It wasn’t long ago that anyone could sell any “medication” and promise it would cure anything. Snake-oil salesmen wandered around the countryside spreading fear about sickness and making money from selling fake cures. People died as a result.
Over the last 100 years or so, we developed ways of controlling this, such as testing of medicines, restrictions on false advertising and peer-control of powerful professions like doctors and chemists. Some of these were state controls, some were self-regulation, and together they ensured that medicines were tested before use, advertisers could not easily make false promises and media imposed at least some restraint in giving voice to ludicrous claims. The system was imperfect (think of skin lightening creams), but it provided the tools to constrain the potential for harm.
It was done openly, so that decisions could be challenged and trust could be built. It was a system of public accountability that did not silence people, but limited the influence of the malign.
Now, when we see the amount of false information and snake-oil cures on social media platforms, we have to ask: why has this system broken down? What do we do about the pervasiveness of false and dangerous disinformation?
The issue was thrust into the news in recent weeks when celebrities such as Neil Young and Barbara Streisand took their material off the Spotify streaming platform in protest against podcaster Joe Rogan spreading Covid disinformation.
Rogan is the most popular podcaster in the world, with about 11-million downloads on each podcast, but this is just a fraction of the vast quantity of disinformation on every platform, as health information experts Julia Belluz and John Lavis showed in the New York Times. You can find dozens even worse than him on Facebook, Twitter and Substack, you can buy their books and products on Amazon and elsewhere. And, let’s be honest, you can find it in some mainstream newspapers. The problem of disinformation is much wider and deeper than this particular battle.
Is Rogan being “cancelled”? Is he the victim of righteous political correctness, as some of his supporters claim? One South African radio presenter reportedly said we should stop listening to the musicians that withdrew from Spotify. I am not sure this presenter had the wit to realise he wanted to protest someone being “cancelled” by “cancelling” the “cancellers”.
Few phrases are as abused as frequently as “cancel culture”. It is usually used about those whose voices are the loudest and the least likely to be silenced. Rogan has more followers than almost any media outlet, and most will follow him wherever he is, so the idea that he is being shut out is ludicrous. If Spotify kicks him off, other platforms will step in, or if he goes independent he might even make more money.
Young, Streisand and others did the right thing: they walked away, even though it cost them income. You don’t want to censor him, or stop anyone questioning conventional wisdom, but you do want to make people aware of the danger, and pressure Spotify to take responsibility for what they disperse. We have to find new ways of managing and countering disinformation, without succumbing to the temptation of heavy-handed censorship.
The root of the problem is that voices such as Rogan’s are massively amplified on social media platforms which profit from voices such as his spreading hate, disinformation, racism, sexism and other noxious fumes. When Spotify offered Rogan the astounding figure of $100-million to come on to their platform, it was part of a splurge they went on to buy any content that would help them build subscribers. They knew what his views were, but gave the conventional shoulder-shrug we have come to expect from these outlets: we are just a platform, they say, not responsible for content, only interested in building audience and profit.
They want to be like the telephone, just an instrument that conveys information, rather than publishers who have to account for what they put out. In the US, they are explicitly protected from being sued.
In our own country, we see opportunistic politicians using social media to stir up xenophobia in a way likely to lead to bloodshed. It’s not just that the platforms/publishers appear unconcerned, but the algorithms, on Facebook in particular, favour material that will stir you up to keep you engaged. They are able to actively promote this material, which is why they cannot claim to be neutral platforms. Even worse, they do it in secret.
Public and political pressure have forced Facebook, Twitter and now Spotify to take some responsibility and start behaving like the publishers they are. But they do it half-heartedly, no more than what they are forced to do.
More pressure – more Youngs and Streisands – are going to be needed.
*Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Adjunct Professor of Journalism at Wits.