The ongoing public controversy around the use of Spotify by podcast host Joe Rogan to spread misinformation and false claims about Covid-19 vaccines has sparked fresh concerns about the role of Big Tech in spreading misinformation and fake news, the assumed power these networks have in changing or influencing social and political attitudes and the need to regulate their content. The controversy escalated last week as several high-profile celebrities, including legend musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and comedian Stewart Lee boycotted the streaming platform. The move marked a significant development that had not been seen in the cases of tech giants Facebook and Twitter which also hosted inaccurate information about the pandemic, vaccines and global politics.
The moral panic around misinformation in the context of the pandemic is not new, but it has re-focused attention on what regulatory frameworks governments can and should impose on tech giants to monitor content and what the latter should do to control speech online and detect misinformation – not what they need to do to protect free speech. In the UK, the government has been keen to expand the speech-policing role of tech companies, imposing a legal duty on them in the Online Safety Bill, which is designed to monitor how corporate promises are fulfilled and ensure providers are accountable for their actions. The bill also makes provision for a regulator, such as Ofcom, that will scrutinise providers’ performance and reporting.
In Europe, politicians and competition authorities had already signalled a tougher stand against these platforms, while in the US last year, legal scholars discussed what is called ‘common carriage regulation’ to pressure prominent social media companies to treat all content equally. One of the critical features of so-called common carriers is that they are seen as neutral conduits of communication or goods and, as such, they do not see themselves as content producers. However, far from being neutral carriers of information, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, TikTok along with others are not neutral carriers of content, but actively curate content through algorithms for financial profit. In the case of Spotify, the firm owns the content because they paid Rogan for the exclusive rights of the podcast. As such, they are already functioning as a publisher and provider of content and not as a mere carrier.
The debates around misinformation are often rooted in Western-centric value systems that seem out of sync with reality and that do not take into account who has access to content, who can pay for content and who can afford to pay their way out of agreements. What remains forgotten in these debates and others around who should regulate social media content, is the business model that underpins the function of tech giants and social media platforms. Scholars Nick Couldry and Dipayan Ghosh noted in a report that this model, which they call the “consumer internet”, is based on online interactions that are managed principally for profit. In fact, the model, as they write, is built on data collection from users to generate behavioural profiles, sophisticated algorithms that curate the content targeted at each user and the encouragement of engaging – even addictive – content on platforms to hold the user’s attention to the exclusion of rivals. The problem is not only that platforms and their executives make huge profits, but that these platforms reconfigure the flow of social information to suit a business model which basically treats all content suppliers the same.
Discussions of content, of course, cannot ignore the drive towards more data, which has other serious consequences of interference in personal privacy and which is a necessary feature of platform capitalism. As Shoshana Zuboff suggests in her book Surveillance Capitalism the fact that platforms require more and more data to make profits in a capitalist ecology means that there is an intrinsic drive for these companies to be pushing up against the limits of what we presently consider the private realm, and determining what counts as free speech or not.
Critical reflections on the role of the tech giants have often focused on discussing them as social, political and cultural actors – the uproar over Spotify and misinformation is the most recent example – and yet, as Nick Srnicek wrote in the Progressive Policy Think Tank “this common approach to these firms obscures the fact that they are first and foremost economic actors. Not only that; they are economic actors operating within a capitalist economy – a type of economy that imparts specific demands upon firms. By taking this into account, and by looking at platforms as a new business model within capitalism, we can come to illuminate some of the more mysterious activities of these firms”.