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The coronavirus misinformation on Joe Rogan’s show, explained

Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, podcaster Brené Brown and more are standing up to Spotify for allowing Joe Rogan to keep airing coronavirus misinformation. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
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The current debate over misinformation has, like much of our politics, become dumb and tribal.

There are real and valid questions about what content publishers like Spotify should and shouldn’t do about misinformation from creators like Joe Rogan. That’s because such censorship can unquestionably go too far, morally if not legally, and practically speaking it can even backfire.

On the other side of the debate are people who will line up behind whoever is the latest supposed victim of “cancel culture” without ever reckoning with what their newfound ally actually said — or with the very established fact that we as a society have long accepted that certain types of speech go too far and are corrosive.

It’s about where you draw the line. As we’ve written before, things like the validity of election results and vaccines are two issues which require the utmost care, given the stakes for democracy and public health, respectively.

Which brings us to Rogan. He’s perhaps a case in point when it comes to our current dilemma. Unlike certain others, his dissemination of coronavirus misinformation doesn’t appear to be so malicious or deliberate — or even necessarily a bid to further a political agenda. He’s a dude (in the truest sense) without a medical or traditional journalistic background combing through the same conspiratorial information your friends and relatives are, and inviting some fringe figures on to talk about it for hours at a time. (Rogan said this week that he intends to do better research and conceded, “I don’t always get it right.”)

But as we have that debate, it’s worth drilling down on precisely what we’re talking about. Below is a sampling of some of the dubious and false coronavirus claims that have been broadcast to Rogan’s exceptionally large audience, along with why they can be so corrosive.

Ivermectin as ‘the end of covid’

Biologist Bret Weinstein said on Rogan’s show in June that a study suggested “ivermectin alone, if properly utilized, is capable of driving this pathogen to extinction.” He read from the study suggesting it was 86 percent effective in preventing infections.

Crazy number,” Rogan said

Weinstein added: “That number is high enough to be, independently, the end of covid if we decide to make it so.”

The study at issue, though, was a meta-analysis, reviewing generally smaller, lower-quality trials done on the use of ivermectin on covid patients. One of the main studies it relied upon, from Egypt, was soon withdrawn over major data issues. One watchdog stated that removing the Egyptian study from the meta-analysis effectively “reversed” the conclusions (which the study’s authors disputed).

The study was also conducted by people affiliated with an interest group that advocates for the use of ivermectin, PolitiFact reported, even though the authors claimed there was no conflict of interest. High-quality studies have repeatedly shown ivermectin having little to no benefit.

There is, quite simply, no evidence ivermectin is anything close to the silver bullet Rogan’s viewers were told it was. And belief in these supposed panaceas can give people false hope, leading them to not take other precautions, like vaccines.

(Rogan also shared supposed evidence that ivermectin works as recently as this week, despite the story on which it was based having been corrected. Rogan later deleted the tweet.)

‘Mass-formation hypnosis’

Perhaps the one interview that set off the current imbroglio was Rogan welcoming vaccine scientist Robert Malone last month. Malone bills himself as a key figure in the development of mRNA technology and has since become a prominent skeptic of the coronavirus vaccines. He has often lodged wild, false and unproven claims.

Among the claims he shared with Rogan’s audience: the pseudoscientific idea that a “third of the population [is] basically being hypnotized” to believe the mainstream media and Anthony S. Fauci by something called “mass-formation psychosis.” Malone compared the situation to Nazi Germany.

The concept of mass-formation psychosis is not one broadly recognized by psychologists. Malone has since backed off using the word “psychosis.”

But here Rogan’s influence shows: The idea that people could be persuaded to follow health officials by effectively being hypnotized has gained significant traction.

The McCullough interview

While the Malone interview has gotten much of the attention, one of its recent predecessors shouldn’t be given short shrift. The guest last month was cardiologist Peter McCullough, who also spoke of “mass psychosis."

McCullough claimed the pandemic was “planned” and that early treatments were deliberately suppressed “in order to promote fear, suffering, isolation, hospitalization and death.” These are largely unfalsifiable claims, but they are baseless and wildly conspiratorial.

He claimed a coronavirus vaccine trial in Australia turned people “HIV-positive” and that the evidence for this was suppressed. The tests were actually false positives because of certain protein fragments used, and this is very much in the public record.

He claimed “the virus is not spread asymptomatically.” But in doing so, he cited a 2020 Chinese study that dealt with transmission after a harsh lockdown, not asymptomatic transmission. The other study he apparently cited merely indicated asymptomatic transmission in the study itself was not “substantial,” not that it hadn’t occurred.

The same study acknowledged it had “less data” on asymptomatic transmission, rendering such bold claims of no asymptomatic transmission far beyond the evidence. Data since these studies has made clear asymptomatic people can spread the virus, including in a study released around the time of the interview.

He also claimed “you can’t get [the coronavirus] twice” and that natural immunity was basically “permanent.” He said the government has effectively admitted this. This stems from a misreading of a Freedom of Information Act request. There is myriad evidence of people getting reinfected, and there has been for many months.

Rogan, to his credit, pushed back on this last one, saying he knew people who had multiple infections. But he and McCullough didn’t dwell on it. And the moment passed, with people who had contracted the virus free to believe they might be totally immune going forward.

Microchips

While most microchip conspiracy theories deal with the bogus idea that the vaccines contain them, Rogan has offered a slightly different take. In a May segment in which Rogan suggested that Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was increasingly being proven right, Rogan pointed to microchips as an example.

“When people are talking about actual microchips being injected into your arms to see if you have covid-19, he’s like, ‘I … told you, Joe Rogan,' ” Rogan said.

In fact, the devices aren’t microchips, but rather inert sensors that can detect if a person is getting sick, without the ability to transmit information electronically. Their production also predated the pandemic by years, and they aren’t for detecting the coronavirus.

Certainly, legitimizing the likes of Jones is bad, as is feeding already prevalent conspiracy theories that health officials want to introduce tracking devices into people. Whether that’s allegedly through vaccines or something else, the impact is similar.

‘Gene therapy’

Rogan in August echoed a claim that the coronavirus vaccines weren’t actually vaccines, but were instead “gene therapy.”

“This is really gene therapy; it’s a different thing,” Rogan said. “It’s tricking your body into producing spike protein and making these antibodies for covid.”

While perhaps somewhat innocently trying to get at the differences between mRNA vaccines and more traditional vaccines, this is wrong. Gene therapy involves modifying a person’s genes, which the mRNA vaccines don’t do. Instead, they teach cells how to recognize a coronavirus spike protein and fight against it.

Casting things in terms of “gene therapy,” again, echoes existing conspiracy theories about the vaccines. As with “microchips,” it invites people to believe the vaccines are significantly more invasive than they actually are.

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