Extremists exploit a loophole in social moderation: Podcasts


This combination of photos shows various podcasts on Jan 15, 2021. In the crackdown on the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in the wake of the Jan 6 riot at the Capitol, major social platforms have left open a major loophole: Podcasts. — AP

Major social platforms have been cracking down on the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in the leadup to the presidential election, and expanded their efforts in the wake of the Jan 6 US Capitol riot. But Apple and Google, among others, have left open a major loophole for this material: Podcasts.

Podcasts made available by the two Big Tech companies let you tune into the world of the QAnon conspiracy theory, wallow in President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and bask in other extremism. Accounts that have been banned on social media for election misinformation, threatening or bullying, and breaking other rules also still live on as podcasts available on the tech giants’ platforms.

Conspiracy theorists have peddled stolen-election fantasies, coronavirus conspiracies and violent rhetoric. One podcaster, RedPill78, called the Capitol siege a “staged event” in a Jan 11 episode of Red Pill News. The day before the Capitol riot, a more popular podcast, X22 Report, spoke confidently about a Trump second term, explained that Trump would need to “remove” many members of Congress to further his plans, and said “We the people, we are the storm, and we’re coming to DC.”

Both are available on Apple and Google podcast platforms.

Podcasting “plays a particularly outsized role” in propagating white supremacy, said a 2018 report from the Anti-Defamation League. Many white supremacists, like QAnon adherents, support Trump. Podcasting’s an intimate, humanising mode of communication that lets extremists expound on their ideas for hours at a time, said Oren Segal of ADL’s Center on Extremism.

Elsewhere on social media, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been cracking down on accounts amplifying unfounded QAnon claims that Trump is fighting deep state enemies and cannibals operating a child-sex trafficking ring. A major talk radio company, Cumulus, told its hosts to tone down rhetoric about stolen elections and violent uprisings or risk termination, although it’s not clear what impact that dictate has had.

Google-owned YouTube axed “Bannon’s War Room”, a channel run by Trump loyalist Steve Bannon on Jan 8 after he spread false election claims and called for the beheading of Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious-disease expert. But podcast versions of Bannon’s show live on at Apple and Google. Spotify took it down in November, according to one of its hosts.

“Podcasts filled with hatred and incitement to violence should not be treated any differently than any other content,” Segal said. “If you’re going to take a strong stance against hate and extremism in the platform in any way, it should be all-inclusive.”

Apple, Spotify and Google curate lists of top podcasts and recommend them to users. Apple and Spotify are the dominant players in the US, with other players far behind, said Dave Zohrob, CEO of the podcast analytics firm Chartable. Despite its name recognition, Google remains a tiny presence.

Spotify said it takes down podcasts that violate its policies against hate speech, copyright violations or break any laws, using “algorithmic and human detection measures” to identify violations. Apple’s guidelines prohibit content that is illegal or promotes violence, graphic sex or drugs or is “otherwise considered obscene, objectionable, or in poor taste”. Apple did not reply to repeated questions about its content guidelines or moderation.

Google declined to explain the discrepancy between what’s available on YouTube and what’s on Google Podcasts, saying only that its podcast service “indexes audio available on the Web” much the way its search engine indexes web pages. The company said it removes podcasts from its platform “in very rare circumstances, largely guided by local law”.

X22 Report and Bannon’s War Room were No. 20 and No. 32 on Apple’s list of top podcasts on Friday. (Experts say that list measures a podcast's momentum rather than total listeners.) X22 Report said in October that it was suspended by YouTube and Spotify and last week by Twitter. It’s no longer available on Facebook, either. It is supported by ads for products such as survivalist food, unlicensed food supplements and gold coins, which run before and during the podcasts.

The website for Red Pill News said YouTube banned its videos in October and that a Twitter suspension followed. The podcast is available on Apple and Google, but not Spotify.

Several QAnon proponents affected by the crackdown sued YouTube in October, calling its actions a “massive de-platforming”. Among the plaintiffs are X22 Report, RedPill78 and David Hayes, who runs another conspiracy podcast called Praying Medic that's available on Apple and Google, but not Spotify.

Melody Torres, who podcasts at SoulWarrior Uncensored, self-identifies as a longtime QAnon follower and said in a recent episode that her podcast is “just my way of not being censored”. She said she was kicked off Twitter in January and booted from Instagram four times last year. She currently has Instagram, Facebook and YouTube accounts; her podcast is available on Apple and Google. Spotify removed the podcast Friday after The Associated Press inquired about it.

X22 Report, RedPill78 and Hayes did not respond to requests for comment sent via their websites. Torres did not reply to a Facebook message.

Podcasts suffer from the same misinformation problem as other platforms, said Shane Creevey, head of editorial for Kinzen, a startup created by former Facebook and Twitter executives that offers a disinformation tracker to companies, including some that host or curate podcasts.

Creevey points out that it’s harder to analyse misinformation from video and audio than from text. Podcasts can also run for hours, making them difficult to monitor. And podcasting has additional challenges in that there are no reliable statistics on their audience, unlike a YouTube stream, which shows views, or a tweet or Facebook post, which shows likes and shares, Creevey said.

But some argue that tech-company moderation is opaque and inconsistent, creating a new set of problems. Censorship “goes with the tide against what’s popular in any given moment”, said Jillian York, an expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group. Right now, she said, “that tide is against the speech of right-wing extremists... but tomorrow the tide might be against opposition activists.” – AP

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