What the Joe Rogan podcast controversy says about the online misinformation ecosystem: NPR
What the Joe Rogan podcast controversy says about the online misinformation ecosystem: NPR

What the Joe Rogan podcast controversy says about the online misinformation ecosystem: NPR

Joe Rogan, the comedian, TV commentator and podcaster, reacts during an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in May 2020.

Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images


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Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images


Joe Rogan, the comedian, TV commentator and podcaster, reacts during an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in May 2020.

Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images

An open letter urging Spotify to crack down on misinformation about COVID-19 has received signatures from more than a thousand doctors, scientists and health professionals spurred by growing concerns about anti-vaccine rhetoric on the audio app’s hit podcast, Joe Rogan Experience.

The medical and scientific experts smacked Rogan’s findings in issuing false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines and unproven treatments, call it “a sociological issue of devastating proportions.” Spotify, they say, has activated him.

While audio apps have so far escaped the scrutiny that has plagued social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter illustrate the pressure on Spotify how podcasts have emerged as an influential source of misinformation.

In a December episode of his podcast, Rogan interviewed Dr. Robert Malonea scientist who worked on early research into the mRNA technology behind the best COVID-19 vaccines, but who is now critical of the mRNA vaccines.

Malone made baseless and disproven claims, including erroneously saying that getting vaccinated puts people who have already had COVID-19 at higher risk.

The episode immediately raised the alarm bells for Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, who signed the letter. She’s part of a community of experts who deny medical misinformation on social media, and she says she received hundreds of messages from followers about Rogan’s Malone interview.

“Their friends and family sent it to them as proof that the vaccines are dangerous and that they should not get it,” she said. “It gives a sense of false balance, as if there are two sides to the scientific evidence when in fact there is not. The overwhelming evidence is that the vaccines are safe and that they are effective.”

Rogan’s reach worries health experts

Wallace was particularly concerned because Rogan, a stand-up comedian and TV personality, has such a large audience. While Spotify does not reveal how many people are listening, his show has been ranked as the platform’s most popular podcast globally for the past two years. And he’s worth a lot to the company: In 2020, he signed an exclusive license agreement with Spotify that was supposedly worth $ 100 million.

“We’re in a global health emergency, and streaming platforms like Spotify, which provide content to the public, have a responsibility not to add to the problem,” Wallace said.

It was not the first time, Rogan or his Guests has hovered dubious or outright false information about the pandemic. He has argued that young and healthy people do not need COVID-19 vaccines. He has promoted taking ivermectin as a treatment that the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration has warned against.

Wallace and the other letter writers are not asking Spotify to fire Rogan from its platform. But they want the company to be more transparent about its rules, do more to moderate misinformation and make it easier to mark such baseless allegations.

Spotify declined to comment for NPR. It has previously said that it prohibits “dangerously false, misleading or misleading content about COVID-19 that could cause offline harm and / or pose a direct threat to public health.”

The company says it has removed 20,000 podcast episodes to break this policy since the beginning of the pandemic. It has also removed other episodes of Rogan’s show, including an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. But Rogan’s Malone interview is still available.

Last year, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told Axios that the company does not take responsibility for what Rogan or his guests say. He compared the podcaster to “really well-paid rappers” on Spotify and said, “We also do not dictate what they put in their songs.”

Rogan did not respond to a request for comment from NPR.

Researchers say that scrutiny of podcasts is delayed

Misinformation researchers say it was only a matter of time before the spotlight was turned to podcasts.

“Wherever you have users who generate content, you will have all the same content moderation issues and controversies that you have in any other space,” said Evelyn Douek, a researcher at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute.

So why have podcasts not received the same kind of attention as social networks?

First, it is a fragmented medium. Podcasts are available across many different platforms and apps.

Douek says it’s also harder to expose lies and hate speech in podcasts compared to posts written on Facebook and Twitter.

But sound can be an effective way to spread misinformation because of all the qualities that make the format so compelling to listeners, said Valerie Wirtschafter, a senior data analyst at Brookings Institution.

“The podcaster is in your ear,” she said. “It’s a really unique relationship in that regard, and then the podcaster gets a level of authority and a level of credibility among the listeners.”

Wirtschafter says that as more people become aware of how misinformation spreads online, audio deserves the same study as social media.

She has researched how “Big Lie“that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump spread further political podcasts in the run-up to the uprising at the US Capitol. She found that half of the episodes of the most popular programs released between Election Day and January 6, 2021, contained misleading or false allegations of voter fraud and electoral integrity.

“We’re not talking about fringe ideas,” she said. “These are the most popular podcasts in the United States.”

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