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An open letter urging Spotify to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation has secured the signatures of more than a thousand doctors, scientists and medical professionals, spurred by growing concerns over anti-vaccine rhetoric on the audio app hit podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
Medical and scientific experts have criticized Rogan’s track record of spreading false claims about the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines and unproven treatments, calling it “a sociological problem of devastating proportions”. Spotify, they say, enabled it.
While audio apps have so far escaped the scrutiny that has befallen social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the pressure on Spotify illustrates how podcasts have become an influential source of misinformation.
In a December episode of his podcast, Rogan interviewed Dr. Robert Malone, a scientist who worked on early research into the mRNA technology behind the best COVID-19 vaccines but is now critical of mRNA vaccines.
Malone has made baseless and refuted claims, including falsely stating that getting vaccinated puts people who have already had COVID-19 at higher risk.
The episode immediately raised alarm bells for Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who signed the letter. She’s part of a community of experts debunking medical misinformation on social media, and she says she’s received hundreds of messages from followers about the Rogan’s Malone interview.
“Their friends and family were sending it to them as proof that vaccines are dangerous and they shouldn’t get it,” she said. “It gives a sense of a false balance, as if there are two sides to the scientific evidence when in reality there are none. The overwhelming evidence is that vaccines are safe and they work. .”
Rogan’s reach worries health experts
Wallace was particularly worried because stand-up comedian and television personality Rogan has such a large following. Although Spotify doesn’t disclose how many people listen to him, his show has ranked as the platform’s most popular podcast globally for the past two years. And he’s worth a lot to the company: in 2020, he signed an exclusive licensing deal with Spotify worth $100 million.
“We are in a global health emergency, and streaming platforms like Spotify that provide content to the public have a responsibility not to make the problem worse,” Wallace said.
This wasn’t the first time Rogan or his guests have spread questionable or outright false information about the pandemic. He claimed that young, healthy people do not need COVID-19 vaccines. He promoted taking ivermectin as a treatment, which the Food and Drug Administration warned against.
Wallace and the other signatories to the letter are not asking Spotify to kick Rogan off its platform. But they want the company to be more transparent about its policies, do more to moderate misinformation, and make it easier to report these kinds of baseless allegations.
Spotify declined to comment on NPR. It has previously said it prohibits “harmful, false, misleading or misleading content about COVID-19 that could cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.”
The company says it has removed 20,000 podcast episodes for violating this policy since the pandemic began. He also deleted other episodes of Rogan’s show, including an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. But the Rogan’s Malone interview is still available.
Last year, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told Axios that the company takes no responsibility for what Rogan or his guests say. He compared the podcaster to “really high paid rappers” on Spotify, saying, “We don’t dictate what they put in their songs either.”
Rogan did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
Researchers say review of podcasts is overdue
Disinformation researchers say it was only a matter of time before the spotlight shifted to podcasts.
“Wherever users generate content, you’ll encounter the same content moderation issues and controversies as you would in any other space,” said Evelyn Douek, a researcher at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute.
So why haven’t podcasts received the same kind of attention as social media?
On the one hand, it is a fragmented medium. Podcasts exist on many different platforms and apps.
Douek says it’s also harder to unearth lies and hate speech in podcasts compared to written posts on Facebook and Twitter.
But audio can be a powerful medium for spreading misinformation because of all the qualities that make the format so appealing to listeners, said Valerie Wirtschafter, senior data analyst at the Brookings Institution.
“The podcaster is in your ear,” she said. “It’s a really unique relationship in that regard, and so the podcaster gains a level of authority and a level of credibility among listeners.”
Wirtschafter says that as more people become aware of how misinformation spreads online, audio deserves the same scrutiny as social media.
She has studied how the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump spread on political podcasts on the eve of the uprising at the US Capitol. She found that half of the episodes of the most popular shows airing between Election Day and January 6, 2021 contained misleading or false claims about voter fraud and election integrity.
“We’re not talking about fringe ideas,” she said. “These are the most popular podcasts in the United States.”