Wildly popular podcaster Joe Rogan is just asking questions. The wrong questions, and an awful lot of them — especially when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. He’s discouraged young people from getting vaccinated, promoted theories that unsupported COVID treatment ivermectin isn’t in broader use to protect vaccine profits, and invited well-known bullshit artists to uncritically spew misinformation about vaccines.
As Rogan has hundreds of millions of monthly downloads on the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), that makes him one of the biggest vehicles for rhetoric that is at the very least sympathetic to, and sometimes actively promoting, the antivaxx movement. And his distributor, Spotify, is obviously willing to look the other way to protect their exclusive $US100 ($138) million deal with him, even if that means letting him promote wild conspiracy theories — like he did last month. On episode #1757 of JRE, Rogan invited a virologist named Dr. Robert Malone to inform listeners that public health responses to the coronavirus, particularly mass vaccination, were inextricably tied in with something called “mass formation psychosis.”
Malone’s credibility is largely based on his claim to have invented MRNA vaccines. Whether that’s true or not — the Atlantic reported he is one of many scientists who published important work on MRNA — more recently his credentials seem to have served the more practical purpose of buoying his darling status in right-wing media and the anti-vaxx movement. Malone claims not to be a vaccine sceptic, but questions the safety and efficacy of the actual MRNA vaccines on the market. Many of his claims have been rated as false by fact-checkers and many other scientists have more or less suggested he’s gone off the rails. Mass formation psychosis, in Malone’s telling, is exactly like what happened in Germany before the rise of the Nazi Party’s Third Reich, during which the public “literally becomes hypnotized and can be led anywhere.” Malone went on to tell Rogan that this is why members of the public trust and are complying with supposedly extreme, totalitarian overreactions like social pressure to get vaccinated.
In reality, mass formation psychosis is not a legitimate scientific idea and, according to specialists in fields like crowd and social psychology, has no credibility. (According to the AP, University of Sussex social psychologist John Drury and Binghamton University psychology professor Steven Jay Lynn described the theory as based on discredited concepts around mob mentality and the power of hypnosis.) But it is convenient culture-war gristle for right-wingers and anti-vaxxers furious at public health measures who want to rebrand just being wrong as enviable possession of forbidden knowledge and label anyone who disagrees as mentally ill sheeple. That’s the main reason the Malone episode went viral.
This was too much for YouTube, which took a clip of the Malone interview down under its covid-19 misinformation policy. For its part, Spotify has done jack shit. Rolling Stone reported on Wednesday that some 270 scientists, medical professionals, and science educators, led by Boston’s Children’s Hospital infectious disease epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera, have signed an open letter to Spotify denouncing Rogan for featuring Malone and spreading other hoax claims about covid and vaccines. They’re not demanding that Spotify drop Rogan or delete the episode, but simply create a defined policy on misinformation. From the letter:
On Dec. 31, 2021, the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), a Spotify-exclusive podcast, uploaded a highly controversial episode featuring guest Dr. Robert Malone (#1757). The episode has been criticised for promoting baseless conspiracy theories and the JRE has a concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.
… With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence. Though Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy.
The letter notes that the average age of Rogan’s listeners is 24, and that people between the ages of 12 and 34 who don’t get the vaccine are 12 times as likely to be hospitalized as those who are vaccinated. The signatories note that they are the ones who will be “tasked with repairing the public’s damaged understanding of science and medicine” and bearing the “arduous weight of a pandemic that has stretched our medical systems to their limits.” The letter concludes that allowing Rogan to spread misleading nonsense isn’t just a scientific or medical issue, but a “sociological issue of devastating proportions.”
“These are fringe ideas not backed in science, and having it on a huge platform makes it seem there are two sides to this issue,” University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health epidemiologist Katine Wallace told Rolling Stone. “And there are really not. The overwhelming evidence is the vaccine works, and it is safe.”
Spotify does not currently appear to have a solid misinformation policy in its rules — unlike many other major platforms, which at least have ones on paper, even if they’re poorly enforced. The ask to introduce such a policy and hold Rogan to it in the future is a clever one, if only because Spotify reportedly neglected to port over 42 JRE episodes when it signed a deal with Rogan in 2020. According to Variety, those editions contained interviews with vile far-right figures like racist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, founder of the fashy street-fighting Proud Boys group Gavin McInnes, infamous troll and accused Holocaust denier Charles C. Johnson, anti-feminist Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin, and Owen Benjamin, a comedian mostly known for vicious anti-Semitism. The decision to throw those episodes down the memory hole doesn’t seem to have set any precedent moving forward.
Rogan later said that not porting the episodes, which was the subject of considerable anger from his fans, was part of the $US100 ($138) million contract deal: “There were a few episodes they didn’t want on their platform, and I was like ‘ok, I don’t care.’” But he insisted that there wouldn’t be any corporate interference from that point on: “A lot of people are like, ‘they’re telling Joe Rogan what he can and can’t do’. They’re not — they’re not.”
Again, Rogan is estimated to have 11 million listeners per episode. To put that in perspective, Tucker Carlson is the king of primetime cable news with around 3 million viewers per episode. It’s safe to say Spotify doing anything about the Malone episode would risk pissing off one of their biggest cash-cow investments. Spotify probably also doesn’t want to chance angering a horde of fans that use their platform many times a week, let alone the inevitable firestorm from conservatives eager to make him their latest poster boy for censorship.
As it is, Spotify sporadically told media outlets last year that it removes antivax content because it prohibits “content on the platform which promotes dangerous false, deceptive, or misleading content about Covid-19 that may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.” So clearly some kind of policy exists, at least to the extent that they can trot it out on an arbitrary basis. Spotify just isn’t clear about the specifics of that rule or how they enforce it. The only thing that’s clear is Rogan is apparently immune to it.
Spotify didn’t respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. Nor did it respond to CNBC, the Hill, the Washington Post, Deadline, Fortune, or the New York Daily News, among other publications. Why would they? They don’t give a shit. Go ahead and prove us wrong.
“Considering their role in society is disseminating content, there is a responsibility in a global public health emergency to not exacerbate the problem,” Rivera, the organiser of the letter, told Rolling Stone. “We have an infodemic going on that is prolonging the pandemic and it is causing people to make bad choices and actually die. These are preventable illnesses that folks like Joe Rogan and Dr. Robert Malone are directly responsible for.”