Thesis: Mass mobilization through social media first targeted political institutions. Mass mobilization through social media is now aimed at financial markets, with operatives inciting pressure campaigns at critical moments for corporations.
Case Study: The media campaign aimed at Joe Rogan follows a familiar playbook. For those unfamiliar with this news cycle, musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell removed their music catalogues from Spotify over concerns that Rogan (one of the company’s prized cash cows with a distribution deal worth $100 million) was promoting coronavirus disinformation. After the company said it would add a disclaimer to future episodes of Rogan’s podcast, edited video compilations of the host using racial slurs went viral, fueling more calls for Spotify to terminate the relationship.
Cliché umbrella lamentations of “cancel culture” are meaningless here. Reason’s Nick Gillespie made a compelling case that the Rogan controversy proves free speech is alive and well, arguing that “its impact is limited by the limitless nature of how easily stuff gets made and distributed these days.” Markets have produced endless options for where to consume content, and if Rogan loses his Spotify deal, he walks away with millions of dollars and takes his audience to another platform, or starts his own independent venture.
The same market forces that have produced a plethora of “choices” in where to consume content have simultaneously produced a landscape of centralized entities battling one another for market share, which contract media operatives via third party consulting firms to harm competitors by capitalizing off socio-cultural resentments. Hedge funds will likewise hire these specialists so they can make money by short-selling stocks.
Joe Rogan is a cultural figurehead retained by Spotify who reacts and comments on news cycles shaped by market forces and players much larger than him.
Despite a $100 million contract, Rogan is a reactive figurehead who furthers narratives already at play in the media. His position at Spotify is interchangeable (if he did not occupy the role he currently does at Spotify, then another figurehead would), and he is not a direct threat to any centralized entity—especially the legacy media conglomerates that conservatives say are trying to destroy this “independent content creator.”
The meaningful threat comes from Spotify, which accounts for 31% of the market share of all music streaming globally—over half that of its closest competitors, Apple (15%), and Amazon (13%), according to 2021 Q2 reports. When Neal Young announced he was leaving Spotify, the musician entered into an agreement with Amazon. Apple likewise promoted its business relationship with Young, and still has a tweet pinned celebrating its own association with the artist.
Mass mobilization around highly divisive reference points via social media during the Trump aimed at affecting political outcomes. During the Biden years, these tactics now turn toward financial markets and corporations, wherein vested stakeholders benefit.
Conservatives often portray these corporate contests as “David and Goliath” media narratives by emphasizing individuals like Rogan as a threat to centralized entities (rather than interchangeable figureheads happily profiting from these structures before they are reframed from asset into liability by operatives contracted indirectly by competitors), or populist movements facing-off against corporations (a Family Office inflated Viacom stock, not Redditers sticking it to Wall Street). But these prepackaged narratives do not account for why these storylines emerge, and instead trail into a gray-zone of conspiratorial finger-pointing at the elusive “they” which quickly devolves into scapegoating—historically we know where this leads, and it is never anywhere good.
The spliced montages of Rogan using derogatory and racist language is not new. The first time the video gained traction in 2020 was shortly after Bernie Sanders promoted an endorsement from Rogan; in this first instance, the intended target was a Democratic politician capable of affecting political outcomes. The video’s recent redeployment coincides with Spotify’s earnings report, with the intention of harming a publicly-traded company with the largest streaming market share, through the company’s association with a liability.
The information age is one of PsyOps and controlled narratives. The same market forces that democratized content and public opinion can be weaponized by operatives contracted by corporate competitors, who amplify underlining tensions and guide the public’s attention to polarizing reference points which elicit emotional responses affecting public opinion and stock price.
Discloser: The author of this piece owns shares in Spotify, Apple, and Amazon.
Follow Paradox Politics on Instagram and Twitter.