What the Joe Rogan podcast controversy says about the online misinformation ecosystem
More than a thousand health professionals are calling on Spotify to crack down on COVID-19 falsehoods aired on the podcast of the company's most popular host.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Over 1,000 doctors, scientists and health professionals are calling out Spotify over false claims about COVID aired by its most popular podcaster, Joe Rogan. As NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond reports, while platforms such as Facebook and Twitter face intense scrutiny for their role in spreading harmful health hoaxes, podcasts can be even more influential sources of information.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: It wasn't the first time Joe Rogan or his guests have floated dubious or outright false information about the pandemic. But for Dr. Katrine Wallace, Rogan's last podcast episode of 2021 was the last straw.
KATRINE WALLACE: This particular episode of the Joe Rogan podcast was sent to me hundreds of times the day that it went live by my followers because their friends and family were sending it to them as evidence that the vaccines are dangerous and that they shouldn't get it.
BOND: Wallace is an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago and part of a community of experts who debunk medical misinformation on social media. In the episode in question, Rogan interviewed Dr. Robert Malone, a scientist who worked on early research into the technology behind the top COVID vaccines in the U.S., but who's now a vaccine skeptic. Malone made a lot of baseless and disproven claims, like saying that getting vaccinated puts people who have already had COVID at higher risk. It all alarmed Wallace.
WALLACE: It provides a sense of false balance, like there's two sides to the scientific evidence when really there is not. The overwhelming evidence is that the vaccines are safe and that they're effective.
BOND: She's particularly worried because Rogan has such a big audience. A stand-up comedian and TV personality, Rogan has an exclusive licensing deal with Spotify, reportedly worth $100 million. So Wallace joined a group of fellow health professionals in an open letter, slamming the company for allowing its biggest star to broadcast misinformation.
WALLACE: We are in a global health emergency, and streaming platforms like Spotify that provide content to the public have a responsibility not to add to the problem that we have right now.
BOND: They're not asking Spotify to kick off Rogan, but they want the company to be more transparent about its rules and to make it easier to flag these kinds of baseless claims about COVID. Spotify declined to comment for this story but has previously said it bans content about COVID that it deems dangerous or false. It's taken down 20,000 podcast episodes for breaking that policy, but Rogan's Malone interview is still available. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told Dan Primack of Axios last year that the company does not take responsibility for what Rogan or his guests say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DANIEL EK: Joe Rogan is just one out of eight million creators that we have on the platform.
DAN PRIMACK: But the best paid of all of those.
EK: Sure. But we have a lot of really well-paid rappers on Spotify, too, that make tens of millions of dollars, if not more, each year from Spotify, and we don't dictate what they're putting in their songs, either.
BOND: Rogan did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. Misinformation researchers say it was only a matter of time until the spotlight turned to podcasts.
EVELYN DOUEK: Wherever you have users generating content, you're going to have all of the same content moderation issues and controversies that you have in any other space.
BOND: Evelyn Douek is a research fellow at Columbia's Knight First Amendment Institute. She says it's much harder to ferret out things like falsehoods and hate speech in podcasts, compared to posts on Facebook and Twitter. But audio can be a powerful way to spread misinformation, says Valerie Wirtschafter at the Brookings Institution.
VALERIE WIRTSCHAFTER: The podcaster is in your ear. You're probably alone, listening to this podcast. It's a really unique relationship in that respect. The podcaster gains a level of authority and a level of credibility among listeners.
BOND: Wirtschafter has been studying how the big lie - that the 2020 election was stolen - spread on political podcasts before the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
WIRTSCHAFTER: We're not talking about fringe ideas. These are the most popular podcasts in the United States.
BOND: She says, as more people become aware of how misinformation spreads online, podcasts deserve the same scrutiny as social media.
Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.