Extremists exploit a loophole in social moderation: Podcasts

by Joseph K. Clark

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 D.C.”

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, humanizing mode of communication lets extremists expound on their ideas for hours at a time, said Oren Segal of ADL’s Center on Extremism.

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 significant talk radio company, Cumulus, told its hosts to tone down the rhetoric about stolen elections and violent uprisings or risk termination. However, it’s not clear what impact that dictates 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 U.S. 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 U.S., with other players far behind, said Dave Zohrob, CEO of the podcast analytics firm Chartable. Despite its name recognition, Google remains a tiny presence.

Apple’s guidelines prohibit illegal content or promoting violence, graphic sex, or drugs or are “otherwise considered obscene, objectionable, or in poor taste.” Spotify said it takes down podcasts that violate its policies against hate speech and copyright violations or breaks any laws, using “algorithmic and human detection measures” to identify violations. 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 Google Podcasts, saying that its podcast service “indexes audio available on the web,” much like its search engine indexes web pages. The company said it removes podcasts from its platform “in scarce circumstances, largely guided by local law.”

On Friday, X22 Report and Bannon’s War Room were No. 20 and No. 32 on Apple’s list of top podcasts. (Experts say the index measures a podcast’s momentum rather than total listeners.) X22 Report noted 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 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.” The plaintiffs are X22 Report, RedPill78, and David Hayes, who runs another conspiracy podcast, Praying Medic, available on Apple and Google but not Spotify.

Melody Torres, who podcast 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 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.

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