Spotify's COVID-19 misinformation doesn't end with Joe Rogan
Podcast host Joe Rogan’s COVID-19 misinformation on Spotify has garnered national attention, but the platform’s problem is larger than just him. Spotify is hosting a whole network of COVID-19 misinformation, despite its recently published COVID-19 rules against “false or dangerous deceptive medical information.”
Rogan’s podcast has been a platform for COVID-19 misinformation that has been called out by medical experts. Rogan has hosted guests like Dr. Robert Malone, who suggests the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous despite the overwhelming proof that it is both safe and effective. This misinformation has led to a boycott by some musicians of Spotify in protest of the platform’s exclusive deal with Rogan.
Spotify responded to the boycott on January 30 by publishing its COVID-19 policy and rules. These rules prohibit deceptive content “that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information that may cause offline harm or poses a direct threat to public health.” They also ban content on the platform “promoting or suggesting that vaccines approved by local health authorities are designed to cause death” or “encouraging people to purposely get infected with COVID-19 in order to build immunity to it (e.g. promoting or hosting ‘coronavirus parties’).”
Many right-wing podcasts and anti-vaccine figures are evading strikes and bans under the new policy, however, even though they have become a major source of the COVID-19 misinformation on Spotify’s platform.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy, one of the most prominent anti-vaccine figures in the country, was recently a speaker at an anti-vaccine mandate rally in Washington, D.C., where he compared the treatment of unvaccinated Americans under vaccine mandates to that of Anne Frank during the Holocaust. Kennedy has routinely used his platform on RFK Jr The Defender Podcast to spread COVID-19 and vaccine lies on Spotify. He has already been deplatformed on YouTube for his repeated misinformation. Despite Kennedy’s prominence in anti-vaccine circles and his podcast’s continued efforts to undermine the COVID-19 vaccine, Spotify has yet to take action.
- Kennedy hosted former NBA star John Stockon, who made headlines in recent weeks for his ludicrous claim that COVID-19 vaccines have killed more than 100 professional athletes, for the February 4 edition of RFK Jr The Defender Podcast. During his appearance, Stockton claimed that every vaccine given to children contains “toxins.” Later during the program, he and Kennedy both misrepresented data from the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) to falsely claim that COVID-19 vaccines have killed at least 20,000 people in the U.S. (VAERS relies on unverified self-reporting that can leave out key context of other factors which might have contributed to an individual’s negative health events; some of the events reported in VAERS have even been found to be completely false.)
- A September 2021 episode of RFK Jr The Defender Podcast featured Mike Adams, the head of Natural News, a website that Vox described as “one of the internet’s oldest and most prolific sources of health misinformation and conspiracy theories.” During their conversation, Kennedy falsely characterized COVID-19 vaccines as a public health threat, baselessly claiming that anyone who is vaccinated becomes an “asymptomatic carrier” of the disease and a “factory for mutant variants.”
- In May 2021, Kennedy hosted Michael Yeadon, a former Pfizer employee who in recent years has been involved in amplifying and spreading false claims about vaccines. During his appearance, Yeadon claimed without evidence that COVID-19 vaccines have killed around one in 1,000 people who have received them.
Owens became a right-wing media star while working at the conservative activist group Turning Point USA and has gone on to make frequent appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight and the far-right conspiracy theory outlet Infowars, where she compared getting the COVID-19 vaccination to being enslaved. Her show Candace on the Daily Wire is platformed by Spotify despite Owens’ frequent spreading of COVID-19 misinformation – including her interview with Dr. Robert Malone, a leading figure in the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines who recently appeared on Rogan’s show.
- On February 1, Owens previewed her upcoming interview with Malone. Owens said, “Recently we are seeing that Spotify is caving to the science cult. It’s putting disclaimers on Joe Rogan’s podcasts and apparently it will be more involved in picking his podcast guests as well. With me, you know you will never get that. I won’t apologize because this is too important of a topic.” Owens then played clips from the upcoming interview, including the suggestion there is no evidence that vaccines improve children’s health and the false claim COVID-19 vaccines damage women’s fertility.
- On February 3, Owens published the first half of her interview with Malone on Spotify. During the nearly two-hour episode, Owens and Malone speculatively and baselessly suggested in the future links will be found between the vaccines and many serious health conditions, including dangerous changes in menstruation, damage to fertility, various bone marrow cancers, immune system deficiencies, miscarriages, and stillborn births. Malone and Owens also discussed at length something Malone calls “mass formation psychosis,” which is not a recognized medical condition, and “crowd hypnosis.” At its essence, the conspiracy theory posits that government responses to COVID have not been about disease mitigation, but rather efforts by governments to make citizens compliant and passive. According to Malone, this phenomenon is connected to “psychological operations, or psyops,” planned by global elites to establish a “one world government.” (This conspiracy theory was discussed at length during his appearance on Rogan’s podcast in which Malone compared America during the pandemic to Nazi Germany.) Malone also falsely claimed that the drugs ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine “work” as lifesaving COVID treatments. In the final moments of part one of the interview, Owens and Malone were in agreement in comparing the current situation to Adolf Hitler’s rise before the Holocaust.
Kirk’s radio show has been a hotbed of vaccine lies. The conservative activist turned right-wing media commentator has repeatedly advised against public safety measures, undermined the severity of the pandemic, platformed conspiracy theories about athletes dying from the vaccine, called the vaccine an experiment on children, and said being unvaccinated is “the natural state.” His show on Spotify routinely spreads false information about vaccines, yet there is no indication from the platform that any of his content is misleading or potentially dangerous.
- While speaking to anti-vaccine activist Dr. Vladimir Zelenko on January 11, Kirk asked, “We have a lot of listeners that regrettably got the vaccine, meaning they regret they got the vaccine. What would you say to those listeners now to try and help their immune system?” Zelenko told Kirk, “First of all, don’t take another shot. It seems like common sense but it has to be said.” Zelenko continued, “The antibodies produced by these vaccines are pathogenic – they’re lethal.” Kirk later asked, “What’s your best case right now, the best argument right now to not vaccinate a child with a COVID-19 shot?” Zelenko cited a debunked claim from Michael Yeadon to argue that “the vaccine is a hundred times more lethal to children than the virus that it is supposedly protecting you from. So there’s a term for that, it’s called child sacrifice.”
- While discussing a spike in deaths among young people in America on his January 19 show, Kirk said, “I think it would be super interesting if anyone in the media would say, ‘Hey, did the fact that we vaccinated a hundred million people, did that hurt or help the death rate?’ Obviously hurt for young people – I’m not saying that they’re related, I’m just asking the question. We do know that the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System database shows a huge increase in adverse events and deaths.”
- Kirk interviewed anti-vaccine activist Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, a member of the “Disinformation Dozen” leading online anti-vaccine influencers, on his January 22 show. The episode included the debunked connection between vaccines and autism as well as several claims about the supposed danger of the COVID-19 vaccines. Tenpenny claimed that the vaccine is harming our “God-given genes” and “these COVID shots are actually going in and snipping those sulfite bonds and removing Yahweh from our genes.” She and Kirk agreed that the VAERS data was probably low on counting vaccine-related injuries and deaths.
Louder with Crowder is known for its “shockingly racist” content and anti-gay harrassment, and it has been suspended and demonitized by YouTube multiple times. Crowder’s program, which is also available on Spotify, has additionally spread COVID-19 misinformation that potentially violates Spotify’s new platform rules against content “encouraging people to purposely get infected with COVID-19 in order to build immunity to it (e.g. promoting or hosting ‘coronavirus parties’).”
- On the December 13 edition of his show, Crowder suggested that the omicron variant of COVID-19 was a gift from God and asked, “When do you have omicron parties?”
- The next day, Crowder again called for an “omicron party,” saying: “Hey, you guys going to have an omicron party? I think we should have an omicron party. We'll throw a party with as many people as humanly possible. Lick a popsicle stick, do popsicle stick spit brothers.” YouTube removed this video from its platform and suspended Crowder over it, yet it’s still available on Spotify.
- On January 11, Crowder claimed, “You could argue that omicron is responsible for reducing deaths more than the vaccines.” In fact, deaths have skyrocketed in the U.S. during the omicron wave, surpassing the delta variant’s peak in summer and fall of 2021.
- Crowder and one of his co-hosts compared COVID-19 restrictions to the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany on January 17. The co-host, Gerald Morgan, said: “Vaccinated, Jewish -- I'll say it, sorry. If you want to talk about Nazi Germany in the 1930s, it was not far off from what we see today around the world.” Crowder responded: “They even said they carried viruses.”
In addition to many shows spreading COVID-19 misinformation through their hosts, anti-vaccine advocates have also found their way onto Spotify’s platforms through many guest appearances.
Dr. Robert Malone
Malone claims to be the inventor of mRNA technology, although it appears that his work was among many research efforts that contributed to the use of mRNA vaccines to fight disease. He says he supports vaccines, but not Pfizer's and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine due to mRNA. He has promoted conspiracy theories like suggesting “mass formation psychosis” is behind pandemic public health policies and claimed that unvaccinated Americans are really “at risk from the vaccinated.” Malone’s appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience is what originally caused the outrage at Spotify, but Rogan’s show was not the only podcast where he appeared on the platform. Malone has also been a guest on Bret Weinstein’s Dark Horse Podcast, The Sean Hannity Show, American Thought Leaders, The Ellen Fisher Podcast, and The Cardone Zone to name a few. While on the November 9 edition of The Ellen Fisher Podcast, Malone claimed that the vaccine poses more risk of adverse reactions than COVID-19. This statement is false and mistakenly portrays the vaccines as dangerous.
Bigtree is one of the most vocal anti-vaccine activists in America. He has encouraged people to contract the coronavirus, compared vaccines to the Holocaust, and claimed that wearing a mask poses a health risk. Due to these and other false statements, Bigtree has been banned from Facebook and YouTube. However, he has appeared on many podcasts hosted on Spotify, including The Glenn Beck Program, Lions of Liberty, Future Generations Podcast, Quantum Nurse, and The Life Stylist Podcast. On the January 24 edition of the Lions of Liberty podcast, Bigtree argued that the COVID-19 vaccine creates an autoimmune disease and suggested that the Food and Drug Administration is intentionally giving a vaccine to people that “could potentially kill them.” The theory about autoimmune disease is false, and his comment about the FDA goes against Spotify’s rule about “promoting or suggesting that vaccines approved by local health authorities are designed to cause death.”
Gold is the head of the conservative organization America’s Frontline Doctors that has been responsible for an anti-vaccine misinformation campaign. Gold has falsely claimed that getting the vaccine can result in positive COVID-19 tests, suggested that COVID-19 vaccines can cause infertility, and encouraged people to not get vaccinated. Gold has appeared on numerous podcasts on Spotify, including The Rubin Report, Flyover Conservatives, Diamond & Silk, The Glenn Beck Program, and the Steve Deace Show. During a May 2021 appearance on Diamond & Silk: The Podcast, Gold likened the COVID-19 vaccines to poison, pointing to a “gag” someone did on YouTube contacting a poison control center about “all of the ingredients.” And in a June 2021 appearance on the Steve Deace Show, she miscited the VAERS database to suggest that the COVID-19 vaccines are harmful and recommended that people take hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin instead: “When you look at the government’s own database, VAERS database, the numbers of deaths in relation in kind to people who have gotten shots is astronomical in relation to COVID.”