Spotify has a white supremacist problem, watchdog says

Spotify has come under fire in the past for not stamping out extremist content and hate speech. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Illustration)

Music-streaming giant Spotify says it prohibits content that “promotes or supports terrorism or violent extremism,” but an investigation by a civil rights group found at least 40 white supremacist artists on the platform.

The report adds to calls for Spotify to crack down on hate speech and other harmful content, which have gained steam as a growing cast of tech companies face pressure to boost safety on their services.

While some of the groups drew followings only in the double digits, others amassed thousands of subscribers and earned statuses as “verified” artists, according to a report shared exclusively with The Technology 202 by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a nonprofit that tracks extremism and anti-Semitism.

ADL investigative researcher Calum Farley, who wrote the report, said “there’s likely much more” white supremacist content on Spotify than what they uncovered. “This is a continuing issue, despite changes by Spotify in their guidelines and their explicit anti-extremism policies,” he said.

The findings show major gaps in Spotify’s enforcement of its rules.

“Despite adding explicit anti-extremist guidelines to their content policy, Spotify allows extremist content to flourish,” the group wrote. “Between the extremist content found in some artists’ bios, the white supremacist messaging in some band’s lyrics and the white supremacist imagery found in the cover art, Spotify still has considerable work to do in implementing its new policy.”

The ADL wrote that the findings show that it’s “very easy” to become verified on Spotify, and raises questions about “whether or how the platform exercises any oversight over the process.” Spotify’s own YouTube tutorial on how artists get verified describes it as being “how you let your fans know you’re legit” and “super quick and easy.”

“When we become aware of potentially violating content on our platform, our teams carefully review that content against our policies and take the appropriate action,” Spotify spokesman Adam Grossberg said in a statement. 

He added that the “content found to be in violation of our Platform Rules has been removed,” including dozens of pieces of content, and that since the beginning of the year Spotify has “removed more than 12,000 podcast episodes, 19,000 playlists, 160 music tracks, and nearly 20 albums for violating our hate content policy globally.”

Some of the artists removed by Spotify decried the actions as “censorship” and denied any suggestion of illegal activity in response to inquiries from The Washington Post.

Much of the artists’ Spotify content identified by the ADL either makes references to fascism or the National Socialist Party, known as the Nazi Party. 

Some of the songs featured clips of speeches by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, while others included sound bites of Fox News host Tucker Carlson alluding to the so-called “great replacement” anti-immigration theory embraced by white supremacists. 

Other songs featured cover art depicting images identified by ADL as hate symbols, including a neo-Nazi skull once adopted by Hitler, the infamous “Pepe the Frog” symbol and the “Iron Cross” used as a medal by Nazi Germany.

According to the ADL, the artists also served as a gateway to other white supremacist content, “sharing links in their profiles to other extremist spaces.”

Civil rights groups for years have sounded the alarm about how music can serve as a gateway into extremism and called on platforms like Spotify to shut off the pipeline.

While some of the links to extremist ideologies were more apparent, others were subtle, hidden beneath lyricless electronic sounds or screeching guitar riffs, Farley found.

“They might be attracted to the sounds or the types of songs, and then they start reading the lyrics of the songs, and they can see the extremist narratives that are in these songs,” he said. “So it’s a way of pulling people into different spaces … where they can then be further radicalized within them.”

Spotify has repeatedly come under fire for not curbing hate speech and racism.

In 2017, a news investigation uncovered 37 bands with links to neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups, prompting the platform to remove them, according to Vox News. In December, the company took down 150 hours of content after Sky News said it “found antisemitic, racist and white supremacist material in podcasts” on Spotify.

Farley argued that Spotify should have the same responsibility to crack down on extremism and hate speech as do social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter because they not only host music that artists profit from, but also allow users to share content and playlists and form communities.

“They’re providing not just a platform for music, but they’re also providing basically that platform [for] further outreach in darker, more extreme spaces,” he said.

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