SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Major social platforms have taken action against the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in the run-up to the presidential election, and have stepped up their efforts in the wake of the January 6th Capitol uprising. But Apple and Google, among other things, have left a large gap open for this material: podcasts.
With podcasts made available by the two big tech companies, you can immerse yourself in the world of QAnon conspiracy theory, wallow in President Donald Trump’s false claims about stolen elections, and bask in other extremism. Accounts that have been blocked on social media due to misinformation in elections, threats or bullying, and violations of other rules will continue to be offered as podcasts on the platforms of the technology giants.
Conspiracy theorists have spread stolen election fantasies, coronavirus conspiracies, and violent rhetoric. One podcaster, RedPill78, described the Siege of the Capitol in a Jan. 11 episode of Red Pill News as a “staged event.” The day before the Capitol riot, a more popular podcast, X22 Report, confidently speaking of Trump’s second term, stated that Trump would need to “remove” many members of Congress to advance his plans and said, “We, the people, we are the storm and we come to DC. “
Both are available on Apple and Google podcast platforms.
Podcasting “plays a particularly oversized role” in spreading white supremacy, according to a 2018 report by the Anti-Defamation League. Many white supremacists, such as QAnon supporters, support Trump. Podcasting is an intimate, humanizing communication method that allows extremists to spend hours explaining their ideas, said Oren Segal of the ADL Center on Extremism.
Elsewhere on social media, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have cracked down on accounts that reinforce unsubstantiated QAnon claims that Trump is fighting deep public enemies and cannibals who run a child trafficking ring. A major talk radio company, Cumulus, urged its hosts to tone down the rhetoric about stolen elections and violent riots or ending the risk, although it is not clear what impact that dictation had.
Google’s YouTube deleted “Bannon’s War Room,” a channel operated by Trump’s loyalist Steve Bannon on Jan. 8 after he made false claims and the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading US expert on infectious diseases, had called. But podcast versions of Bannon’s show live on on Apple and Google. Spotify shut it down in November, according to one of its hosts.
“Podcasts full of hatred and incitement to violence should not be treated any differently from any other content,” Segal said. “If you want to take a strong stance against hatred and extremism on the platform in any way, this should include everything.”
Apple, Spotify and Google curate lists of the best podcasts and recommend them to users. Apple and Spotify are the dominant players in the US, with other players way behind, said Dave Zohrob, CEO of podcast analytics company Chartable. Despite its notoriety, Google remains a tiny presence.
Spotify said podcasts that violate its policies against hate speech, copyright infringement, or violate the law will be removed. “Algorithmic and human detection measures” are used to identify violations. Apple’s guidelines prohibit content that is illegal, or promotes violence, graphic sex, or drugs, or is “otherwise viewed as obscene, offensive, or tasteless.” Apple did not respond to repeated questions about the content guidelines or moderation.
Declining to explain the discrepancy between what is available on YouTube and what is available on Google Podcasts, Google simply said that its podcast service “indexes audio available on the web,” much like its search engine indexes web pages. The company said it was removing podcasts from its platform “in very rare circumstances that are largely guided by local laws”.
X22 Report and Bannon’s War Room were # 20 and # 32 on Apple’s list of top podcasts on Friday. (Experts say the list measures a podcast’s momentum rather than total listeners.) The X22 report said in October that it was suspended by YouTube and Spotify and last week by Twitter. It is also no longer available on Facebook. It’s backed by ads for products like survival food, unlicensed nutritional supplements, and gold coins that run before and during the podcasts.
The Red Pill News website said YouTube banned its videos in October and a Twitter ban followed. The podcast is available on Apple and Google, but not on Spotify.
Several QAnon supporters affected by the crackdown sued YouTube in October, calling its actions a “massive de-platform”. Among the plaintiffs are X22 Report, RedPill78 and David Hayes, who runs another conspiracy podcast called Praying Medic, which is available on Apple and Google, but not on Spotify.
Melody Torres, who makes podcasts at SoulWarrior Uncensored, identifies herself as a longtime QAnon supporter and recently said on an episode that her podcast was “just my way of not being censored.” She said she came across Twitter in January and was booted from Instagram four times last year. She currently has Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube accounts. Your podcast is available on Apple and Google. Spotify removed the podcast on Friday after The Associated Press inquired about it.
X22 Report, RedPill78, and Hayes did not respond to requests for comments sent through their websites. Torres didn’t respond to a Facebook message.
Podcasts suffer from the same misinformation problem as other platforms, said Shane Creevy, chief editor of Kinzen, a startup founded by former executives at Facebook and Twitter and companies, including podcasts that host or curate podcasts, a disinformation -Tracker offers.
Creevy points out that it is more difficult to analyze misinformation from video and audio than it is from text. Podcasts can also run for hours, making them difficult to monitor. And podcasting has additional challenges as it doesn’t have reliable statistics on the audience, unlike a YouTube stream that shows views or a tweet or Facebook post that shows likes and shares, Creevy said.
However, some argue that technology company moderation is opaque and inconsistent, creating new problems. Censorship “goes with the tide against what’s popular at any given moment,” said Jillian York, an expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. At the moment, she said, “This tide is against right-wing extremist speech … but tomorrow the tide could be against opposition activists.”
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