This week saw the rise of an online campaign attempting to boycott the streaming service Spotify over its partnership with Joe Rogan. The podcaster has been accused of spreading misinformation on his show about Covid-19 vaccines.
Reading through #BoycottSpotify and related hashtags, on the surface the justification for the movement comes in the form of moral condemnation of Rogan. He is, supposedly, endangering lives during a pandemic with his choice of guests. But really it has less to do with Rogan being a threat to public health and more to do with the perverse incentives of consumer politics in our age of social media.
Ethical consumption as a political strategy has been around for some time, whether its choosing free-range eggs or paying extra for your Starbucks coffee to donate to a starving child. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has called these kinds of political actions the “ultimate form of consumerism”. They allow people to purchase some virtue while persisting with their frivolous, often harmful, hedonistic habits:
Once the transaction is done, you’ve undertaken your role as a good consumer, so you can feel satisfied that you’ve “done your part” to better the world.
The Spotify boycott is a neat example of this dynamic of consumer politics. You see a complicated issue (vaccine hesitancy rates across the world) reduced to one cause (“misinformation”) attached to a single source (Joe Rogan) and solved through a single transaction (boycott Spotify).
Feeling blindly self-satisfied in their ethical act, this may explain why some #BoycottSpotify participants are posting screenshots of their move to rival companies such as Apple and Amazon, companies which have far more ethically questionable histories than Spotify. What’s actually crucial for the the boycotting class is not that they are doing something, but that they are seen to be doing something.
Social theorists Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio argue that being perceived as ethical is key to modern social identities based around attention, acclaim and approval — what they call “profilicity”. Today we are incentivised to cultivate a public profile demonstrating that we are socially and politically aware:
#BoycottSpotify is ultimately a sign of our times, where building a public presence as an ethical consumer is more important than grappling with complex issues of public health and freedom of expression. It’s the latest example of a new form of online activism, a dizzying show without much substance but with a powerful instinct to censor.