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The Joe Rogan controversy spotlights how some podcasts spread disinformation

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start today with a focus on the ongoing fight against the spread of misinformation, a fight with real consequences for the health of Americans as the country passes 900,000 deaths from COVID-19. One of the latest flashpoints has been the controversy surrounding Joe Rogan and his wildly popular podcast, "The Joe Rogan Experience," distributed by Spotify. The company has come under intense pressure to crack down on the spread of false information about COVID-19 on its platform, specifically on certain episodes of Rogan's podcast, where he and his guests have repeated numerous falsehoods about the virus, vaccines and treatments.

A number of artists and podcasters have added to the pressure, demanding that their content be removed from Spotify. In response, the company has said it will add a content advisory to any podcast that includes a discussion about COVID-19. Spotify has also been removing dozens of episodes of Rogan's podcast from the platform - more than 100 so far, according to some reports - although it isn't clear whether some are related to racist language.

Of course, Rogan's podcast isn't the only one accused of spreading falsehoods, so we wondered whether podcasts should be a part of the larger conversation about fighting misinformation and disinformation online, one that's been focused largely on social media platforms so far, like Facebook. and we'll note here that Facebook's parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content.

Amy Westervelt has been thinking about all this. She is an investigative journalist and the host of "Rigged," a podcast that explores the history of disinformation in the U.S. Amy Westervelt, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

AMY WESTERVELT: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Over the past five years, we've learned a lot about how easy it is for disinformation to spread on sites like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. What role have podcasts or are podcasts playing in this? I mean, are they as responsible as those sites when it comes to spreading falsehoods? - Because people don't tend to access them in quite the same way. But what do you think about this since you've been looking at this?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. I think they absolutely are. I think the only difference is the size of the audience, really. You have a smaller - you know, a smaller number of people are listening to podcasts than consuming, you know, YouTube or going on social media. But they are a real breeding ground for disinformation. And I think that's partly because they are regulated in the exact same way that YouTube and social media are, which is to say not at all (laughter). TV and radio, you know, have to abide by FCC guidelines and are somewhat overseen by that regulatory body. But podcasts, like social media and YouTube, are kind of a Wild West where content is concerned.

MARTIN: And, you know - first of all, and there are a lot of them. I mean, it's estimated that there are more than 2 million podcasts. And, you know, anybody with a microphone can produce content. So there's been a lot of talk on Capitol Hill about regulating social media, with most of the focus being on, you know, Facebook and Twitter. Has that conversation extended to podcasts at all? And is that even possible?

WESTERVELT: It really hasn't, and I really think it should. I actually feel like podcasts are somewhat unique in that they have this very close cousin in radio, right? So why would podcasts be regulated any differently than radio, particularly podcasts that purport to be informing the public in some fashion?

MARTIN: Well, so what about this disclaimer? As we said earlier, Spotify says it's going to add a disclaimer to podcasts that specifically discuss COVID-19. Is there a precedent for this in your research? Does that indicate - is there a precedence for that? And is there any indication that labels like these make a difference?

WESTERVELT: I would rather see something that's like, you know, this is an opinion show, these - this information has not been vetted, you know, or something like that, than limiting it to COVID, because I'll tell you my example of Joe Rogan and disinformation has mostly to do with climate change. He's been a long-time, regular, repeat offender on climate denial and was one of the people that started the rumor that, you know, the West Coast fires a couple of years ago were - you know, might have been started by environmentalists trying to prove a point about logging (laughter).

So, you know, again, this - he's really, like, a repeat offender on this stuff. And if someone were going on TV and regularly kind of whipping people into a frenzy, I feel like there might be more attention to it. And I'm glad that we're starting to see folks kind of realize the potential for that in the podcast space. And I would like to see the industry do something about it.

I also think the government could very easily say, you know what? Podcasts are going to be under FCC. There's zero reason that's in the public interest that I can think of why that hasn't happened. And, you know, I mean, I guess that would mean that podcasters can't curse as much as we like to, but (laughter) I really - I just - I feel like there has to be some kind of guardrails.

MARTIN: But the obvious question that then people bring up is censorship.

WESTERVELT: Yes. yes.

MARTIN: They say, well, why do you - why would you - although I will point out that there is a major broadcast network that aired a documentary about - with a completely false narrative about the January 6 mob attack.

WESTERVELT: I know. I mean, this is the whole problem, right? Whenever you start talking about regulating media of any kind in this country, it immediately becomes a First Amendment and censorship debate. And I think, like, we need to have a conversation about where those lines are and what the First Amendment really does and doesn't cover. I mean, so far, the Supreme Court has said it covers lying as long as you believe the lie. So I don't know how, you know, with that in place, we deal with disinformation, especially if it serves the interests of, you know, people in power, people with money, all of these kinds of things.

MARTIN: Is there any evidence that the market reaction - the marketplace response to "The Joe Rogan Experience" was other musicians on the - other artists - artists and creators on the platform saying, you know what? I will not share this platform with this person, however popular it may be and however popular he may be. Is there any evidence that that marketplace reaction evoked a response?

WESTERVELT: I actually think that the bigger response is individuals canceling their subscriptions. But in the case of Spotify, what I found really interesting was that a couple of days after the artists and creators started to do that, you saw multiple people saying, I'm going to cancel my Spotify subscription. And I'm still seeing that today. You know, I was looking on like the sort of boycott Spotify hashtag, and it seems to be mostly customers, and that seems like something that would prompt either Spotify or other platforms to really, like, think twice about this more so than fellow content creators, I think.

MARTIN: That was Amy Westervelt. She's the host of the "Rigged" podcast, which explores the history of disinformation in the U.S. Amy Westervelt, thanks so much for talking to us.

WESTERVELT: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.