t

Here’s what you need to know this week:

  • Affairs of state: Google failed to moderate extremism on its podcast platform

State-by-state:

  • Apple faced a lawsuit from an unlikely county council
  • Microsoft learned a lesson about antitrust
  • Amazon’s department for food will face scrutiny
  • Meta’s market performance baffled analysts
  • Tencent got an NFT green light from the UN

Affairs of state: The Hatecast

A man sees Planet of the Apes at the cinema and afterwards gets a cab to a predominantly Black neighbourhood. He turns to his friend and compares where they are to the movie they’ve just seen. “We got out, and it was like we were in Africa, like we were in Planet of the Apes.”

This isn’t some barroom racist, but Joe Rogan, the UFC commentator, comedian, actor and television presenter. 

In 2020 Rogan signed a $100 million deal with Spotify, the music and podcast platform. Its CEO, Daniel Ek, is now facing pressure from musicians and subscribers to get rid of Rogan – who is also accused of promoting Covid misinformation and using racial slurs.  

So far, Spotify is sticking by its man. Though it quietly removed some of Rogan’s most controversial podcasts and donated $100 million to “underrepresented artists”. 

Ek insists that Spotify isn’t – ultimately – responsible. “A publisher has editorial control over a creator’s content,” he said. “They can take action before it’s published. They can curate, they can change the guest, they can even decide not to publish altogether.” But the Joe Rogan Experience (Rogan’s podcast), Ek believes, is “licensed content”, and Spotify hosts rather than publishes it. 

This platform-vs-publisher debate has been around almost as long as streaming services and social networks have existed. After years of criticism, Google’s YouTube and Meta’s Facebook both employed hundreds of moderators to take down offensive content, an implicit acceptance that they were more than just neutral “pipelines” or platforms. And yet with podcasts, that debate hasn’t gained much ground. 

Ángel Díaz, a lecturer at UCLA School of Law, told us that there are “inherent difficulties in moderating audio content” like podcasts, where “lots of text can be covered by sarcasm, and other context clues that are difficult to catch onto”. So podcast moderation is more like YouTube video moderation, circa 2010. 

The Rogan case is high-profile and quite complex, but the underlying issue with podcasts is critical. What are tech states doing to prevent extremism on podcast platforms used by hundreds of millions of people? 

The answer appears to be – not much. And it doesn’t take very long to discover that.

We found one Spotify-hosted podcast promoting the Kalergi Plan, a far-right anti-semitic conspiracy theory, and another called Nationalist 28, with the strapline: “This is a white nationalist page so if your [sic] offended easily stay out.” A third podcast currently on Spotify issues a call to arms to national socialists.  

That’s nothing compared to Google Podcasts, the search giant’s official podcast app released in 2018. Google describes the platform as a “directory”, distinguishing it from YouTube, where it splits ad revenue with creators. As such, Google treats its Podcasts app like its search engine: stuff gets deleted only in exceptional cases. A spokesperson for Google has previously said that the company doesn’t want to “limit what people are able to find”, only blocking content in “rare circumstances, largely guided by local law”. 

This hands-off policy has turned Google Podcasts – which has 50 million+ downloads on Android alone – into a repository of hate speech. 

We found shows on Google hosted by the American Nazi Party, Atomwaffen, White Radio, White Nationalist Radio, National Vanguard, and the National Socialist Movement. In each case, Google users are able to subscribe to the group’s podcast feed and are given a link to its website. 

Thanks to this Google technology, a white nationalist can get an alert that White Nationalist Radio has released a new show. 

That’s not the worst of it. A search for extremist content on Google Podcasts generates recommendations for other extremist content. When we searched for “national socialism”, for instance, we were recommended the “official podcast” of a group called Nordic Resistance. 

Nordic Resistance’s website (a link is helpfully provided by Google) boasts that its members sprayed “The Holocaust is Hoax” on school walls in a Swedish town… on Holocaust Memorial Day. 

In another vein, Google also hosts the “COVID Plandemic – The Dark Truth”, which claims that “6.6 million have died from the vaccinations” per a “plan to control the world population and resources, set in place by the wealthiest organizations on earth over 14 years ago”. 

Google needs to get a grip, fast. To get a sense of what happens if it doesn’t, we spoke to Ben Greenstone, MD of Taso Advisory, who was at the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) during the drafting of the upcoming Online Harms White Paper (now the Online Safety Bill). He told us: 

  • Outsourcing important decisions. Almost all podcast platforms fall into the category of user-to-user content and are therefore within the scope of the Online Safety Bill. Google and Spotify could be penalised for failing to remove both illegal and harmful content in their podcasts. “Essentially, the bill outsources that decision to individual service providers”;
  • Censorship is inevitable. If Google or Spotify do have to make decisions about what is or isn’t harmful, “you’ll also end up censoring, inevitably, things that are totally plausible – even if very anti-consensus,” Greenstone says. That obligation could cause particular problems for smaller platforms. “Do we really expect that a 10-person podcasting platform, which would be covered by the Bill, should be making decisions about what speech is alright, and what isn’t?” 
  • Enforced legislation is still a long way off. “If you start enforcing the Bill in January 2023, no regulator, no company can be ready to do that.” Even if the UK government speeds up the process, Ofcom will require time to get ready for enforcement and compliance with the massive remit of the Online Safety Bill.

At the moment, we are one click away from extremist views, hateful speech and harmful misinformation on Google’s podcasting platform. Podcasts may be a challenge to moderate, and the legislation designed to tackle them is still a long way off. But platforms need to do more to get rid of it now, whether it comes from a $100 million superstar like Joe Rogan or it is originated by a poundshop Nazi.


Apple: Disputed expectations

David and Goliath doesn’t quite cover a dispute between the world’s most valuable company and a rural British council. Yet Norfolk County Council could cause Apple a real headache. A US judge has just thrown out Apple’s attempts to dismiss a class action lawsuit brought by the council over what it alleges was the tech state’s misleading predictions about iPhone demand in China. In 2018, CEO Tim Cook told investors that he did not believe demand would be down in that country – shortly before Apple issued a profit warning based on… weak demand in China. Norfolk claims that Cook must have known that sales would slow, and that by hiding the fact, he cost its pension fund almost $1 million.


Microsoft: A developer’s friend

As Microsoft’s $68.7-billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard faces regulatory scrutiny, the tech state seems to have learned a valuable lesson from Epic Games vs Apple – anticipate any antitrust concerns as soon as possible. Brad Smith, the company’s president, set out last week how Microsoft will not prioritise its own apps in its store and – crucial for gamers who own Sony’s Playstation – continue to make Activision Blizzard games available on rival platforms. Just as Apple distinguished itself from Meta by touting its privacy credentials, Microsoft is attempting to frame itself as an anti-Apple when it comes to app store policies and fees. In doing so, it’s cleverly aligning itself with US lawmakers who want to prevent Big Tech from featuring their own first-party content over third-party offerings. 


Amazon: Department for food

In the future, many of us may come to see Amazon Fresh in the same way as Tesco or Aldi. Since the $13.4-billion acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017, the tech state’s food division has been expanding rapidly. So rapidly that last week the UK competition regulator added Amazon to a list of retailers that must comply with a code of practice preventing large grocers from squeezing their suppliers. Except that the code applies to retailers who generate more than £1 billion from UK grocery sales, and as Amazon pointed out, its Fresh and Wild subsidiary turns over less than £100 million. What’s going on? The CMA is setting an interesting precedent: it’s regulating a subdivision of Amazon’s based on the overall size of the company. Will other regulators follow?


Meta: Failed analysis

This month Meta reported the first-ever quarterly drop in Facebook’s daily active users, wiping out $251 billion from the tech state’s valuation. Any teenager will tell you that Facebook is old news – usurped by cooler video-sharing apps such as TikTok. So why did most of Meta’s 62 analysts fail to see such a dismal report coming? It’s a question posed by Bloomberg Businessweek and the answer says a lot about how big tech is often given a free pass – particularly in the US. At the start of the earnings season, 84 per cent of Meta’s analysts advised buying it, while only two – both in Europe – recommended selling. As James Angel, a finance professor at Georgetown University, points out, the risk of ruining the relationship side of the business often discourages analysts from being sceptical.


Tencent: NFT go-ahead

Everyone from John Terry to Justin Bieber is promoting NFTs, tokens that use blockchain technology to record proof of ownership in anything from collectible playing cards to digital artwork. But until now there haven’t been agreed standards governing NFT development. Tencent is trying to steal a march on US companies by developing a “technical framework” for NFTs; and the project has just been approved by the UN. This doesn’t make Tencent’s standards mandatory but it does make it more likely that nations will choose to adopt them going forward. The move is part of a wider battle for digital standards being played out between the US and China. 


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Thanks for reading,

Alexi Mostrous
@AlexiMostrous

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Additional reporting by Swathy Sanjay and Sebastian Hervas-Jones