You should be on the lookout for bias and misinformation in all media — even when you're browsing music or listening to podcasts.
In January 2022, Spotify created a hub for COVID-19 information in response to controversy around Joe Rogan’s podcast. AllSides found that Spotify’s COVID-19 information hub shows media bias by omitting sources on the right.
(Note that the information hub may be curated slightly for different users, but two AllSides staff members compared theirs and found them to be nearly identical.)
Joe Rogan’s Podcast and Allegations of Misinformation
The allegations of misinformation were at least partially due to Rogan’s criticism of mask mandates. A recent study, as described in this New York Times (Lean Left bias) piece, explicitly states that its findings showed no evidence that mask mandates slowed the spread of COVID. While one report is not definitive in the world of science, this does give credence to Rogan and supporters arguing that his podcast was not spreading misinformation but instead was a fair criticism of power.
Related: AllSides Misinformation Watch Series
The Joe Rogan Experience podcast frequently criticizes or challenges authorities across the political spectrum, not only the U.S. government but also social media platforms and others. This can be considered a “traditional liberal” approach. Rogan is a supporter of government welfare programs and was once supportive of Bernie Sanders; these and other details led AllSides to give him and the Joe Rogan Experience podcast a media bias rating of Center.
Several artists and podcasters including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist removed their music from Spotify after stating that Joe Rogan was spreading harmful misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine and supporting the use of Ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19. Rogan, at the time of the controversy, had approximately 11 million listeners per episode. Reportedly, Prince Harry and Megan, who were about to sign an exclusive podcast deal with Spotify, also voiced concerns. In response to the backlash, Spotify began to link to their COVID-19 information hub whenever a podcast mentioned COVID-19.
The COVID-19 Information Hub
When you click on the “Learn about COVID-19” link on Spotify it displays a link to CDC information about vaccines, three “Stay in the know” podcasts, eight “Coronavirus explained” podcasts, seven “From the doctors” podcasts, and ten “Economic effects” podcasts.
Stay in the Know
The three podcasts in AllSides bridging assistant Clare Ashcraft's “Stay in the know” section come from NPR’s Consider This (Lean Left), Vox’s Today Explained (Left), and ReachMD. The same was true for the "Stay in the know" section on AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter's Spotify app. ReachMD is unrated. Others have also seen podcasts from BBC (Center), Wall Street Journal (Center), The Guardian (Lean Left), and CNN (Left) en Español.
In Clare's “Coronavirus explained” section, Spotify recommends podcasts from Gimlet, MIT Technology Review, The World Health Organization, The Guardian, Politico, Bloomberg, Wondery, and The Economist. Henry saw the same lineup on his app.
Gimlet, MIT Technology Review (AllSides rates MIT News as Center), the WHO, and Wondery are unrated by AllSides. All of the other outlets — Bloomberg, Politico, the Guardian, and the Economist — are rated Lean Left.
From the Doctors
The seven podcasts in Clare's “From the doctors” are all unrated except for CNN, which is Left.
In the “Economics effects” section of Clare's COVID-19 hub, five of the podcasts are unrated. There are two podcasts from the Wall Street Journal (Center), one from Freakonomics (Center), one from CNBC (Center), and one from NPR (Lean Left).
Overall, Clare's COVID-19 information hub is 57% unrated, 29% Left or Lean Left, and 14% Center, but others may vary slightly.
It’s very likely that there are less Right-rated podcasts entirely that focus on COVID-19. However, there are many podcasts on the right that had multiple episodes dedicated to discussing COVID-19, such as Medical Minefield (Daily Mail), The Reason Interview with Nick Gillespie (Reason), etc.
One way of creating balance would have been for Spotify to feature the single episodes of podcasts that they would recommend and adding an even amount of Left, Center, and Right-rated podcasts. They could have included podcasts with thoughtful discussion and debate across the political aisle, in addition to their featured information from medical doctors. This would create balance between those who trust medical institutions and those who remain more skeptical or trust alternative medicines.
It may not have been possible for Spotify to provide a perfectly balanced view of COVID-19, since one side focuses much more on the issue than others. But it's important for listeners to understand that when Spotify recommends these podcasts about COVID-19, it seems to omit the right's point of view. Having a Lean Left bias isn’t inherently negative, but it isn't optimal when presented alone. No bias is. Finding truth is impossible without the full picture.
For example, media that is rated Left or Lean Left is more likely to discount the lab leak theory of COVID-19, whereas the media on the right side of the spectrum gave it more consideration earlier in the pandemic. Lean Right and Right rated media also focused more on the effects of lockdowns than sources in the center or on the left. The origins of COVID-19 and the effects of lockdowns are not settled issues and need consideration across the political spectrum to arrive at a well-formed answer. Why? Because we all have political blindspots.
With controversial issues like restrictions around COVID-19, it’s also important to be able to provide everyone with sources they can trust. In an era where many have no trust in journalism, Spotify cannot combat the influence of Joe Rogan with the journalistic establishment that, through bias, drove people toward trusting figures like Rogan in the first place.
Balance is necessary — left/right and institutional/individual balance — to salvage trust and empower decisions that rebuild a fractured American people.
Clare Ashcraft is the Bridging and Bias Assistant at AllSides. She has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias), Daily News Editor Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias) and CEO John Gable (Lean Right bias).