In a Spotify all-hands company meeting on Wednesday, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek defended keeping transphobic content from hugely popular podcaster Joe Rogan on the audio platform, who earlier this year signed an exclusive licensing deal with the company likely worth tens of millions of dollars.
Some staff inside the company feel alienated by Spotify's hosting of certain The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) episodes, according to copies of some of the questions presented to the meeting obtained by Motherboard. The news signals how Spotify, as it moves into the podcasting space beyond music, is facing content moderation decisions more commonly associated with social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Spotify has already removed JRE episodes with some right-wing figures, including Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes.
"In the case of Joe Rogan, a total of 10 meetings have been held with various groups and individuals to hear their respective concerns," Ek said, according to three sources. "And some of them want Rogan removed because of things he's said in the past."
Do you work at Spotify? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three sources provided Motherboard with some of the questions submitted to the town hall meeting. Motherboard granted them anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to the press about internal Spotify issues. Two of the questions submitted for the Q&A section of the meeting highlight some of the Spotify employee's concerns around Joe Rogan's content.
One of the submitted questions was "Many LGBTQAI+/ally Spotifiers feel unwelcome and alienated because of leadership's response in JRE conversations. What is your message to those employees?" Another was “Why has Spotify chosen to ignore Spectrum ERG's guidance about transphobic content in the JRE catalog?,” referring to a group of Spotify workers who focus on related issues.
At the meeting, Ek also told employees not to leak to the media, noting "If we can't have open, confidential debates, we will have to move those discussions to closed doors."
"Others have concerns specifically over a recent episode," Ek said. "And Joe Rogan and the episode in question have been reviewed extensively. The fact that we aren't changing our position doesn't mean we aren't listening. It just means we made a different judgment call."
The specific episode of the Joe Rogan Experience Ek was referring to was from July, in which Rogan interviewed Abigail Shrier, author of the book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, according to one of the sources. From the opening moments of that podcast, Shrier associates transgender youth with those with autism; Shrier and Rogan spend parts of the episode explaining that young people are being pressured into transitioning by YouTube and other media.
"You realize that people are not looking at this objectively," Rogan said in the podcast. "They are activists and they have this agenda, and the agenda is very ideologically driven that anybody who even thinks they might be trans should be trans, are trans, and the more trans people the better."
In the book, Shrier invalidates the lived experience of trans people by comparing transitioning to adolescent phenomena like eating disorders, self-harm, or the occult, according to Men's Health. She also described wanting to transition as a "contagion" with the potential to infect other children, an entirely scientifically baseless idea, Men's Health noted.
"At Spotify, we are strongly committed to the LGBTQ+ community and diversity in all of its forms," a Spotify spokesperson told Motherboard. "All employees are respected and we believe that everyone has a right to be heard. We have a number of forums for open and transparent discussion and we encourage rigorous debate on topics across the company. All content on Spotify is subject to our long-standing content guidelines. Our diverse team of experts reviewed the content in question and determined that it did not meet the criteria for removal from our platform."
"The fact that we aren't changing our position doesn't mean we aren't listening. It just means we made a different judgment call."
At the time of writing, the Shrier episode is on Spotify. The company has made content moderation decisions to not port several other older JRE episodes to the platform, however. Episodes #911 and #1255, both of which feature Alex Jones, are not hosted on Spotify. In 2018, Spotify removed Alex Jones' own podcast from its platform for "hate content." Spotify is also not hosting episodes in which Rogan interviewed far-right personalities Gavin McInnes and Chuck Johnson.
The Spotify catalog does include episodes featuring Stefan Molyneux, who the Southern Poverty Law Center says amplifies "scientific racism," and who was banned from YouTube earlier this year for hate speech.
Joe Rogan has given people like this access to his gigantic audience, and Rogan rarely challenges his guests on their views, allowing them to launder their bad ideas on his show. Data & Society researcher Becca Lewis has argued that Rogan giving a platform to these people has led his audience down more extremist rabbit holes on YouTube. Lewis describes Rogan as a libertarian influencer "with mainstream appeal."
In another recent episode, Rogan explained a joke he made in 2016 about Caitlyn Jenner's transition, describing Jenner as "he" and using her deadname "Bruce." Rogan also mischaracterized the reason for Jenner's transition, saying it may have been because she was around her daughters Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner, that he describes as "crazy bitches."
"He's a homophobic, transphobic ass," Jenner told TMZ this week. "I've been gender disphoric my entire life."
As recently as August 31, in what he said was the first episode of the podcast for Spotify, Rogan joked that the Democratic party "just want to talk shit and make sure everyone is trans." He followed that up by saying "I don't mean that trans people, I'm with you." He also said that "my only pushback is about trans people competing as females in fighting." Rogan is a UFC commentator, and was referring to his long standing objection to trans women fighting other women in MMA.
In recent days, Donald Trump has said he would be willing to go on JRE to debate Joe Biden; Wednesday, Trump sent an email to his supporters in which he asked them to sign a petition "to DEMAND Joe Biden come out of his basement and agree to a LIVE 4-HOUR debate with President Trump," on Rogan.
Joe Rogan announced his move to Spotify in May. The JRE debuted on Spotify on September 1, and will become exclusively available on the platform later in the year, according to a statement from Spotify at the time.
In his announcement, Rogan said Spotify "want me to just continue doing it the way I'm doing it right now," and added "it's just a licensing deal, so Spotify won't have any creative control over the show."