Another month, another Joe Rogan controversy. For the past few weeks, the podcaster and his perch at the audio streaming giant Spotify have been the subject of yet another outcry, this time over his contributions to pandemic vaccine misinformation.
Less than two weeks ago, a group of two hundred seventy credentialed figures — most of whom, it seems, aren’t actually medical doctors as some of the headlines suggested — demanded that Spotify censor Rogan, or in their words, “take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform.” Rogan’s show and other vehicles for “false and societally harmful assertions,” they wrote, “damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.” Now the controversy’s drawn in Neil Young, of all people, who has demanded his music be pulled from the streaming service in protest.
Usually, in arguing against this kind of thing, I would point to the dangers of letting unaccountable bureaucrats in a profit-seeking company pick what counts as “false and societally harmful assertions” and what doesn’t, especially since they get it wrong or make decisions colored by their own biases so often. But there’s a more fundamental issue going on here — namely, that censoring Rogan likely wouldn’t do what his most ardent critics want it to, and is at worst a distraction.
No one can argue with a straight face Rogan’s show is a reliable source of information when it comes the pandemic. He’s told young people they don’t need to get vaccinated, promoted widespread use of ivermectin as a treatment for the virus, and generally hosted a collection of right-leaning quacks and cranks hawking various degrees of COVID denial. And despite his regular reminders that he’s a “fucking moron” who no one should listen to, I have no doubt Rogan’s show has some impact on people’s decision-making in the pandemic, though what and how much exactly is an open question.
Still, there’s something to Rogan’s defense of himself: “If you’re getting vaccine advice from me, is that really my fault?”
Or to put it a different way: How is it that in an era where we are surrounded by the miracles of unprecedented technological and scientific advancement, millions of people have chosen to trust a stoned MMA enthusiast during a health crisis over public health experts?
The scramble to gag Rogan strikes me as a misguided, panicky response to the frustrating stubbornness of both the pandemic and widespread vaccine resistance in the United States, if not outright misdirection on the issue. Because if we were being honest about the situation, we’d admit that Rogan’s just one of many purveyors of COVID misinformation that “add to the problem,” as his would-be censors put it — and that the others include a who’s who of liberal politicians, public health officials, and mainstream press outlets, the very sources we’re told are the most trustworthy and mainstream voices on the pandemic, and who are pointing the finger at Rogan now.
That’s not a new or groundbreaking point nearly two years into this thing, but it’s a fact. From the very start, the messaging on the pandemic from these quarters has been abysmal — politically calibrated, contradictory, and smugly confident in its wrongness. First, the coronavirus was obviously nothing to worry about, then avoiding it became the most important thing in the world. Everyone knew masks were useless and not worth wearing, until everyone knew it was the opposite.
Some of this owed to the initial lack of information about the virus, as well as its constantly evolving nature. But as that last, entirely unforced error by public health experts shows, far too much of it wasn’t.
There are too many instances of this incessant intellectual whiplash to list, especially in the United States. Public health experts overwhelmingly agreed a national stay-at-home order was needed to stop the virus, until the liberal, science-believing candidate they backed won and ruled it out, at which point they never mentioned it again. Trump’s pledge to roll out a vaccine within a year was an objective falsehood, to the point that it was “fact-checked” at the time, only for media outlets to criticize him for rolling it out too slowly once exactly that happened. His challenger’s liberal running mate publicly aired a vaccine hesitancy talking point, an attitude that became unconscionable and beyond the pale among her supporters once she entered the White House.
Joe Biden spread pandemic misinformation on CNN as president, and all but declared “independence” from the virus in a major speech just as a new, more dangerous strain took hold in the country. More than once, his administration has claimed basics like sending tests to American homes is impossible, only to reverse itself and do that very thing.
The government’s top science advisor, Anthony Fauci, has contradicted himself and admitted to intentionally lying or fudging the numbers in his public messaging, before repeatedly prevaricating before Congress about his agency’s role in the kind of risky research that we still can’t rule out was the source of the virus. At times, he’s sounded like a pharma lobbyist defending the intellectual property rights of companies over the desperate public health need to get the world vaccinated as quickly as possible. To top it off, this publicly discredited figure, trusted mostly by the cable-news-obsessed base of the current president’s party, then claimed attacking him was actually attacking science itself.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency meant to give people the cold, hard facts of health advice about this pandemic while staying above the political fray, spent the second half of last year publicly undermining itself. First, under pressure from lawmakers and some public health experts, it relaxed guidance mandates for the vaccinated early last year mere months after refusing to do so. The move led to lower mask uptake overall and for state governments to scramble to update their policies, with many relaxing mandates — before the CDC reversed itself again a couple months later, under criticism it was out of step with other expert bodies. Since then, the CDC halved the isolation period for those who caught COVID, making the US quarantine period completely out of step with other countries and what we know about the virus.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Has Rogan’s podcast really done more to “damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility” of medical advice than this non-exhaustive litany of own goals from the experts?
And it’s not like Rogan is the only media personality pushing denialist talking points, for which a vocal constituency has been created over the past year. Just a few days ago, as thousands of Americans were dying a day, journalist Bari Weiss told Bill Maher on his HBO show that it was “time to end it” — referring to the pandemic restrictions that exist almost nowhere in the present-day United States — and that the pandemic is “not real anymore.” (The irony that Weiss was unmasked and seated next to two people in an indoor studio while getting whooping applause from a nearby crowd seemed lost on everyone). Should Maher lose his show over this? Is HBO committing a grave crime by not censoring him, or even platforming him at all? Or do these questions for some reason apply to Rogan and Rogan alone?
As always, censorship and similarly heavy-handed measures are the desperate resort of someone who refuses or has simply given up on tackling the root causes of a problem. The liberal calls for internet censorship as a means for dealing with the virus has been a depressing staple of the US pandemic response. Meanwhile, the structural factors that keep people unvaccinated and mistrustful of public health — a private insurance-based health care system, a lack of money and time, decades of neoliberal policy — go largely unmentioned. Just as well, otherwise people might actually start demanding some serious changes to the US economy.
If Spotify booted Rogan and the US government banished him to the Arctic, you would still get COVID misinformation and mistrust, because of both these factors and the messaging failure that’s been endemic to US institutions throughout these confusing, frustrating two years. Demand that Rogan be censored if you like, as illiberal as that is. But let’s not pretend it’s a solution.