As an infectious disease epidemiologist and research fellow at Boston’s Children’s Hospital who debunks health misinformation on Instagram —where she has more than 380,000 followers — Jessica Malaty Rivera regularly receives tips from her followers about viral content to debunk. A few weeks ago, her followers started sending her a link to an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience, the most popular podcast in the world. The episode was an interview with Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist who touts himself as one of the architects of mRNA technology.
Rivera was familiar with Rogan, as well as Malone. She knew that Malone had been banned from Twitter for promoting Covid-19 misinformation, and that he had been making the rounds in conservative media circles undermining the efficacy of the vaccine. When she watched the interview, she was horrified to see that he espoused various conspiratorial and baseless beliefs, from the idea that “mass formation psychosis” is responsible for people believing in the efficacy of vaccines; to the claim popular among anti-vaxxers that hospitals are financially incentivized to falsely diagnose Covid-19 deaths. The episode featuring Malone went viral, and was shared widely in right-wing media circles as well as on Facebook, where the link on Spotify has been shared nearly 25,000 times, according to CrowdTangle data.
Yet Rivera was even more horrified to discover that people in her life, whom she considered to be “quite wise and discerning,” were hoodwinked by Malone’s patina of academic credibility, considering his views on the vaccine legitimate. “When I saw they were falling victim to this, I spoke to some colleagues and we said something has to be done at this point,” she says.
Rivera is one of 270 doctors, physicians, and science educators who signed an open letter calling on Spotify, which obtained exclusively streaming rights to the Joe Rogan Experience in a reported $100 million deal, to take action against misinformation on the platform, such as that contained in the interview with Malone. “With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE, which is hosted exclusively on Spotify, is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence,” the letter reads. “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy.”
The letter was initially appended with a lengthy fact-check of all of the claims presented in Malone’s interview with Rogan, from the “mass formation psychosis” supposition to Malone’s claim that the Biden administration is suppressing evidence supporting the efficacy of ivermectin as a Covid-19 treatment. “People who don’t have the scientific or medical background to recognize the things he’s saying are not true and are unable to distinguish fact from fiction are going to believe what [Malone is] saying, and this is the biggest podcast in the world. And that’s terrifying,” says Dr. Ben Rein, a neuroscientist at Stanford University who co-authored the letter with Rivera and other doctors and educators.
The Malone segment is far from the first time Rogan has been accused of platforming misinformation on his podcast. In an April 23, 2021 episode, for instance, Rogan actively discouraged young people from getting the vaccine, saying in a conversation with comedian Dave Smith, “if you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go no.'”
Rogan has also promoted taking ivermectin to treat Covid-19 symptoms, despite the fact that there is limited evidence to support ivermectin’s efficacy as a Covid-19 treatment and that ingesting it can lead to such side effects as dizziness and uncontrolled vomiting. “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 said on the same April episode of his podcast, as Rolling Stone previously reported. “I don’t know if this guy is right or wrong. I’m just asking questions.” Rogan has also platformed many discredited physicians and academics who have spoken out against the vaccine, such as Dr. Peter McCullough, a cardiologist who inaccurately claimed that COVID-19 vaccines are “experimental” and that the pandemic was “planned.”
Katrine Wallace, PhD, an epidemiologist at University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, says that she considers Rogan “a menace to public health” for continuously platforming anti-vaccine ideology to his enormous audience. “Having things like this on the Joe Rogan podcast gives a platform to these people and makes it a false balance. This is what really bothers me,” she tells Rolling Stone. “These are fringe ideas not backed in science, and having it on a huge platform makes it seem there are two sides to this issue. And there are really not. The overwhelming evidence is the vaccine works, and it is safe.”
Although many have criticized Spotify for hosting Rogan on its platform, the open letter to Spotify does not request that Rogan’s show be taken off Spotify, nor does it demand that Spotify remove the Malone episode in particular. Rather, it is calling on Spotify to develop a comprehensive policy prohibiting misinformation. “Any podcast that platforms dangerous people, people spreading dangerous ideas and misinformation, should not be allowed to go unchecked on the Spotify platform,” says Abbie Richards, a researcher specializing in misinformation. Richards gave Rein the idea of penning an open letter to Spotify when he approached her with his concerns over the Malone episode. “We’re not focused on something as small as just one episode or Rogan. They need to implement a policy and carry it out.”
Though Spotify does not appear to have a clear policy regarding misinformation in its terms of service, in the past the platform has removed episodes containing misinformation regarding vaccines. “Spotify 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. When content that violates this standard is identified it is removed from the platform,” it said in a statement to the Verge last April. But it has been reluctant to take action against Rogan’s podcast, which reaches an estimated 11 million people per episode; nor does it include a warning label regarding potential misinformation on any podcast episodes. Spotify did not immediately return Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment.
Considering the size of Rogan’s audience, as well as the staggering reported value of his contract with the platform, not everyone involved with the open letter is convinced that Spotify will ever be willing to take a stand on his content. Yet Rivera believes Spotify has an enormous ethical obligation to do so. “Considering their role in society is disseminating content, there is a responsibility in a global public health emergency to not exacerbate the problem,” she says. “We have an infodemic going on that is prolonging the pandemic and it is causing people to make bad choices and actually die. These are preventable illnesses that folks like Joe Rogan and Dr. Robert Malone are directly responsible for.”