One would think that our culture has evolved to a point beyond turning to the guy who starred as the electrician in NewsRadio for medical advice. One would, however, be incorrect.
For the past 18 months, Joe Rogan, the host of a wildly successful podcast that Spotify acquired in a much-ballyhooed deal, has been platforming misinformation about Covid-19 to his nearly 11 million listeners per episode, downplaying the effects of the virus, inviting guests on to promote unproven treatments, and dismissing the importance of the vaccine. Yesterday, however, he announced in an Instagram video that he himself had contracted COVID-19. “We immediately threw the kitchen sink at it, all kinds of meds” he said in the video when discussing his treatment. As a result, he says in the video, “here we are on Wednesday and I feel great.”
Among the treatments that Rogan promoted on his Instagram video were monoclonal antibodies (which Trump received when he contracted Covid), as well as the corticosteroid prednisone. “I feel good. I feel pretty fucking good,” he says in the video. But most media reports of Rogan’s Covid-19 diagnosis focused on the fact that he had said he had also taken ivermectin. An anti-parasitic drug, ivermectin is perhaps best known as a deworming medication for horses or dogs (though it is indeed prescribed to humans in tablet form to treat parasitic infection, or in topical form to treat conditions like rosacea). As Rolling Stone has previously reported, in recent months ivermectin has been promoted heavily by right-wing media personalities like Laura Ingraham as a potential treatment for Covid-19, despite the fact that there is little consistent evidence to support its use in this regard; as a result, people have been buying the drug in bulk, raving about its efficacy in private Facebook groups and griping about its side effects after taking too high a dose (which include uncontrollable defecation). The FDA has warned against taking ivermectin as a treatment for Covid, saying that overdoses could lead to side effects such as dizziness, seizures, and increased vomiting; and some states have reported that people taking overdoses of ivermectin has led to an increase in poison control calls.
Arguably and no one has been more successful at promoting ivermectin than Rogan himself. In an April 23rd episode of his podcast, the earliest example that could be found by Rolling Stone, he accused Twitter of preventing him from sending a private direct message containing a link to a video about the drug, echoing a common narrative on the right that the media is censoring discussion of any vaccine alternatives. “This doctor was saying ivermectin is 99 percent effective intreating Covid, but you don’t hear about it because you can’t fund vaccines when it’s an effective treatment,” he says on his podcast. “I don’t know if this guy is right or wrong. I’m just asking questions.” When asked about these comments, Angelo Carusone, the head of media watchdog group Media Matters, saw it as another example of his seeding distrust in the vaccine. “It’s sort of an offhanded way of hitting the vaccines and the broader narrative about vaccines,” he says.
Two months later, on June 22nd, Rogan hosted Dr. Bret Weinstein and Dr. Pierre Kory, both public champions of ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment. Kory is the president of the Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, an organization that pushes for the use of ivermectin in Covid-19 treatment; after YouTube demonetized his channel for publicly promoting ivermectin, Weinstein moved to the fringe platform Odysee. In the episode, Weinstein and Kory pushed the claim that the media and government are censoring information about ivermectin in order for Big Pharma to profit off the Covid-19 vaccine. “You have a drug that’s good enough to end the pandemic at any point you wanted,” Weinstein said. “Who decides to prioritize business interests ahead of that? I find it hard to imagine.” Clips from the episode have widely circulated on YouTube and TikTok, with one video on the latter platform garnering 2.6 million views before it was removed for violating TikTok guidelines against medical misinformation. “Joe Rogan really did us dirty,” Abbie Richards, a misinformation and disinformation researcher who focuses on TikTok, previously told Rolling Stone about ivermectin misinformation on the platform.
Rogan’s promotion of ivermectin is part and parcel with him using his platform to spread Covid-19 misinformation by featuring guests such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, as well as publicly dismissing the importance of getting a vaccine back in April. “If you’re, like, 21 years old, and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go ‘No,'” he said in the episode. (He later attempted to clarify his comments, calling himself “not an anti-vaxx person” and a “fucking moron.”) As Carusone sees it, the fact that he uses his guests to espouse these views while oftentimes refraining from promoting them himself, lends him sufficient cover to avoid being branded as a purveyor of misinformation, says Carusone. Promoting ivermectin as a treatment for his own case of COVID-19 helps to reinforce the narrative that it’s an effective medication in treating the virus, and that there’s no harm in people trying it. “His audience is huge and they’re engaged,” he says. “And they’re already so hopped up on alpha brain that this is the kind of stuff they love.”
In response to Rogan’s promotion of ivermectin, some on social media have called for Spotify (which acquired the show exclusively in 2020 in a reported $100 million deal) to boot him from the network, thus limiting his reach. There’s some evidence that Rogan’s influence has actually diminished since the Spotify deal — a Verge investigation from last month, for instance, indicated that his audience may have waned after he made the move — but he’s still one of the most popular podcasters in the world, who has used his platform to undermine public health. The fear is that [Rogan contracting Covid] is gonna give him the direct personal experience to talk about how he had Covid, it wasn’t that bad, and they treated him with all the options that are available,” he says. “For him it’s gonna end up being a validation piece.”