I remember when Joe Rogan was a just a weed-fuelled, combat-sports-obsessed podcast host mainly seen on YouTube—and not trending on CNN every month. However, he’s now a podcasting superstar with an alleged viewership of 11 million per episode (as of 2019). In 2020, he moved his podcast to the audio-streaming juggernaut Spotify. His interviews have often provoked controversy, but for the past few weeks both he and Spotify have found themselves at the centre of the biggest furore to date—this time over his contributions to the spread of what many agree is frank misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine: for instance, his mulish insistence in an interview with Josh Szeps that the risk of contracting myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) among young people from the vaccines exceeds that of the virus.
In early January, 270 people, including 87 medical doctors, signed an open letter demanding that Spotify either “take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform” or drop Rogan from their podcast streaming service. The letter condemns Rogan’s show—and others—for what it calls “false and societally harmful assertions … [that] damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.”
The controversy caught fire a few weeks later, when the singer-songwriter Neil Young, in an open letter, demanded that Spotify either pull his music from their platform or cut the cord with Rogan: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Spotify sided with Rogan—their most valuable asset—and promptly removed Neil Young’s music. The open letter has since been deleted and Young has replaced it with a letter complaining about Spotify’s treatment of musicians.
The public scuffle with Neil Young caused #BoycottSpotify to trend worldwide. Progressive advocacy group MoveOn circulated an online petition—so far with nearly 100,000 signatures—urging Spotify to drop Rogan. Consumers were encouraged to cancel their subscriptions, and other artists and podcast hosts were urged to boycott Spotify until Rogan is booted out. The pressure intensified somewhat when other musicians, such as Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash joined Young in pulling their music from Spotify’s catalogue. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, who also have a podcast deal with Spotify, issued a statement saying that they had been “expressing concerns to [their] partners at Spotify about the all too real consequences of Covid misinformation on its platform.” Without naming Rogan directly, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki “advised” Spotify to actively prohibit content that contains misinformation instead of adding disclaimers linking to Covid information hubs on content that discusses the pandemic. Then there was the “resurfacing” of Rogan uttering the N-word in various podcast episodes—mostly notably in one describing a cinema full of mostly black Americans as “Planet of the Apes.”
Even though Spotify’s stock declined by $4 billion in the following week, and it swiftly deleted over 100 episodes of Rogan’s podcast from its catalogue, the campaign has so far failed to break the company’s resolve. Rogan himself issued a statement on Instagram professing his love for Neil Young’s music and promising to provide a more balanced coverage of the debate on the pandemic. He later apologised for his use of the N-word in various episodes of his podcast. But even Spotify has its price: if an organised boycott and public relations crisis became severe and sustained enough to endanger its profitability, it would presumably be forced to cut its ties with Rogan.
Anyone who has listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast will have noticed his proclivity for dining out on many flavours of conspiracy thinking. For example, in the past he has interviewed guests who claim that the Moon landings were staged. It is indeed true that he has a history of pumping out misinformation on the pandemic. He has told young people they don’t need to get vaccinated, promoted use of the dewormer ivermectin as a cure for the virus (even though studies have repeatedly shown it to be ineffective for Covid symptoms), claimed the myocarditis risk is higher from vaccines than from Covid (when it isn’t) and generally given a loudspeaker to a bevy of marginal contrarians who tout Covid denial and anti-vaccine propaganda.
I don’t take a neutral view of misinformation, especially when it may endanger people’s health. Coronavirus has wreaked havoc, destroying lives and livelihoods across the world. Misinformation that spreads falsehoods and conspiracy theories poisons the debate and potentially reduces the chance of overcoming the virus—with life-or-death consequences. I think this misinformation should be aggressively challenged and refuted.
But I am committed to free speech and believe that even polarising and divisive topics should be discussed openly in the public square, with as few restrictions as possible, whether from the state, from corporations or from internet mobs. As the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of scientists, reiterated last month, censorship has been shown to be a misguided and ineffective—even counterproductive—strategy for responding to misinformation. Censorship also increases distrust in the pronouncements made by authorities:
Governments and social media platforms should not rely on content removal for combatting harmful scientific misinformation online … There is little evidence that calls for major platforms to remove offending content will limit scientific misinformation’s harms … [and] such measures could even drive it to harder-to-address corners of the internet and exacerbate feelings of distrust in authorities.
The arguments in support of Rogan’s deplatforming make little sense. Many of his opponents insist that, while they do not generally support the suppression of free speech—whether by outright censorship or content moderation—this case is exceptional, because Spotify is facilitating the spread of misinformation that endangers public health. They may not be able to expunge Rogan from the internet altogether, but they could influence the discourse so that it’s directed by experts and diminish the harmful impact of his disinformation and misinformation.
And yet their goal of suppressing Rogan’s content cannot be met by merely getting him kicked off Spotify. Even before he found his current perch, he had the biggest podcast audience in the world—and without Spotify, he would be free to go on some other platform, where he would still get millions of views from his loyal audience. Rogan isn’t simply a podcast host: he’s a one-man institution. He is among the select few who are too big to cancel.
It’s hard to believe that his critics would be satisfied with that outcome, which would make the scramble to boycott Rogan on Spotify ultimately pointless
Moreover, the move to censor and deplatform purveyors of vaccine misinformation smacks of a frantic, panicked response in the face of a recalcitrant anti-vaccine movement. For sure, anti-vaxxers champion toxic, irrational, unscientific ideas, but they are unlikely to influence policy, since they largely comprise a disorganised hodgepodge of Christian fundamentalists, Nation of Islam ideologues, Hoteps, antisemites, anti-globalist libertarians and professional conspiracy-mongers, who are convinced that the Covid vaccination programmes are part of a devious plan by elites to enforce medical totalitarianism on society. A distinction should be made between the small number of hardcore anti-vaxxers, who are zealous in their commitment to conspiracy thinking and don’t want to be swayed, and the more numerous vaccine hesitant, who, while anxious and often sceptical, can be swayed—and indeed have been swayed.
Much anti-vaccine sentiment in western countries stems from the relative wealth and privilege that their citizens enjoy: vaccines have been so effective for so long for diseases like polio and measles that most people haven’t had to deal with the consequences of not having vaccines—unlike many poorer countries, where many people still die of diseases that could be prevented if they had access to existing vaccines.
In addition, there is a general atmosphere of mistrust towards authorities. While scepticism is healthy—if it is directed towards pursuing the truth and creating a more rational world—in recent years there has been a rise of scepticism for its own sake—as an end in itself, rather than a means to improve understanding. This kind of scepticism quickly descends into cynicism and generalised mistrust—of expertise, public institutions, the mainstream media, the medical establishment, the so-called elite and other people. This mistrust created the conditions for Trump’s election and enabled vaccine conspiracies to spread, making many people more hesitant about vaccinating themselves and their families. It has not come out of nowhere: it is the product of a long-term process that has fractured the public sphere and nourished an increasingly anti-intellectual culture and a broken politics.
Although social media has contributed to the spread of misinformation, it has also brought enormous benefits. Many policies require trade-offs: one good often comes at the expense of another. Both free speech and the promotion of public health are socially beneficial, so we are dealing with competing goods, which means that proposed solutions are likely to entail a cost-benefit trade-off. And while most people agree on which things are good, they sharply differ on the priorities they assign to particular good things.
Many people would probably support a Goldilocks approach to regulating the internet: it should provide open forums for public discussion, minimise hate speech and threats, restrict misinformation that can damage public health, curtail the power of corporations to invade people’s privacy and control the views they can access, and restrict governments’ ability to censor political speech. Although a Goldilocks solution may be appealing in theory, it is probably impossible in practice. Most of us who are involved in these debates (including me) give more weight to our preferred approach and downplay the benefits of other approaches—and there is no mechanism for finding a solution that everyone is willing to live with.
I take a liberal view towards free speech and uninhibited debate: I believe that censoring ideas—or playing whack-a-mole by deplatforming public figures whose ideas I detest—can only open the door to increased restrictions that will further fracture our public sphere. In other words, it is a Faustian bargain. And those who are tempted to make it should keep in mind that, one day, Mephistopheles will come to collect his price.
Some will prefer a more regulated public space despite the consequences for free speech because they wish to constrain misinformation about public health topics such as the Covid vaccines. But while expanding free speech rights can facilitate the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories are, at worst, merely the exhaust fumes emitted by the engine of a healthy, free society. Tighter regulation of speech would simply give corporations and politicians more power to curtail criticism of their policies and practices and to narrow the window of what it is permissible to say.
Censorship and other heavy-handed measures are the desperate resort of those who either are unwilling to tackle the root causes of a problem—or have prematurely given up trying. Too often, we seek quick and easy technological or legislative solutions to longstanding social and cultural challenges—and then we are surprised when those measures backfire, creating more problems than they solve.