The Hamburg association “Laut gegen Nazis” has been in a feud with Spotify for a year and a half. So far it consists of two campaigns by the Hanseatic city – and apparently little reaction from Sweden.
The association’s current attempt to change the way the streaming service works has been online since November 7, 2022. His name is Hans”. The acronym stands for “Hateful Audio Notification Service” and hides a WhatsApp chatbot. His goal is to simplify the inherently cumbersome process of reporting content to Spotify for users. The project was developed in cooperation with the advertising agency Philipp and Keuntje. She was already jointly responsible for the club’s first campaign, which ran under the name “Antifascist Algorithm”.
In January 2022, the association and the agency founded the fictitious band “Hetzjaeger” in order to draw attention to the fact that the algorithms, to which music owes a large part of its distribution since the 10s of the 22nd century, are so apolitical that they necessarily also showed themselves blind to badly inhumane material. Their thesis was: Spotify and Co. are involved in spreading right-wing extremist music and at least have not worked against the increasing influx to the scene in recent years. The background to this assumption is the experience described by dropouts, among other things, that music is often the way, especially for young people, into right-wing milieus. The only single of the meanwhile scrapped project was called “comrades” and was produced in two parts.
The first verse, including the video, was distributed primarily in right-wing circles. The work used a series of typical audio-visual codes: torches, a dark forest, wolf masks, the word “comrades”, talk of the end of Germany and the failure of democracy. Through targeted marketing, the song quickly collected 120,000 hits and hit the relevant chats and forums – including the announcement that the second half should be released on January 30, 2022 at 6:18 p.m.
On the 98th anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power, the time had come and the entire song showed the true political colors of its creators. The event, which was greatly anticipated by the scene, turned into an internal embarrassment, although doubts about the authenticity of the project had arisen even before the official unveiling. Overall, the campaign was able to at least generate attention and make the thesis that Spotify and Co. have little interest in specifically preventing the distribution of right-wing music more plausible.
However, attention alone does not change anything when there is doubt about entrenched business models, and a panel at the Reeperbahn Festival 2022, at which Jörn Menge, chairman of the association and a high-ranking employee of Deezer, Frédéric Antelme, spoke to each other, had no consequences. Representatives of Spotify were not present.
Hetzjaeger has since been permanently deleted from Spotify. In an interview, Jörn Menge counted the history of this step, which was only taken after a large press conference by the club. During the two weeks in which Hetzjaeger generated their hype, efforts were made – especially from left-wing circles – to have the song removed from platforms. Although this happened several times, it was easy to upload and stream the content again and again.
The campaign thus indirectly revealed further problems in the system: on the one hand, the complexity of the reporting function offered by Spotify, which ultimately amounts to reporting something by email or via Twitter message, and on the other hand, the gaps in the verification of uploaded content.
With the former, HANS comes into play. The bot takes care of reporting illegal or problematic content for users. To do this, you have to send him the link of the content to be reported via WhatsApp. HANS has been online for three months and during this time users have used its services more than 5000 times. When reporting, you can choose one of five categories, according to which the bot formulates its message to Spotify. These are: “hurtful,” “fascist,” “lying,” “violent,” and “criminal.”
This largely conforms to Spotify’s own self-issued rules about what content is allowed on the platform, barring the “fascist” category. Further detailed questions are asked in the chat, after which the reporter is presented with the message to Spotify for verification. Up to this step it can also be discarded. Playlists, titles, albums, podcasts and artist profiles can be reported via the bot. So that it is not misused or any content that breaks taboos as a stylistic device is reported, the reports are not sent automatically, but are checked again personally. Philip and Keuntje employees are responsible for this more detailed check.
Prinzen singer Sebastian Krumbiegel used the bot to attract the public to report one of his own old songs, which he now considers homophobic. However, “Hasso (My dog is gay)” from 1999 is still online (as of February 22, 2023).
The content that the association uses to identify problems is not just song lyrics. In particular, they also include playlist titles and thumbnails uploaded by users. On the one hand, this is because Spotify’s search function is geared towards this content. On the other hand, this content can be created completely unchecked by users. The various public playlists whose names contain the word “Hitler”, which are provided with swastika images or carry anti-Semitic slogans in front of them at least show that Spotify’s handling of user-generated content should be reconsidered.
Spotify Content and Its Deletion
Laut gegen Nazis eV published a statistical evaluation of the reasons for reporting on February 7th. After this processing, 50.8 percent of the reported content is fascist, 24.1 percent homophobic, 10.6 percent misogynistic and five percent incites physical violence. The remaining nine percent are equal parts anti-Semitic and racist.
This distribution of reporting reasons is not an accurate reflection of the broadly problematic content actually distributed through Spotify. Because the number of messages is so small, it probably reflects the focus of attention of the bot users. The evaluation of the first quarter also revealed that just under a twentieth of the individual reported content was deleted.
The deletion of right-wing extremist content is, however, a topic that has accompanied Spotify for a long time. In this country, the case of Chris Ares is particularly well known. Until 2020, Ares, classified by the Bavarian State Office for the Protection of the Constitution as “right-wing extremist”, was the most influential right-wing rapper in Germany. Some of the Freiburger’s chart successes then brought media attention with them, which ultimately led to the company deciding to permanently delete his profile. At least in 2017 and 2020, however, there were larger waves of international protest and corresponding reactions independently of Ares. This also included playlist titles and covers in 2020.
In 2020, a spokesman warned off criticism that this apparently does not happen without external pressure with the argument that this battle has been fought for years and instead of the 100 playlists that were found, there could have been many more. The company also uses the list of media harmful to young people from the German Federal Agency for Child and Youth Media Protection (formerly the Federal Testing Center for Media Harmful to Young People/BPjM), the public part of which currently (as of January 31, 2023) contains almost 2000 sound carriers, as a model for removing content. On the one hand, however, the BzKJ only indexes individual sound carriers (which is why the non-indexed albums of individual artists* with indexed albums are public) and on the other hand, the right-wing music scene continues to develop permanently and in a variety of ways. Even a federal authority does not necessarily follow this exhaustively. Some bands and artists classified as right-wing extremist by various publications can definitely be found, albeit sometimes only under abbreviations or slightly changed names.
Spotify’s rules stipulate that content does not have to be deleted if it violates the content requirements. In lesser cases, the platform reserves the right to limit its reach and frequency of proposals, to end monetization or to place warnings. In addition to its own rules, the provider is also bound by national laws. However, internet jurisdiction, at least in this country, is notoriously incomplete and the amount of content is difficult to survey. Additionally, some of Spotify’s content is placed through third-party providers, making tracking even more opaque.
Side Effects and Conclusions
HANS offers the opportunity to draw the attention of a large streaming group to a gap in its system. It shifts the focus of the club’s campaigns, at least a little, away from explicit action against right-wing extremism and towards dealing with related but much broader issues. Unless the proliferation of reports results in Spotify removing or restricting content, their collection may at least allow behind-the-scenes insight into the network of right-wing content on the platform. In addition, a kind of database for reported content is being created for the first time, which can potentially be used to check to what extent Spotify is complying with its own rules.
In an open letter, Menge emphasizes that the campaign cannot solve the underlying problem. He urges Spotify to change how they deal with right-wing music and extremist content and move the responsibility of controlling content out of the hands of users. Insofar as that has happened, however, they at least need the opportunity to take on this involuntary task.