Here I am. Back again in your inbox on a Tuesday, in the final weeks before Christmas, New Year’s, and, for you business folks, the end of the quarter. For today’s Hot Pod, I interviewed the Media Matters researcher who listened to over 350 hours of The Joe Rogan Experience this year and reported back on what we’re all missing. He says the show, for those of us who aren’t spending our time there, is currently best described as a “cesspool of toxic masculinity that discusses elk hunting, mixed martial arts, anti-trans views, and harmful health information about the coronavirus pandemic.”
We’ll also discuss separate — but, in some cases, related — Spotify situations and more “greenwashing” in podcast ads. More, more, more, just in time for the season of giving. Let’s get to it.
EXCLUSIVE: Meet the reporter dedicated to cataloging Joe Rogan’s bonkers claims
As you all well know, Joe Rogan is the most popular podcaster in the US and, likely, the world. He made his name interviewing major guests and for his off-the-cuff, at times controversial, takes on the world. Spotify reportedly paid him $100 million to bring his show to the platform exclusively, which resulted in it distributing a popular but contentious program. The platform keeps getting flack over what its star podcaster says, mostly because it’s spending so much money to keep him there and specifically courted this.
Many of us who know this context might be curious to hear what Rogan is really up to on his podcast, only to then see his episodes can span hours and post multiple times per week. So enter Alex Paterson, a researcher at Media Matters whose beat as of the past year or so has included listening to Rogan and reporting back on everything he’s hearing. That work culminated in a story last week called: Joe Rogan Wrapped: A year of COVID-19 misinformation, right-wing myths, and anti-trans rhetoric.
I caught up with Paterson the day after the story ran and chatted with him to get a better sense of what he’s seeing. He tells me he listens to the episodes as soon as they come out, on 2X speed, to catch everything Rogan says. How are all those hours of Rogan listening going? Does Spotify seem to have taken any action?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Hi, Alex. Thanks for taking the time to chat. My first, obvious question: why are you so interested in Joe Rogan specifically?
Alex Paterson, researcher at Media Matters: I started regularly monitoring Joe Rogan’s podcast beginning last year in 2020 when he had Abigail Shrier on to push anti-trans rhetoric. She’s an anti-trans journalist who used to work at The Wall Street Journal, and during that podcast, they compared being trans to joining a cult or cutting yourself through self-harm. After that, knowing that Joe Rogan’s podcast is one of the most popular — if not the most popular — podcasts in the world, I wanted to track the rhetoric he’s pushing on his show to help document how harmful it is to our society at large. Particularly in this new year, and as the pandemic has begun, Rogan has taken a clear lurch to the right and become a serial misinformer when it comes to COVID-19 misinformation, and we’ve been trying to document and limit the harms that he’s trying to push into the world.
You said you’ve been tracking him since 2020. How have you seen Rogan’s rhetoric change in that time?
I believe he’s become more emboldened to push baseless conspiracy theories and right-wing lies over the past year. Since I started reporting on Rogan’s podcast, he’s broken into mainstream coverage fairly often: first, with his lie about left-wing people starting wildfires in Oregon, and then again really prominently, [saying] he would encourage healthy, young people not to get vaccinated. And throughout all of that reporting, at least from my view, he hasn’t faced any real punishment from Spotify. And I think that’s emboldened him to continue pushing hate and lies on his podcast. Just from listening to him every day, he’s by no means remitting conspiracy theories and false rhetoric on his show. If anything, he’s leaning into it more. He’s celebrated in conservative spaces for it. He’s a darling of the conservative right in the United States.
I know you and Media Matters more broadly cover the wider world of the right, so places like Fox and OAN. Do you see any parallels between that world and Rogan’s?
Yeah, I completely see it as related. Rogan is someone who celebrates himself as being a so-called independent thinker who has both conservative and progressive values, and I think that perfectly illustrates our general media landscape’s bend towards right-wing views and over accommodating ring-wing views and not challenging right-wing misinformation. So I think he plays a pretty central role in that landscape, and he’s also deeply connected to the network of conservative media. He hosts Ben Shapiro. He hosts Alex Jones. He’s a huge supporter of Tucker Carlson, who we know is Fox News’ hate-mongerer-in-chief. I think he plays a central role in the right-wing misinformation system.
Much of us in the podcast world are interested in how Spotify treats Rogan. Have you gotten any sense that it’s taking action to moderate his content?
Rogan has stated numerous times that Spotify has never spoken to him about the hate that he pushes on his podcast or taken any steps to try to curt him from doing so. You’re hearing it from his mouth, and then when we look at Spotify’s year-end summary for their Wrapped, he’s the star of their podcasting, which is an empire Spotify is very clearly trying to grow. On YouTube, which I would say has stronger enforcement around COVID misinformation, though it’s far from great, his show would often be demonetized and occasionally removed. I think he views Spotify as a place where he could spread his specific kind of bigotry and vile without any real consequences.
Have you seen any specific moments where you think YouTube would have moderated his content, but Spotify doesn’t?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. We do a lot of work at Media Matters around tech accountability and terms of service, and generally, I would say social media companies are failing to regulate right-wing extremism on the internet. And Spotify has some of the least, almost non-existent, terms of service to protect users and the general public from hatred and targeted violence. Joe Rogan has misgendered and denigrated trans youth on his podcast and never faced any consequences. We have seen YouTube take some steps to remove content that’s similar to that, and YouTube has a policy against promoting COVID-19 misinformation. That’s become the central core of Rogan’s podcast, and Spotify, including CEO Daniel Ek, has refused to take any action against Joe Rogan.
You don’t rely on transcripts to monitor the show, and I’m looking slightly ahead, but I do wonder how much that speaks to the broader issues platforms might have moderating shows. Transcripts don’t catch everything, especially with speech nuances. So I wonder if you or the team have proposed solutions to help platforms solve these issues?
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Spotify and Joe Rogan and moderation, like how we could moderate extremism online, is that Spotify isn’t even at that table. That would appear to be something they aren’t even considering with Joe Rogan. So to imagine a world in which Spotify might monitor his transcript is so far from reality that we’re just asking them to, at a very baseline, stop their most prominent podcast host from increasing vaccine hesitancy and harming our nation’s public response to the pandemic overall. Joe Rogan has shown really clearly that he will use his podcast to spread conspiracy theories, right-wing lies, [and] racist rhetoric in order to sort of promote himself. And yes, Spotify, their CEO, and their comms team has gone on the record time and time again saying that he hasn’t violated their terms. At this point, it’s like, what would it take?
Well, I appreciate you doing this work and taking the time. Is there anything else you think people should know about Rogan that they might not be considering?
One thing we’ve done at Media Matters is try to document how social media algorithms and far-right online communities can radicalize everyday people fairly easily. I think Rogan is a good example of that. Let’s say you’re a young man listening to The Joe Rogan Experience, and you want to get tips on bodybuilding or how to eat healthfully, and then Rogan starts discussing that vaccines are a form of gene therapy with Ben Shapiro, and then perhaps you go to Ben Shapiro’s website, The Daily Wire, and there, you fall into a cesspool of hatred and bigotry, and once you click on a Daily Wire article, if you share it on Facebook, you’re just going to be led further and further down the far-right rabbit hole. That can take someone from being an everyday person [to] suddenly being fed news and misinformation about QAnon and other right-wing lies. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Joe Rogan spreading this misinformation has real-world consequences that can have really dire effects for marginalized people.
For what it’s worth, I reported on Rogan telling young adults not to get vaccinated and pointed out that Spotify had specifically removed music and podcasts that claimed vaccines not only kill people but also have microchips in them. (Both of which are not true.) At the time, Spotify said it “prohibits content on the platform which promotes dangerous false, deceptive, or misleading content about COVID-19 that may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.” I’d encourage you to check out Paterson’s story for a better sense of what Rogan is saying and decide for yourself whether it falls within those bounds.
And if you’re wondering how influential Rogan really is, take a peek at this story, which discusses “Dr. Joe Rogan’s” influence on various people’s COVID treatment plans, namely UFC president Dana White and his family.
I reached out to Spotify to see if the team wanted to comment on the above interview. A spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous because of the “sensitivity of the subject matter,” sent the same comment as above back but with this tacked onto the end: “When content is flagged for possible violations of our policies, it is thoroughly reviewed by our in-house team and outside experts, if necessary. If that content is found to be in violation of our policies, the appropriate enforcement action is taken.”
Meanwhile, in separate Spotify moderation news…
Racist, antisemitic, hateful podcasts live on Spotify and Google Podcasts
Sky News published an investigation on Friday into extremist podcasts and found “several days’ worth” of content promoting “extreme views such as scientific racism, Holocaust denial and far-right antisemitic conspiracy theories.” Reporter Victoria Elms says explicit slurs can be heard, as well as direct calls to violence against Jewish people. She also notes that these podcasters are using the episode description box to promote hateful videos hosted on other platforms, including one about “Dylann Roof’s insightful manifesto.” Spotify removed the content after Sky News’ reachout, but they remain live on Google Podcasts. Pertinent to us is Elms’ note about the black box that is these platforms’ moderation efforts. I wrote about this in February — particularly how difficult it will be to catch and take down infringing content — and continue to think about how dire this might become when every platform includes an audio component, the feature du jour.
I hate to keep hammering y’all with bad Spotify things, but we’re going to keep going. It’s the winter energy, I guess.
Spotify takes down comedians’ albums over royalty dispute
This is tangential for us but interesting, as it relates to spoken word content. Spotify has removed “hundreds of comedians’” work from its platform over a new royalties fight. Summed up as simply as I can: comedians are compensated as performers through their label or distributor, but they want to now also receive writing credits, or what global rights administration company Spoken Giants calls their literary rights. (This parallels the royalties in the music industry — a songwriting credit pays different royalties, which can be more lucrative. I recommend listening to or reading my boss’s podcast, Decoder, with Charlie Harding of Switched on Pop for more on how this works in music land.)
Spoken Giants is leading the charge here, trying to negotiate for these comics to receive the writing credits and subsequent royalty payouts, but the comics are in the lurch right now, unable to have their content streamed at all on one of the world’s biggest platforms. The Wall Street Journal notes that Spoken Giants “started by representing writers of comedy bits and jokes, with plans to expand across podcasts, speeches and lectures.” The podcast writing credit royalty system, could it happen?
Now, let’s close the loop on the ExxonMobil Daily ad, for now at least…
Podcast ads make up oil companies’ “greenwashing” strategy
A few weeks ago, I covered the debacle over an ExxonMobil ad that appeared on The Daily. The ad, climate change reporter Emily Atkin wrote, was misleading and not wholly indicative of what Exxon is actually doing.
Yesterday, Drilled podcast host and journalist Amy Westervelt published a bigger piece on the growing trend of oil companies’ ads showing up in podcasts. She writes that podcast publishers have to “develop their own guidelines and fact-checking processes” around the climate-friendly claims they make because the Federal Trade Commission mostly only cares about claims around products, which the oil companies don’t advertise. The piece culminates in the concluding thought, “What’s in place now for identifying misinformation in ads is not really a framework for identifying greenwashing,” says John Cook, research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub. So even if the Times and others implement fact-checking for ads, which they say they already do, squishy language from oil companies could pass that test and seemingly already has.
Broadly, all of today’s stories add up to a bigger conversation around the new world that podcasting inhabits. The industry’s receiving more attention than ever before from outlets like Hot Pod and The Verge but also bigger publications who spot strange and bad things happening. The industry’s growing and now faces the same problems massive social platforms, like Facebook and YouTube, contend with regularly. Cook, from Westervelt’s story, advises Facebook on climate disinformation, just so you can get a sense of how much expertise is needed at the platforms. The expectations are higher for podcasts, and this tension between stepping up and meeting them versus punting until podcasting has more resources will only continue moving forward.
I love a lil year-end tease. If you want more audio and podcasting industry analysis, you can subscribe for two additional issues here. Otherwise, I’ll catch you next week.