February 4, 2022

In light of artists and podcasters leaving Spotify over its misinformation policy, the fact-checking minds of Poynter came together to discuss the implications of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” comedian Joe Rogan’s controversial and wildly popular show, on the world of media and fact-checking. The following Slack chat has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Josie Hollingsworth, PolitiFact audience director: Hello! We’ve gathered here today to discuss Spotify. No … Joe Rogan. No! Joni Mitchell? If not Joni, then maybe Brené Brown? All are embroiled in a debate around “The Joe Rogan Experience,” one of Spotify’s most popular podcasts and many episodes of which we find ourselves (at Poynter, PolitiFact, MediaWise and the International Fact-Checking Network) fact-checking.

What have you found are the implications of Rogan’s show on your job in journalism/fact-checking?

Tom Jones, Poynter senior media writer: As someone who writes about media and media coverage, what I find most interesting about the Rogan story is this question: What is Spotify? Is it a streaming platform that merely passes along Rogan’s podcast? Or is it a media company that is responsible for the content on Rogan’s podcast?

Many have argued, and I agree, that because Spotify has paid Rogan up to $100 million to EXCLUSIVELY publish his podcast, that it is a media company and, therefore, responsible for what he or his guests say. But I find that this question — what is Spotify — is ingrained in this controversy.

Alex Mahadevan, MediaWise program manager: I think it’s been a wake-up call that there isn’t enough focus on podcasts when it comes to digital media literacy. We publish Teen Fact-Checking Network videos and other educational content about TikToks, Instagram posts, tweets, etc. But we’ve largely avoided podcasts. But, for one, the JRE issue highlights that there is plenty of misinformation in the audio world, and two, as our audience expands to older folks and other demos, we need to expand our platform focus.

Alanna Dvorak, international training manager at the International Fact-Checking Network: I think, to Tom’s point, as a voracious consumer of podcasts, Spotify has certainly tried to make itself a publisher because of the vast number of shows they’ve made Spotify-exclusive, including “Science Vs,” which published a letter in objection to JRE.

Katie Sanders, PolitiFact managing editor: We listen to a lot of Joe Rogan clips as part of our daily work to fact-check claims from pundits and about the pandemic. (PunditFact reporter Bill McCarthy tunes in the most.) We have fact-checked Rogan and his guests (like Dr. Robert Malone) quite a bit as they have mused about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

Ren LaForme, Poynter managing editor: From my perspective, since we focus on media news, the most interesting aspect for this all for me has been the rise of individual media personalities and their growing power at the same time traditional news media have been shrinking.

We live in a moment when a guy who used to host a show in which people ate cow intestines and stuck their hands in boxes of spiders has a comparable influence to, say, The New York Times … at least among some demographics. And while the news publishers have standards, often published and available for everyone to see and hold them to, what standards does Joe Rogan abide by? And who holds him to them?

It seems like Spotify is declining to take that role. And it seems like Spotify, like other tech companies before it, is trying to position itself to reap the benefits of being a publisher without the responsibilities it would traditionally have.

Alexa Volland, MediaWise multimedia reporter: And speaking of standards, it was interesting reading the blog post from Daniel Ek about Spotify’s Platform Rules and their approach to COVID-19. The blog post said these are “long-standing” platform rules … but this isn’t the first time that Joe Rogan has been involved in a controversy over guest statements.

Alex: But I have definitely seen traditional media outlets publish some pretty questionable op-eds. Questionable in terms of factuality. I know, show don’t tell, I would have to dig some up …

Ren: Sure! And to use the same example, we can point to The New York Times’ infamous op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton. But that’s a case where those standards were called in, yeah? There was massive fallout and the editor in charge lost his job.

How many times has Rogan stepped in it and emerged mostly unscathed? Or, based on the comments I’ve seen on our articles about him, emerged with emboldened supporters.

Tom: Ren is right. It’s similar to what Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg argued for a long time: that they aren’t there to censor anyone, and that it’s up to audiences (and not tech companies) to decide what is right and what is wrong.

Alanna: A lot of social media platforms have, in the past if not currently, used that argument.

Bill McCarthy, PolitiFact reporter: I cover misinformation and the media for PolitiFact, so I’ve become very familiar with Joe Rogan’s podcast as I’ve fact-checked false and misleading claims from him and his guests, especially about COVID-19 and the available vaccines.

His show presents a new challenge for fact-checkers like me. It’s audio, which is a difficult medium to monitor relative to online misinformation and TV segments that are text-searchable. And in Rogan’s case, the episodes are usually several hours long. That’s a lot to parse through.

Another challenge comes with the way Rogan approaches his episodes. He very much embodies the “do your own research” type of influencer that has helped anti-vaccine misinformation thrive during the pandemic. He brings on some experts who are very knowledgeable, and many others with known track records of making false and misleading claims about COVID-19 and other topics, like Dr. Robert Malone. Rogan says he just wants to have conversations with what he describes as people who hold differing viewpoints, so that he and his listeners can decide for themselves what they agree with. One result: He elevates a lot of factually inaccurate claims, sometimes from misinformers who may not be acting in good faith.

Alex: To piggyback off of Bill’s great comments, it’s also really easy to launder, and even create misinformation inception from JRE and other podcasts. I think it’s hard to get people who may not be Rogan fans to listen to huge chunks of his podcast to get the full context of comments shared on other platforms. So, someone could cut a 10-second clip from JRE, post it all over Twitter and mislead thousands.

Baybars Örsek, director of the International Fact-Checking Network: I’m really happy to be able to learn a lot from smart people on this topic. Thanks a lot for organizing this, Josie! I find the debate particularly educating from misinformation studies’ perspective especially, in its global impact. JRE is Spotify’s most-watched podcast in more than 80 countries. While his guests are predominantly from the U.S. and Rogan used to be pretty much known only in the U.S., Spotify is a European company (platform or media outlet) and the misinfo on the show impacts everyone. I’m really interested in understanding how to approach this.

Who should regulate (if anyone) podcasts that are recorded in Texas, distributed by a European company to all over the world and carries misinformation against vaccines?

Katie: Tom’s “what is Spotify” question is certainly new ground in the yearslong debate on platform responsibility. I thought it was telling that in the same week that dozens of fact-checking organizations worldwide called on YouTube to take more action against misinformation, more than 200+ doctors, educators and scientists were asking Spotify to do the same because of Joe Rogan.

Bill: Those doctors, it’s worth noting, cited PolitiFact’s fact-checking of Rogan in their letter. 🙂

Josie: In Rogan’s latest video (from Sunday, Jan. 30), he says:

The problem I have with the term ‘misinformation’ especially today is that many of the things that we thought of as misinformation just a short while ago are now accepted as fact.Like for instance, 8 months ago if you said you got vaccinated you can still catch COVID and you can still spread covid. You would be removed from social media. They would ban you from certain platforms. Now, that’s accepted as facts. If you said, ‘I don’t think cloth masks work.’ You would be banned from social media. Now that’s openly and repeatedly stated on CNN.

This is a paradox that I see frustrating a lot of readers in fact-checking and beyond. Health communication is not clear cut, especially with a new virus. What do you all think about this comment from Rogan?

Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact: Well, first, it’s not true that you’d be removed from social media for a comment like that.

Ren: Agree with Aaron. There are a few clever strawmen hiding in that statement.

Aaron: I just feel the need to add this quote about cloth masks from a fact-check PolitiFact published in May 2020.

“The protection from cloth masks isn’t 0, and it’s definitely not 100, but the way to think about any of the masks and our overall approach is how do you put together all the pieces of the puzzle to give you a complete picture of minimizing the risk of transmission of COVID-19?” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a surgeon and health policy researcher at Harvard’s school of public health. “Hand washing, wearing masks, and social distancing is part of it, but none of them alone. It’s how you put together these different tools to meet the task at hand. Wearing any mask is a very, very small price to pay to be safe and return to society.”

Rogan makes an argument that the scientific community has significantly flipped in the past 18 months. But, in reality, that’s not really the case. Nuance gets lost in the delivery, and the audience is too often eager to shake their heads along to something they believed to be true in the first place.

Bill: Alex’s point earlier is a good one. One feature of Spotify’s deal with Rogan is that, while they’re paying him a lot of money for the exclusive rights to the content he creates, they are limiting his episodes to their platform. But that hasn’t stopped social media users, and influencers trying to make a political point, from clipping from his show and circulating specific moments beyond Spotify’s control. Segments from Dr. Robert Malone’s interview were all over Facebook, for example. This type of spread is something we see often with other types of misinformation.

Alex: And not to derail here, but you can just slap text over a pic of a guest to create misinfo. This is a joke, and Peterson didn’t say this. But, for me as a media literacy educator, it indicates another way people can create and spread misinfo out of the podcast world.

Alex: I stream podcasts on SoundCloud and Apple Podcasts. Will they be the next to take some sort of action on misinformation? Slightly different situation, obviously. But I am very curious.

Alanna: I mean, JRE hasn’t always been Spotify exclusive and they didn’t then. So I guess we’ll see.

Ren: Yeah, agree with Lane here. As far as I know, Apple and SoundCloud aren’t paying millions of dollars for exclusive podcast rights. Anyone can publish their stuff to them. They’re platforms in the traditional sense, and not publishers. Though, if I remember right, I think Apple may do some vetting before shows are allowed to appear in Podcasts.

Tom: And, again, this all goes back to Spotify and its responsibility to ask: Who are the guests? What is truly their expertise? What is being said? Is there real-time fact-checking by Rogan? As many have pointed out, much of Rogan’s appeal is this everyman approach of, “Hey, I’m just asking questions and learning right along with you all.” He uses that approach to seemingly absolve himself from the responsibility for any dangerous information that is getting out.

Enock Nyariki, community and impact manager at IFCN: First, let me say that I have been following Joe Rogan for years. I knew him through his Ultimate Fighting Championship commentary, and started listening to his podcast about four years ago. I think I have spent more than 500 hours listening to him.

That’s why I feel like those going after him don’t know him that well. Rogan is curious, open-minded, anti-establishment, authentic, a great interviewer and willing to admit when he has made mistakes. I think that’s why millions of people trust him — even more than some media organizations.

I don’t agree with what he always says, but I don’t feel like he holds a conversation with a closed mind. He lets his guests speak, and calls them out when they seem illogical. He comes across as someone who’s willing to go anywhere in pursuit of the truth, regardless of the consequences.

I listened to the two controversial episodes twice when they came out. The scientists had the credibility to speak about COVID-19, and I only wished there was a “mainstream” expert to counter their narrative.

I think censuring him is not the best way forward. He has been asking questions about aspects of the coronavirus that are either suppressed or largely ignored.

On fact-checking, I think the campaign to censure him on the grounds of misinformation may end up hurting the fact-checking community in the future. Because if he turns out to be right in some of the positions he has taken …

Alex: UFC gang checking in! I have close personal friends who listen to JRE as gospel. The trust is the problem! When a controversial guest comes on and spouts misinformation — especially if it confirms their worldview — then it is nearly impossible to change my friends’ minds! I don’t necessarily agree with complete deplatforming, but there have to be some guideposts in place. He said he would look for more balanced guests right? Maybe Spotify needs an editorial team to edit his show lol.

Gabrielle Settles, PolitiFact reporter: To Enock’s point (and to Alex’s earlier), I wonder if this means that the JRE-listening demographic on Spotify is made up of those who both believe what he says, and those who are just tuning in because they’re curious about him due to the media attention he’s received, and want to understand what all the attention is about (not necessarily because they agree with him).

My question is, is Rogan’s show becoming more popular with all of the controversy that he is currently receiving? And are he and Spotify seeing this as an opportunity to benefit from all of this attention?

Tom: OK, I’m going to push back a little with you, Enock. This idea that he’s “curious, open-minded, anti-establishment, authentic and a great interviewer” are not necessarily good attributes when dangerous and harmful misinformation is going out in practically real time.

You can ask questions, you can be curious, but you still have a responsibility to make sure that you are not a conduit to information that can potentially kill people. The issue with Rogan is if he is going to engage in conversations about a virus that has killed millions, he can’t go in with a baseline of, “Hey, I’m just going to ask questions because I don’t know.” He has to have some working knowledge to push back in the moment … not in a future podcast that listeners to the first podcast might not hear.

Alanna: And how open-minded is he if he tends to mostly only bring in the “anti-establishment” guests? Why isn’t he bringing in medical authorities to counterbalance Malone?

Barbara Allen, Poynter director of college programming: I have been lurking but Enock’s point made me think that Rogan’s power is how he positions himself as a unique voice — that he’s purposefully different than mainstream media/journalism types and perhaps there’s something we could learn about the way he earned his audience’s trust.

Josie: Audio as medium is something at the IFCN that has come up a lot. I know, for example, fact-checkers in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries are often looking for ways to fact-check misinformation in forwarded WhatsApp audio messages. Chequeado in Argentina creates videos with their fact-checks like so:

But the key, they say, is getting their fact-checks back into the WhatsApp messages where the misinfo started.

What are other effective ways to fact-check audio and actually get it into a feedback loop back to the people who have listened to podcasts like Joe Rogan, and others?

Katie: This clip of Rogan being fact-checked by Aussie guest and TV host Josh Szeps about myocarditis and vaccines in real time really impressed our team. He didn’t let Rogan riff unchecked, and he allowed Rogan to check out a legitimate source while they were recording. May we all be that prepared — the delivery of facts felt effective.

Bill: This (feedback loop) is a real challenge for fact-checkers and reporters covering misinformation: The virus changes; and science changes; so sometimes, the facts change, too. I think that reality actually makes Rogan’s more controversial guests seem more credible to listeners as they challenge other scientific consensus. It doesn’t help that many of these guests are themselves doctors, who can speak the language of science, and who might therefore sound authoritative and trustworthy — a new theme for medical misinformation in the pandemic.

It also doesn’t help that Rogan platforms these controversial guests as people who simply take a different view. The average listener — and especially one who is looking for information that confirms their worldview — probably isn’t going to take the time to properly background the people who Rogan brings on. That may be another way we reporters can help: by “pre-bunking” the misinformers we see over and over again.

Josie: Any closing thoughts? Predictions on the next people to take their music/podcasts off Spotify?

Alex: I hope Spotify considers supporting some media literacy initiatives (😈) along with warnings and whatever else they do as they clean up this mess. It’s hard to fact-check everything, especially when it comes to marathon podcasts, so it would be nice to help folks “do their own research (lol)” responsibly.

And as for musicians/Spotify. A lot of bands can’t afford to take their music off the platform. So if you’re reading this and support what Neil and Joni are doing, be kind to the bands who don’t.

Bill: I think it’s worth noting that the controversy around Rogan didn’t necessarily arise out of a desire to “censor” him, and that’s not what fact-checkers do when we provide access to accurate information that counters the types of false and misleading claims we’ve seen on his show, either.

Spotify is a powerful, private company that has a responsibility — and presumably a desire — to not spread harmful misinformation that could kill the people that use its product. I saw the doctors’ letter urging them to create a misinformation policy as a request to acknowledge that responsibility, not a petition to ban Rogan.

The artists like Neil Young who have removed their content from Spotify are not censoring Rogan, either. They are acting according to the free market, taking their talents and products elsewhere so as not to associate with information and policies they dislike.

Tom: Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think there’s going to be a mass exodus from Spotify because it’s still among the best places for musicians and podcasters to get their work out. But, hopefully, this will encourage more conversations, especially within Spotify, to help make sure dangerous information doesn’t get out on any of the work they publish.

Alex: Also, thank you Josie for facilitating — this was an excellent conversation. I appreciate your candor, Enock, in sharing your view. Now, to pop on my favorite controversial podcast and eat lunch.

Ren: I’m going to be a smug millennial and spin some vinyl.

Bill: Thank you! This was great!

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Josie Hollingsworth is PolitiFact's Audience Director. Previously, she worked in audience engagement, expanding social platforms and website production at The Seattle Times and the Tampa…
Josie Hollingsworth

More News

Back to News