Spotify’s Ban on Hateful Content and Conduct Is ‘Too Subjective’ and ‘Dangerous,’ Experts Say

R Kelly gun evacuation
Suzanne Cordeiro/REX/Shutterstock

It is probably safe to say that Spotify did not get the reaction it expected on Thursday when the company announced a new policy against “hate content” and “hateful conduct” regarding the artists it chooses to promote — and then announced, via a simultaneously published interview, that the first artist to be targeted by this policy will be R. Kelly (and, hours later, rapper XXXTentacion). The streaming giant may have expected to be hailed for its woke-ness and its solidarity with #MeToo, which called Spotify out — along with RCA Records, Ticketmaster, Apple Music and a North Carolina venue, all of which promote or host the artist’s work — last week when it joined the #MuteRKelly movement.

After all, who could argue with a policy that prohibits “hate content” — defined as content that “expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability” (which would seemingly rule out several presidential campaign speeches) — or declining to promote artists who engage in “hateful conduct” — “something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence)”?

What more suitable artists to target with such a move? Over the past two decades, Kelly has been accused multiple times of sexual misconduct against young and underaged women; he reportedly married protégé Aaliyah when she was 15 (later annulled); he was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008 despite a video that the prosecution claims shows him having sex with and urinating on an underaged woman; and he was recently accused of running an “abusive sex cult” in which young women are essentially held prisoner and not allowed to eat or go to the bathroom for long periods of time. XXXTentacion stands accused of multiple felonies, including assaulting a pregnant woman and witness tampering.

And what more effective statement of disapproval for Spotify than its playlists, which in recent years have become a coveted avenue of promotion for all artists, the most popular of which — Rap Caviar, from which XXXTentacion’s music was removed yesterday — is regularly cited as one of the most effective ways to break a hip-hop song? The move represents a way for the company to flex its moral power by effectively shunning an artist without taking the bolder and far more problematic move of censoring them, as Spotify did last summer with white-supremacist music that was posted on its platform.

As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, the announcement hasn’t quite worked out the way that Spotify may have hoped. Through a combination of apparent naivete and hubris and, to put it mildly, clumsy messaging, the company has managed to do the near-impossible: Get people to defend R. Kelly.

“This [policy statement] feels much too undefined, it raises more questions than it answers,” says Charis Kubrin, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine, who has written extensively on whether rappers’ lyrics can be used against them in a court of law. “It was obviously led by R. Kelly, but it seems as if they started with him rather than putting the policy in place first and then deciding who would [be penalized]. He’s the poster child for this, and he hasn’t been convicted of anything.”

“I thought it was very vague — how do you define that as a policy?,” says Lecia Brooks, outreach director of the Southern Poverty Law, one of the groups with which Spotify is working to define hateful content. “It is unfortunate that that the announcement speaks to [just] hate, when there are many other concerns to be raised. They’re trying to hold artists accountable, but who would ascertain what constitutes a credible accusation [of hateful behavior]? It’s dangerous and it has real implications.”

The outcry was swift and furious, with multiple artists, executives and fans lambasting the company for its vaguely defined policy. Spokespeople for the two artists were quick to reply as well: Kelly’s rep provided an arguably technically accurate if debatable statement noting that the singer “has never has been accused of hate, and the lyrics he writes express love and desire. … Mr. Kelly for 30 years has sung songs about his love and passion for women … Spotify has the right to promote whatever music it chooses, and in this case its actions are without merit”; XXXTentacion’s rep responded with a list of other prominent artists accused — but not all convicted — of serious offenses.

The vague nature of its criteria makes the enforcement of this policy — which the company has stated is the first step in an evolving process — subjective at best. The statement of policy is less than 400 words long and relies on generalities like “we want our editorial decisions – what we choose to program – to reflect our values.”  It also states no system of policing content or behavior beyond content monitoring, “expert partners” and “Your Help,” the latter via an online form. The company also says it has created a monitoring tool called Spotify AudioWatch to help it screen for and flag hate content.

Jonathan Prince, Spotify’s vp/head of content and marketplace policy, told Billboard: “When we look at promotion, we look at issues around hateful conduct, where you have an artist or another creator who has done something off-platform that is so particularly out of line with our values, egregious, in a way that it becomes something that we don’t want to associate ourselves with. So we’ve decided that in some circumstances, we may choose to not work with that artist or their content in the same way — to not program it, to not playlist it, to not do artist marketing campaigns with that artist.”

“Transparency is good, but I’m not sure this is transparency,” Kubrin says. “They’re not systematizing the process: It seems all based on their own judgment, but who’s making those calls? What role are they playing? You have to roll something like this out so carefully, and they haven’t done that.”

A spokeperson for Spotify told Variety that an internal committee makes those decisions, in consultation with the organizations listed in the policy announcement as helping it to define hateful content (including The Southern Poverty Law Center, The Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change, Showing Up for Racial Justice, GLAAD, Muslim Advocates and the International Network Against Cyber Hate). The rep added that in some cases the inquiry is escalated, but declined to provide further details or grant requests for interviews on the matter with company executives.

“Spotify is taking on a difficult task in attempting to remove speech that promotes ‘hate,’” says Nora Pelizzari of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “People do not agree on the definition of the term: some will believe Spotify has gone too far, others will pressure it to go farther. The inclusion of ‘hateful conduct’ in the policy just adds another layer of subjectivity that undermines the policy’s enforceability in any sort of equitable way. Who is the judge and should we insist on morally pure artists? How pure is pure enough? These are complicated questions that this policy doesn’t seem to quite answer.”

To keep the matter in perspective, the conversation is not really about censorship: The two artists’ music remains available on the platform; the music and artists Spotify and any other streaming platform promotes are its own choice, subject to its own criteria; there is no First Amendment component directly associated with this matter. (The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) declined Variety’s request for comment.)

But the company’s failure to anticipate the optics of its move — the first two artists penalized by the new policy are black men who stand accused but not convicted of serious crimes — has sent a shockingly bad message at a time when the largest music-streaming company in the world, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange just weeks ago, needs it least.

“Intentionally or not, it’s really just rap and R&B that are being singled out,” says Kubrin. “What stereotypes are they relying on? How does race and gender come into it? We’ve done studies where we’ll take the same set of violent lyrics and tell randomly selected people they’re from different music genres, including country, folk, rap. When people think the lyrics are coming from rap, they’re considered much more threatening. It’s concerning whenever people try to police art.”

“It’s a laudable goal,”Brooks concludes, “it just needs to be more systematic.”

Even at a glance, the inconsistencies in the policy are quickly apparent on a platform that includes music by at least one convicted murderer (Phil Spector), another who married not just a 13-year-old girl but one who was also his first cousin (Jerry Lee Lewis), another who is synonymous with spousal abuse (the late Ike Turner) and a song with upwards of 70 million plays (Derek & the Dominos’ 1970 hit “Layla”) that was co-written by a man who has been in a mental institution for 35 years after murdering his mother (Jim Gordon).

Shunning is nothing new in the age of #MeToo, and while visions of “A Tale of Two Cities” occasionally pop up during these lightning-quick rushes to judgement, much of it is long overdue. And if it has inspired two disparate but related incidents that happened in the past two days — singer Jessie Reyez publicly accusing producer Detail of sexual abuse, and Rep. Maxine Waters shouting down condescending, mansplaining men on the floor of Congress — then it’s a move for the better. But any attempt to systematize morality — particularly one as vaguely defined as Spotify’s — is a slippery slope.

“I’m guessing there are artists on [Spotify’s platform] who have committed very serious crimes, the probability that R. Kelly is even in the top five of that list seems slim,” says Kubrin. “This certainly is not censorship, but it’s a move in that direction.”