On May 20, 2020, Swedish audio streaming platform Spotify added nearly $2 billion in market value in less than 30 minutes after it announced a $100 million deal with podcaster Joe Rogan for the exclusive rights to stream his show 'The Joe Rogan Experience'. An opinion piece by the New York Times called Rogan "The New Mainstream Media". He even got endorsed by Bernie Sanders.
Less than two years later, the platform lost between $2-4 billion in market value over 3 days due to Rogan, who has been accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines on his show, that is heard by over 10 million listeners.
The shares dropped after Buffalo Springfield singer Neil Young decided to pull his songs from the platform for the problematic content about the virus and the vaccines on Rogan's show. Singer Joni Mitchell was quick to support her colleague, and also decided to pull her songs from the platform.
A range of other artists, entertainers and celebrities have joined the backlash against Spotify, which include the Duke and Duchess of Sussex Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The couple, who had signed a $25 million deal with the platform, voiced concerns and urged it to make changes.
However, 'The Joe Rogan Experience', considered to be the biggest podcast show, shows no signs of leaving the streaming platform. While there were some new changes introduced by Spotify, like adding a content advisory to any podcast episode that includes a discussion about COVID-19, the company has not taken any action on Rogan.
'A Menace To Public Health'
On December 31, 2021, Rogan uploaded his latest episode featuring Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist and immunologist who has spread misinformation about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
During the show, Malone - who was earlier banned from Twitter for promoting vaccine misinformation - claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused something called a "mass formation psychosis" in the American society, comparing it with the German society during the rise of the Nazi regime.
This prompted 270 doctors, physicians and science educators in the USA to write an open letter to Spotify to take action against misinformation on the platform, like the one spread by Rogan in his show. One of the signees of the letter, Katrine Wallace, PhD, an epidemiologist at University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, told Rolling Stone that she considers Rogan "a menace to public health".
Discouraging Young People To Take The Jab
But this was hardly the first time such claims were made in Rogan's show. In one of his episodes aired on April 23, 2021, Rogan outrightly discouraged young people and children to take the vaccine.
"If you're like 21 years old, and you say to me, should I get vaccinated? I'll go no. Are you healthy? Are you a healthy person? Like, look, don't do anything stupid, but you should take care of yourself. You should — if you're a healthy person, and you're exercising all the time, and you're young, and you're eating well, like, I don't think you need to worry about this," he said during the episode featuring comedian Dave Smith. Smith himself had compared vaccine mandates to "setting up a national caste system".
Promoting Alex Jones' Conspiracy Theory
On May 14, 2021, while speaking to his guest Anthony Cumia, Rogan brought up a conspiracy theory spread by far-right radio show host Alex Jones, about microchip implants being injected into people's arms to see if they have COVID-19. Jones, who is a popular conspiracy theorist and a past guest of Rogan's, was praised by Rogan. "He's right 80% of the time," he said of Jones.
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Snopes did a fact-check on Rogan's claim, and wrote, "The technology is not a microchip, nor was it developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, nor can it pinpoint what virus or bacteria has infected the body."
Equating mRNA With Gene Therapy
On August 20, 2021, while discussing vaccines with Canadian freelance writer and journalist Meghan Murphy, Rogan conflated the mRNA technology behind many of the COVID-19 vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna, to the experimental gene therapy.
This is what he said during the episode:
"It's not really a vaccine in the traditional sense. A vaccine is where they take a dead virus, and they turn it into a vaccine, and they inject it into your body so that your body fights off — it develops the antibodies, and your body understands what that is, whether it's the measles or polio, it knows how to fight it off.
This is really gene therapy. It's a different thing. It's tricking your body into producing spike protein and making these antibodies for COVID. But it's only good for a few months, they're finding out now. The efficacy wanes after five or six months. I'm not saying that people shouldn't take it. But I'm saying, you're calling it a thing that it's not. It's not exactly what you're saying it is, and you're mandating people take it."
However, public health experts refuted Rogan's explanation of how mRNA vaccines work. "Vaccines don't make any changes to your own DNA, so they don't edit your own DNA like gene therapy does. They also don't replace any mutated genes in your body," Cindy Prins, clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, told US fact-checker PolitiFact.
Rogan had, on many occasions, promoted the use of antiparasitic medication Ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19. While it is commonly given as a deworming medication for horses and dogs, there is no evidence to state that Ivermectin can treat COVID-19. It was also commonly prescribed for COVID cases in India, but was discontinued by the ICMR in September 2021.
The US Food and Drug Administration had also warned against the use of ivermectin to treat the disease. However, this did not stop Rogan from promoting the antiparasite as a cure to COVID.
On June 22, 2021, Rogan invited Dr. Bret Weinstein and Dr. Pierre Kory - both popular for promoting ivermectin as a cure to COVID-19. The episode was riddled with conspiracy theories about Big Pharma companies censoring information in ivermectin to push the vaccine business.
More Conspiracy Theories
More recently, on December 13, 2021, Rogan invited cardiologist Dr. Peter McCullough who made a number of false claims regarding the pandemic, virus and vaccines. This included claims about the pandemic being part of a 'planned' conspiracy, and that the COVID-19 vaccines were experimental. He also claimed that people who have been infected before by the virus have 'permanent immunity', and that VAERS data shows that the vaccines killed thousands of people.
Health fact-checkers Health Feedback analysed McCullough's claims and found them all to be false.
Where Does Spotify Head From Here?
"The Joe Rogan Experience" has seen a wide range of personalities as guests, like Elon Musk, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Kevin Hart, Bernie Sanders and Lance Armstrong.
Rogan uploads four to five episodes every week, each which last over three hours, and draws in over 11 million listeners per episode. And, it is exclusively on Spotify.
The above $100 million deal Spotify gave to Rogan is also much more than any musician would earn from the platform. Following the announcement of the deal, music critic Ted Gioia tweeted, "A musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what they're paying Joe Rogan for his podcast rights (assuming a typical $.00437 payout per stream). In other words, Spotify values Rogan more than any musician in the history of the world. Sound fair to you?"
Music Vs Podcast
A big portion of Spotify's revenues go into paying royalties to artists, but when it comes to podcasts, the revenue split is more favourable to the platform. And that is why, in 2019, the company announced its plan to invest more than $500 million in acquiring companies in the emerging podcast market.
So when Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Neil Young said, "They can have Rogan or Young. Not both," it took less than two days for the platform to choose Rogan over Young. Fellow Canadian singer Joni Mitchell decided to support Young, and Spotify still stood by Rogan.
And this is not the first time the streaming company faced criticism due to its relationship with Rogan and his show - there have been multiple controversies regarding rampant transphobia in Rogan's show, including Rogan making fun of transgender people, and using transphobic slurs.
Spotify Introduces New Measures, But Gives A Pass To Rogan
However, the growing intensity of the backlash due to the rising amount of health misinformation in the show has pushed the platform to announce some new measures.
"There's been a lot of conversation about information regarding COVID-19 on Spotify. We've heard the criticism and we're implementing changes to help combat misinformation," said company CEO Daniel Ek in a tweet containing a link to a newsroom blogpost by Spotify announcing three new steps.
First, Spotify decided to publish its long-standing platform rules.
Second, it added a content advisory for all the podcasts where COVID-19 is discussed, which shall direct listeners to its COVID-19 HUB, "a resource that provides easy access to data-driven facts, up-to-date information as shared by scientists, physicians, academics and public health authorities around the world, as well as links to trusted sources".
And third, the platform promised to test out ways to highlight their platform rules to creators to help them "understand their accountability for the content they post on our platform".
However, Rogan has gotten a free pass once again. While Rogan has apologised to Spotify and musicians, and promised to 'balance things out' by having more opposing voices on topics, the problematic episodes from his show still remain on the platform.