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Conversations of Note
Top of mind this week: the ongoing controversy surrounding the most popular podcast in America, The Joe Rogan Experience, currently hosted on the streaming platform Spotify. Last month, 270 public-health professionals criticized Joe Rogan, the comedian and MMA commentator, for what he and some of his guests have said about COVID-19, and urged Spotify to adopt a misinformation policy. (The streaming company later published what it called “our long-standing Platform Rules.”) More recently, two iconic Baby Boomer recording artists from Canada, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, told Spotify that they wanted their music removed from the platform.
Two bits of context are useful:
- Rogan’s audience is massive––an estimated 9 million people stream each episode of his show. By way of comparison, if you combine the prime-time audiences of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, you wind up with perhaps 5 million average monthly viewers.
- Unlike in other “platforming” controversies, where critics object that a media organization is irresponsibly drawing more eyeballs to someone who is unworthy of them, or lending them undeserved credibility, Rogan built his audience before he went to Spotify––indeed, Spotify imposes greater barriers to listening to his show than previously existed. And unlike, say, health information published in The Atlantic, with its fact-checkers and commitment to accuracy, no one trusts health information more because it was streamed through Spotify.
But Kevin Roose observes that unlike in other clashes between creators and tech platforms, “Spotify isn’t merely one of many apps that distribute Mr. Rogan’s podcast. The streaming service paid more than $100 million for exclusive rights to ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ in 2020, making him the headline act for its growing podcast division. Critics say that deal, along with the aggressive way Spotify has promoted Mr. Rogan’s show inside its app, gives the company more responsibility for his show than others it carries.”
My former colleague James Hamblin, a medical doctor, defended “It’s Joe Rogan or me”–style ultimatums and consumer boycotts as useful and necessary tools in a free-market country and culture. “As the problems of misinformation/disinformation grow, efforts to allocate capital thoughtfully are among the few tools Americans have left to minimize the impact of bad actors. Corporations respond to that above all else,” he wrote in his newsletter. “Refusing to think about it doesn’t make you apolitical, just oblivious. Like it or not, you’re voting with every click.”
In contrast, Charles C. W. Cooke criticized what he regards as the illiberalism of anti-Rogan critics at National Review:
Spotify, Apple, Joe Rogan, and Neil Young are all private actors, and they can do as they wish. That is Liberalism 101, and I would not wish to change it if I could. But there are other elements within Liberalism 101, too, and they are no less vital to our political order. I would, of course, have been firmly within my rights to refuse the book offer that Random House made me on the grounds that I find their other authors intolerable. But to have done so would have made me a stupid bigot. I would be fully within my rights if I declined to join any public debate that required me to share a stage with someone being paid to disagree with me. But, again, to do so would make me a stupid bigot. There is nothing “liberal” about regarding artistic platforms or delivery mechanisms as political creatures to be condemned. On the contrary: Such a habit is quite literally totalitarian.
Jack Shafer questioned the general effectiveness of boycotts at Politico:
Even in our times, when tolerance for speech that’s considered misinformation or offensive is reaching a new dipping point, censorious blow-ups like Young’s accomplish little. The markets for speech are too wide and too decentralized for any boycott to disturb. Rush Limbaugh easily survived an organized boycott against him in 2012 after he called a college student a “slut.” Tucker Carlson has sailed his ship of foolishness past a couple similar boycotts over the years to no lasting damage. Laura Ingraham, too, has outlasted the boycotters, as has Carlson and Ingraham’s network, the Fox News Channel.
Damon Linker casts doubt on the effectiveness of this specific boycott at The Week:
Rumors about bigger artists … joining the exodus have been swirling for days, so far with no confirmations. What’s strange about this effort to deplatform Rogan is that his popularity preceded, and made possible, his deal with Spotify. If the protest succeeds in getting him booted, he can simply go back to making his podcast available on other platforms or launch his own. A “win” would merely allow certain politically progressive artists to end their tacit association with a personality whose brand is the puncturing of liberal pieties.
In The New Statesman, Kat Rosenfield wonders whether concerns about health misinformation are really the root of this controversy. “At a time of increasing tribalism and profound loss of public trust in our mainstream media and authority,” she writes, “Joe Rogan has come to represent something more: the terrifying power of normal people to like the things they like.”
The most incisive analysis I encountered on Twitter: “Rogan is an Everyman. It is therefore apparent that those who would censor him would censor every man. Hence the intensity of the backlash.”
Joe Rogan himself addressed the matter on Instagram, where he pledged to strive for balance between guests with mainstream and heterodox opinions in an effort to arrive at the truth.
He said in part:
Many of the things we thought of as misinformation just a short while ago are now accepted as fact. For instance, 8 months ago, if you said, ‘If you get vaccinated you can still catch Covid, and you can still spread Covid,’ you would be removed from social media. They would ban you from certain platforms. Now that’s accepted as fact. If you said, ‘I don’t think cloth masks work,’ you would be banned from social media. Now that is openly and repeatedly stated on CNN. If you said, ‘I think it’s possible that Covid-19 came from a lab,’ you’d be banned from many social-media platforms. Now that’s on the cover of Newsweek. All of those theories that at one time were banned were openly discussed by those two men that I had on my podcast that have been accused of dangerous misinformation.
I do not know if they are right because I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations … Do I get things wrong? Absolutely. But I try to correct them … I’m interested in finding out what the truth is. And I’m interested in having interesting conversations with people that have differing opinions. I’m not interested in only talking to people that have one perspective.
China Prepares to Host the 2022 Winter Olympics
Nancy Armour sees this as a betrayal:
The International Olympic Committee has sold the people of China out, refusing to hold the hosts of next month’s Winter Olympics accountable for a litany of human rights abuses and, worse, providing cover for some of the atrocities. In doing so, it has sold itself and its ideals out, too.
Christine Brennan, who is already in Beijing to cover the games as a journalist, agrees––and intends to tell the world:
It will be an eternal stain on the already-dubious reputation of the International Olympic Committee that it gave the awful, repressive Chinese regime the opportunity to host its second Games in 14 years. The human rights abuses of the nation where I sit writing this column are reprehensible. My colleagues and I will report and talk about that every single day of these Games.
In The Washington Post, Melissa Chan notes that “some will argue the country’s communist foundation makes it fundamentally incompatible with fascism’s right-wing roots,” but she disagrees:
As a correspondent formerly based in China and now writing from Berlin, I find it difficult to ignore how much China’s present echoes Germany’s past. To right perceived wrongs, Xi has a clear revanchist agenda. Taiwan has become his Alsace-Lorraine, the Himalayan border with India his Polish Corridor, and Hong Kong his Sudetenland. With military or strong-arm tactics, he has made clear that moves to control these areas are not off the table. In addition, Beijing has reportedly moved into Bhutanese territory.
China also claims most of the South China Sea, where it has built military outposts marked by its own “nine-dash line” that, on a map, protrudes far beyond Chinese land borders in a Lebensraum-like expansion.
At the Cato Institute, Doug Bandow advanced many arguments against a U.S. boycott of the Olympics. Among them:
The PRC’s future will be determined by its own people, not foreigners. The best hope for positive reform is an internal demand for change. Younger Chinese don’t like government restrictions on their lives but even more dislike attacks on their country. A boycott, especially one led by the U.S. tarnishing China’s reputation, would risk driving people to support the Beijing regime. That would strengthen the position of Xi and other hardliners and make political reform more distant.
At Citizen Lab, analysts argue that the app all athletes will be forced to download on their phones is a privacy and censorship nightmare.
Provocation of the Week
In Works in Progress, Sam Bowman, John Myers, and Ben Southwood try “listing every problem the Western world has at the moment” and posit that one thing is exacerbating all of them:
Along with Covid, you might include slow growth, climate change, poor health, financial instability, economic inequality, and falling fertility. These longer-term trends contribute to a sense of malaise that many of us feel about our societies. They may seem loosely related, but there is one big thing that makes them all worse. That thing is a shortage of housing: too few homes being built where people want to live. And if we fix those shortages, we will help to solve many of the other, seemingly unrelated problems that we face as well.
As they go on to observe, “Housing is so important for the overall economy because it determines the location and supply of the most important ‘resource’ of all: people.”
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