A three-hour-long conversation was all it took to throw the media world into a whirlwind: Dr. Robert Malone, the notorious infectious-disease researcher, was invited to speak on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience”. This conversation consisted of Malone spewing falsehood after falsehood regarding COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine, including claims that there is an equivalence between the vaccine and Nazi medical experiments. The fact that Joe Rogan gave Malone a platform to propagate this rhetoric led many to call upon Spotify to remove Rogan from the platform, and several musical artists removed their music from Spotify in protest.
After several days, Rogan removed multiple episodes of his podcast from the audio-streaming platform without explanation and issued a public apology for his use of racist language in the past.
What the Joe Rogan Spotify controversy unveils is the immense power that podcasts have over American political discourse. Going forward, all media, but especially podcasts, need to be subject to intense public scrutiny. In doing this, the fight can be won against one of the world’s largest enemies: fake news.
Being a resident of the post-broadcast, digital age comes with its benefits as well as its worries. User-generated content on digital platforms has fostered the possibility for a plurality of voices to reach the public. This has been a blessing for minority groups to voice their views on discriminatory actions — and for these groups to receive overwhelming support. A great example of this is the online discourses of the Black Lives Matter movement that rapidly blossomed in summer 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. Institutions no longer have a monopoly on media discourse. The messages and movements advertised through media channels can no longer be constrained within the hegemonic ideologies of those in power. And while this is a good thing for social justice movements, it must be acknowledged that this simultaneously allows hate speech and misinformation to flourish.
The Rogan incident is a great example of this, but it is certainly not the only one. Another infamous podcaster peddling fake news is Alex Jones. Jones is the host of “InfoWars”, a far-right conspiracy theory and fake news platform that has spread untold amounts of false information. While much of the nonsensical content that Rogan and Jones have put out there has been laughed at and memed to death, there are dire consequences to letting people like them have a microphone and a platform.
To truly understand the power of these podcasters, one needs to have a firm grasp on what fake news is and how it relates to misinformation and disinformation. The most basic definition of fake news is a false news story; the story has no veracity in its reporting. Misinformation is inaccurate information that is spread mistakenly with no intention to deceive others. Disinformation, however, is more devious. This is false information that is spread with the intent to deceive. Disinformation is most often employed by someone who is trying to sway public opinion and/or deliberately obscure the truth. Understanding the distinctions between these three related concepts is important in order to call out the actions of those like Rogan.
The influence of spreading false information on a large platform like Rogan’s or Jones’s is detrimental to our society. These podcasters and others have devoted followings. The words of these men actively shape the opinions and beliefs of their listeners. If we keep letting them spew fake news without any backlash or repercussions, bits of false information will only grow stronger as they become more embedded within social and political discourses. Because of the nature of their platform, podcasters must thoroughly vet their sources and the guests they invite. Podcasters have a duty to their audience to be honest in their discussions, especially if those discussions are political.
Podcast hosts are liable for any misinformation that they or their guests preach on their airwaves. The Rogan and Malone controversy is exemplary of this. And if it is uncovered that podcasters are spreading disinformation, the public must react in outcry. Podcast hosting platforms have a duty to suspend or ban — depending on the nature of the disinformation — these untrustworthy, dishonest podcasters from their sites. Rogan and Jones are examples of how the power of having a podcasting platform can result in serious consequences for society at large.
The rhetoric of “The Joe Rogan Experience” and “InfoWars” illustrates the dangers of the new freedom of expression afforded by new technology. Because of this danger, the public must hold these people accountable. If they purport fake news and disinformation, we must feel emboldened to call them out, to nip in the bud that line of thinking. Podcast distribution services like Spotify and Apple Podcasts must recognize their responsibility in removing these creators from their platforms if the disinformation is severe. Fake news and disinformation are no joke, and everything must be done to restrict its influence as much as possible. Podcasts are becoming a fruitful way for people to gain a following, and the medium is gaining significant political prominence. We need to be vigilant about paying attention to these podcasters and be more vocal about calling them out when they spread lies and fake news.
Ben Davis is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com.