On a recent episode of his podcast, Rick Wiles, a preacher and self-proclaimed “citizen reporter,” endorsed a conspiracy theory: that Covid-19 vaccines were the product of a “global coup d’état by the most evil cabal of people” in the history of the nation. humanity.”
“It’s an egg that hatches into a synthetic parasite and grows inside your body,” Mr. Wiles said in his Oct. 13 episode. “This is like a sci-fi nightmare, and it’s happening right in front of us.”
Mr Wiles is among a group of hosts who have made false or misleading statements about Covid-19 and effective treatments for it. Like many of them, he has access to a large portion of his listening audience because his show appears on a platform of a major media company.
The podcast of Mr. Wiles is available through iHeart Media, a San Antonio-based audio company that it claims reaches nine out of ten Americans a month. Spotify and Apple are other major companies that provide major audio platforms to hosts who have shared similar views with their listeners about Covid-19 and vaccination efforts, or have had guests on their shows promoting such notions.
Scientific studies have shown that vaccines protect people against the coronavirus for a long time and have significantly reduced the spread of Covid-19. With the global death toll linked to Covid-19 exceeding five million — and at a time when more than 40 percent of Americans are not fully vaccinated — iHeart, Spotify, Apple and many smaller audio companies have done little to get in the way. curb what radio hosts and podcasters are saying about the virus and vaccination efforts.
“There’s really no limitation,” said Jason Loviglio, an associate professor of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “There’s no real mechanism to push back, except advertisers boycotting and business leaders saying we need a culture change.”
Audio industry executives seem less likely than their social media peers to control dangerous speech. TruNews, a conservative Christian media outlet founded by Mr. Wiles that used the phrase “Jewish coup” to describe attempts to impeach former President Donald J. Trump, has been banned by YouTube. His podcast remains available on iHeart.
Asked about his false statements about Covid-19 vaccines, Mr Wiles described the efforts to mitigate the pandemic as “global communism”. “If the Needle Nazis win, freedom will be gone for generations, maybe forever,” he said in an email.
Radio and podcast reach is wide, especially among young people: A recent survey by the National Research Group, a consulting firm, found that 60 percent of listeners under the age of 40 get their news primarily through audio, a type of media they say they trust more than print or video.
“People develop a close relationship with podcasts,” said Evelyn Douek, senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. “It is a parasocial medium. There’s something about voice that people can really identify with.”
Marc Bernier, a talk radio host in Daytona Beach, Florida, whose show is available to download or stream on iHeart and Apple’s digital platforms, was one of the talk radio hosts who died of Covid-19 complications after suffering anti-inflammatory disease. vaccination views on their programs. The deaths made national news and sparked a flurry of commentary on social media. What attracted less attention was the industry that helped them gain an audience.
In a June episode, Mr. Bernier, after referring to unvaccinated people: “I am one of them. Condemn me if you will.” The following month, he cited an unfounded claim that “45,000 people have died from taking the vaccine.” In his latest Twitter post, on July 30, Mr Bernier accused the government of “acting like Nazis” for encouraging Covid-19 vaccines.
Jimmy DeYoung Sr., whose program was available on iHeart, Apple and Spotify, died of Covid-19 complications after turning his show into a venue for false or misleading statements about vaccines. One of his regulars was Sam Rohrer, a former Pennsylvania state representative who compared the promotion of Covid-19 vaccines to Nazi tactics and made a sweeping false statement. “This is by definition not a vaccine,” Mr Rohrer said in an April episode. “It’s a permanent change in my immune system that God created to handle the things that come that way.” Mr. DeYoung thanked his guest for his ‘insight’. Mr. DeYoung died four months later.
Buck Sexton, the host of a program from Premiere Networks, a subsidiary of iHeart, recently put forward the theory that massive Covid-19 vaccinations could accelerate the mutation of the virus into more dangerous strains. He made this suggestion when he appeared on another Premiere Networks program, “The Jesse Kelly Show.”
The theory appears to have its roots in a 2015 paper on vaccines for a chicken disease called Marek’s disease. The author, Andrew Read, a professor of biology and entomology at Penn State University, has said his research has been “misinterpreted” by anti-vaccine activists. He added that Covid-19 vaccines have been found to significantly reduce transmission, while chickens vaccinated with the vaccine against Marek’s disease were still able to transmit the disease. Mr Sexton did not respond to a request for comment.
“We see many public radio stations doing great local work to spread good health information,” said Mr. Loviglio, the media professor. “On the other hand, you mainly see the AM radio button and their podcast counterparts are the Wild West of the airwaves.”
iHeart — which owns more than 860 radio stations, publishes more than 600 podcasts and manages a huge online archive of audio programs — has rules for podcasters on its platform that prohibit them from making statements that incite hatred, promote Nazi propaganda, or are defamatory. It wouldn’t say whether it has a policy regarding false statements about Covid-19 or vaccination efforts.
Apple’s content guidelines for podcasts prohibit “content that could lead to harmful or dangerous results, or content that is obscene or unnecessary.” Apple did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Spotify, which says its podcast platform has 299 million monthly listeners, bans hate speech in its guidelines. Responding to questions, the company said in a written statement that it also bans content “that promotes dangerous false or dangerously misleading content about Covid-19 that could cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.” The company added that it had removed content that violated its policies. But the episode featuring Mr. DeYoung’s conversation with Mr. Rohrer was still available on Spotify.
Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s content and advertising manager, said at a conference last month that the company was taking “very aggressive steps” to invest more in content moderation. “There is a difference between the content we create and the content we license and the content on the platform,” she said, “but our policies are the same regardless of the type of content on our platform. content that is infringing or inaccurate in any way.”
The audio industry has not received the same criticism as major social media companies, whose executives have been questioned in congressional hearings about the platforms’ role in spreading false or misleading information.
The social media giants have made efforts over the past year to stem the flow of false reports related to the pandemic. In September, YouTube said it was banning the accounts of several prominent anti-vaccine activists. It also removes or de-emphasizes content it considers misinformation or comes close to it. Late last year, Twitter announced it would remove posts and ads with false claims about coronavirus vaccines. Facebook followed suit in February and said it would remove false claims about vaccines in general.
Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, a media professor at the University of Florida, said podcasts may be more effective at spreading false information than social media. “People who go to podcasts are much more actively engaged,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I went on Facebook and I scrolled through and saw this misinformation.’ You are more likely to be engaged, interested in this host, actively seeking out this person and listening to what he or she has to say.”
According to iHeart CEO Robert W. Pittman, former head of MTV and AOL, audio media has become more popular during the pandemic. At a recent media industry conference, he noted a shift in listening habits over the past 20 months: “Before the pandemic, consumers felt disconnected due to social and many other things, and they value media as feel like a companion. . There are two: radio, and now there is podcasting.”
The Federal Communications Commission, which licenses companies that use public airwaves, oversees radio operators, but not podcasts or online audio, that do not use public airwaves.
The FCC must not violate the right to free speech of American citizens. When it takes action against a media company for programming, it’s usually in response to complaints about content it considers obscene or indecent, such as when it fined a Virginia television station in 2015 for a newscast that included a clip about a pornographic movie star.
In a statement, an FCC spokesperson said the agency “reviews all complaints and determines what is criminal under the constitution and law.” It added that the primary responsibility for what is broadcast on the air rests with radio station owners, saying that “broadcast licensees have a duty to act in the public interest”.
The world of talk radio and podcasting is huge, and anti-vaccine sentiment is a small part of it. iHeart offers an educational podcast series about Covid-19 vaccines, and Spotify created a hub for podcasts about Covid-19 from news outlets, including ABC and Bloomberg.
There has been at least one turn of events among hosts who were once skeptical about the pandemic and efforts to contain it. Bill Cunningham, who has a radio show in Cincinnati syndicated by iHeart’s Premiere Networks and available on Apple, spent the early part of the pandemic claiming that Covid-19 was overhyped. He revised his view of the sky this year, describing his decision to get vaccinated and encouraging his listeners to do the same.
Recently, he expressed his eagerness to get a booster shot and said he’s been given a new nickname: “The Vaxxinator.”