Why Joe Rogan's vaccine misinformation is so dangerous — and dangerously appealing to his audience

Rogan's massive Spotify audience makes him a hub for anti-vax propaganda, even if he's "just asking questions"

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published February 9, 2022 1:21PM (EST)

Joe Rogan (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Joe Rogan (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The wildly successful campaign to convince Republican-voting Americans not to vaccinate exists for one reason and one reason only: To sabotage President Joe Biden. Propagandists like Fox News and GOP leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz understood that millions of their followers refusing the vaccine can prolong the COVID-19 pandemic — and that Biden would take the blame. Sure enough, Biden has taken a hit in the polls; now more Americans disapprove of his handling of the pandemic than approve of it. 

But while the anti-vaccine campaign is clearly a partisan movement with partisan aims, the single most important figure in validating and spreading vaccine disinformation is likely not Fox News hosts or even Republican politicians. No, that honor goes to "comedian" and Spotify star Joe Rogan, whose tedious podcast "The Joe Rogan Experience" inexplicably draws a reported 11 million listeners per episode — more than three times the audience for Tucker Carlson's wildly popular Fox News show. On his show, Rogan appears to be obsessed with spreading COVID-19 misinformation, as Alex Paterson, a Media Matters researcher who subjected himself to over 350 hours of Rogan's show, has thoroughly documented. Rogan regularly pushes conspiracy theories about the vaccine being dangerous and unnecessary, even dabbling in ridiculous claims that the vaccines contain microchips to "track" people

RELATED: Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan and the Proud Boys: How the fragility of the male ego fuels the far-right

This has led to a national outcry at Spotify, which paid Rogan $100 million for exclusive hosting rights to his show. Artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have pulled their music from the service, and a social media campaign has been underway to encourage listeners to delete their Spotify apps. In response, Spotify has added a content warning to episodes discussing the pandemic. Rogan issued a lengthy statement, claiming he would "do my best to make sure I've researched these topics."

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There are some legitimate criticisms of this campaign — I'm worried it will end up backfiring — but most of the criticisms have been hand-wringing from the usual "cancel culture" suspects who care more about mean tweets from liberals than the actual book bannings being conducted by conservatives.

One representative argument came courtesy of Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic, who once implied that free speech was under threat because college kids didn't like it when their cafeteria labeled pulled pork as "bánh mì." 

"One authoritarian regime w active concentration camps," he tweeted. "Another authoritarian regime on brink of invading a neighbor. Housing too expensive. Climate change a bigger concern every year. Epidemic abuse of prisoners. Why is cancelling Joe Rogan a priority for anyone?"

When a couple hundred people pointed out that the anti-vaccination campaign is leading to over 2,000 deaths a day,  Friedersdorf argued, "isn't clear to me that Joe Rogan's podcast has caused thousands, let alone hundreds of thousands, to not be vaccinated."

Measuring such impacts with any precision is nearly impossible. But the millions of people who are refusing vaccines are getting their talking points from someone. And Rogan, with his massive audience, is an obvious clearinghouse for such misinformation.

RELATED: Trump, DeSantis say Joe Rogan shouldn't apologize for using N-word repeatedly

What defenses of Rogan fail to understand how his "normal guy" schtick is stunningly effective at promoting anti-vaccine disinformation. Rogan, with his posture of "just asking questions" and "I'm just some guy" humility, helps validate the anti-vaccine campaign as somehow apolitical. He helps partisan Republicans rationalize their choice not to vaccinate. Even more troublingly, he's helping to recruit more apolitical people into the anti-vaccine cause, which can put them on the path to far-right radicalization

To understand why Rogan matters so much, it's crucial to understand this: Few vaccine refusers are willing to admit they are doing it to stick it to Biden voters. Such an admission exposes you as a petty and, frankly, stupid person, ready to sacrifice your own health at the bidding of GOP leaders who certainly aren't taking that risk for themselves. Surface rationalizations, some of which people may even start to believe, are more palatable. They're "skeptical" of the vaccines. They have "questions." They want to "wait and see" if they are safe. 

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Rogan presents himself as an ostensibly non-partisan figure, even offering a faux-endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary. Because of this, he helps prop up the false claim that being anti-vaccine is about something other than partisan politics. That's nonsense. As Paterson told the Verge, "Rogan has taken a clear lurch to the right and become a serial misinformer when it comes to COVID-19 misinformation." Anyone who has encountered Rogan fans on social media is well acquainted with the non-partisan lie. They love claiming that both he and they are "independents" who "think for themselves," even as they fall lockstep behind the most asinine right wing beliefs. 

This sort of thing has impact well beyond Rogan's audience. He helps spread anti-vaccine talking points to his 11 million listeners, and they, in turn, spread them to their social circles — a process sped up and amplified by social media. The idea that it's legitimate — and apolitical — to refuse vaccines makes it a lot easier for people to favor conspiracy theories over facts.

We see this in recent polling data that shows parents who are reluctant to vaccinate children under five are more likely to identify as "independent" than as Republicans or Democrats. To be clear, these vaccine skeptics almost certainly lean to the right — their demographic data (very suburban) certainly suggests so. These vaccine skeptics closely resemble both Rogan's audience and the people his audience influences — younger Americans who like to think of themselves as "independent" but who lean to the right.

We also see this in the demographic data of vaccine refusers. Older Republicans, the sort who tend to watch more Fox News, have pretty high vaccination rates overall. It's Republican-leaning people under 50 who are the majority of the vaccine refusers — they're more likely to be Rogan listeners, or people who listen to people who listen to Rogan. 

RELATED: Insurrection by other means: Republicans are ready to die of COVID to spite Biden, Democrats

One of the main reasons Rogan is so influential is that he is able to create the illusion that he — and therefore his audience — is just "open-minded" and "asking questions." For instance, former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart recently claimed, "Joe Rogan who is not in my mind an ideologue in any way" might be more effectively persuaded by "engagement" than backlash. 

But Rogan has repeatedly had his lies about COVID-19 exposed, and he even pretends sometimes to back down. And as soon as his faux-apologies get critics off his back, he gets right back to spreading COVID-19 misinformation. As Rebecca Watson at Skepchick showed, even the clip Stewart used as evidence of Rogan's malleability shows no such thing. Yes, Rogan's guest did prove on-air that Rogan was wrong to say the shots were more dangerous to teen boys than COVID-19 itself. But, as Watson explains, Rogan "never actually admits that he was wrong. The best he can do is say it's 'interesting' and 'not what (he's) read before.'"

This peek-a-boo strategy is common in far-right propagandists intent on radicalizing their audiences, too. Even Tucker Carlson, whose white nationalist views aren't exactly subtle, plays this game. He doesn't come right out and say, for instance, that he thinks the January 6 insurrection was great and he wished it had worked. Instead, he pretends he's just "asking questions" about the "official" narrative, flattering his audience into believing that conspiracy theories are skepticism and that authoritarian ideologies are acts of intellectual rebellion. 

Rogan is playing the same game. Few people like identifying as rigid and unthinking partisans. It's way more fun to imagine yourself as a skeptic and a rebel. By offering his massive audience this flattering narrative, Rogan gives them permission to wallow in their ugliest right wing impulses, by spinning them as free thinkers instead of people who are rejecting critical thinking and scientific evidence.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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