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MMA: APR 24 UFC 261

The Real Joe Rogan Experience: How Spotify’s most popular podcast became a vehicle for disinformation

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Joe Rogan prides himself on his “questions everything mentality,” even when those questions come at the expense of scientific facts.

The host of the most popular podcast on Spotify with millions of downloads every month, drew ire from doctors, politicians, and pundits last week after claiming that young, healthy people do not need to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Are you healthy?” Rogan told fellow comedian Dave Smith during the April 23 episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience.” “Are you a healthy person? Like, look, don’t do anything stupid, but you should take care of yourself. You should—if you’re a healthy person and you’re exercising all the time and you’re young and you’re eating well, like, I don’t think you need to worry about this.”

Rogan’s comments were heard by millions of listeners, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ leading infectious diseases expert and chief medical adviser to the White House, who referred Rogan’s stance as “incorrect.” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield also criticized Rogan’s position during a recent interview with CNN.

“Did Joe Rogan become a medical doctor while we weren’t looking?” Bedingfield asked on CNN’s “New Day”last Wednesday. “I’m not sure that taking scientific and medical advice from Joe Rogan is perhaps the most productive way for people to get their information.”

Bedingfield also added that Rogan’s comments could have an impact on listeners who are already hesitant about getting vaccinated. Dr. Fauci shared a similar sentiment, urging young people to get vaccinated.

A likely reason behind the White House’s well-publicized rebukes of Rogan’s comments is the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations among younger people across the country over the past few months. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the U.S. and globally during this pandemic, many of which are more contagious than the initial strain. Rogan’s vaccine disinformation ignores these figures as well as the scores of young athletes suffering from long-term side effects related to COVID-19. Even the UFC, where Rogan does color commentary on occasion, has seen several of its fighters contemplate retirementfollowing lengthy battles with the virus.

Rogan’s comments also came at a time when COVID-19 is devastating India, with cases are nearing 20 million, while total fatalities approach 220,000. Faced with significant backlash for spreading disinformation, Rogan walked back his comments on Thursday, claiming that he was “not an anti-vaxx person.”

“I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron and I’m a cage fighting commentator who’s a dirty standup comedian who just told you I’m drunk most of the time and I do testosterone and I smoke a lot of weed,” Rogan explained in a video that has since been shared on YouTube. “But I’m not a respected source of information, even for me.”

While Rogan was quick to explain away his comments, he failed to acknowledge the sheer size of his audience and the impact his views would have on hesitant and gullible listeners who were questioning the necessity of taking a vaccine. Over the past few years, Rogan has amassed an extraordinary following, a large percentage of whom are teenagers and young men. A portion of the audience also leans conservative and were attracted to Rogan’s show due to his willingness to engage conservative views on his show. He has hosted the likes of Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Bari Weiss, and Candace Owens. Rogan has also provided a platform to far-right figures and conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones (on more than three separate occasions), Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, Steven Crowder, Stefan Molyneux and Milo Yiannopoulos. While Rogan has also hosted progressive thinkers, subject experts and intellectuals on his show, including Edward Snowden, Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, and Elon Musk, they are few and far between in comparison to the conservative narratives given stage time on his show.

Rogan’s friendship and continued willingness to platform Alex Jones is particularly troubling. Jones is best known as a snake-oil salesman who promotes conspiracy theories such as white genocide and climate change denialism on his InfoWars network. Some of his most despicable actions include claiming that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018 were false flag operations, which led to parents of victims and survivors being harassed and threatened.

Trump Supporters Hold “Stop The Steal” Rally In DC Amid Ratification Of Presidential Election Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Despite Jones’ reputation, Rogan still referred to him as the “most misunderstood guy on the planet” in 2019. By normalizing people like Jones as a loveable lunatic and harmless weirdo, Rogan is inadvertently exposing his audience to hateful and xenophobic rhetoric and contributing to their potential radicalization.

Naturally, Rogan’s willingness to defend Jones earned him favor with the American far-right. However, many turned against Rogan when he walked back his vaccine comments last week. Ali Alexander, the leader of the so-called “Stop the Steal” movement that claimed widespread election fraud following the 2020 presidential election, said that Rogan had “no spine” while QAnon adherents suggested he was a “sell out.”

Rogan’s vaccine disinformation is merely the latest example of the popular podcast host’s disinformation since signing a $100 million exclusivity deal with Spotify. Over the past year, Rogan has spread conspiracy theories, criticized the transgender community by falsely claiming that “dumb people” can be praised simply for “transferring their gender,” and stated that he doesn’t plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine because he didn’t feel he “needed it.” Dr. Danielle Belardo, a cardiologist based in Newport Beach, California, called the controversial comedian a “harm to public health” and drew on a comparison to Gwyneth Paltrow’s pseudoscience-touting “wellness” brand by referring to his show as “Goop marketed for men.”

The comparison to Goop is an apt one, as Rogan’s podcast has proven to be dangerous in its ability to convey false information to impressionable followers who already question the legitimacy of mainstream science and media. He has been guilty of spreading false information several times in 2020 alone, including information relating to Obamagate, an unfounded conspiracy theory based on President Donald Trump’s claims that former president Barack Obama broke a law during his transition out of office. He also claimed that left-wing people started the wildfires in Oregon, a statement for which he later apologized.

Recently, Rogan praised Project Veritas, an American far-right activist group founded by James O’Keefe, for releasing hidden camera footage captured by a woman who was hired to go on a date with a CNN executive.

Rogan’s continued controversy underscores the fact that podcasts have become a new medium for spreading misinformation. While the focus has been on moderating and regulating social media spaces, podcasts remain a largely unmoderated space with few barriers to entry and even fewer regulatory restrictions or consequences. As these podcasts continue to grow and attract larger audiences, so does their potential to spread misinformation. And even though major podcast platforms like Apple and Google have content policies that prohibit violence or inciting racial and gender-based hatred, it remains unclear how these policies are enforced.

Joe Rogan accused the referee in the Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder 3 fight of corruption Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Much the same can be said about Spotify, which struck a $100 million exclusivity deal with Rogan in 2020. While the popular platform has removed 42 episodes of Rogan’s podcast to date, including episodes featuring Jones, Yiannopoulos and McInnes, Spotify has chosen not to publicly address Rogan’s controversial statements or take any further action to limit repeat offenses.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek claimed he did not speak to Rogan following his vaccine disinformation comments and he that he did not “have any specific comments on that.”

“What I will say is we have 8 million creators, and hundreds of millions of pieces of content,” Ek told Bloomberg. “We have a content policy, and we do remove pieces that violate it.”

Spotify relies on Rogan’s show to help grow their audience and attract advertising dollars. And though the platform is aware of his controversial stances, it has chosen to forgo policy in favor of profit for the foreseeable future, leaving Rogan’s show to continue to operate with minimal strings attached.

Rogan promotes himself as a free thinker who is happy to discuss topics with both sides of the political spectrum. However, he has also allowed his podcast—and its substantial audience—to be hijacked by charlatans, conspiracy theorists, and bad faith actors who end up influencing his impressionable audience. As such, it has become a prominent and dangerous vehicle for disinformation, capable of impacting millions of listeners on a weekly basis.

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