The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Rogan is using his wildly popular podcast to question vaccines. Experts are fighting back.

Joe Rogan, left, has the most popular podcast on Spotify. (Vivian Zink/Syfy/NBCUniversal Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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Joe Rogan has the most popular podcast on Spotify, and he’s been using it to question coronavirus vaccines.

His latest probe came on Friday’s episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” in which he said, “If you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go no.”

“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, adding that both of his children got covid-19 and it was “no big deal.”

It shouldn’t need to be said, but Rogan is not an expert on infectious diseases. He’s a comedian and MMA commentator who hosts a free-form conversation podcast. And his comments have sparked a media firestorm, especially as experts recognize just how much influence he has in today’s culture.

The clip trended on Twitter for two days, while Rogan’s critics, who accused him of spreading dangerous misinformation, duked it out with his supporters, who argued that the mainstream media was trying to silence him.

“Did Joe Rogan become a medical doctor while we weren’t looking?” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told CNN on Wednesday. “I’m not sure that taking scientific and medical advice from Joe Rogan is perhaps the most productive way for people to get their information.”

Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, addressed Rogan’s comments Wednesday during an appearance on “Today,” reiterating that vaccinations aren’t just about making sure the individual receiving them doesn’t get covid-19 — and that young, healthy people should “absolutely” get vaccinated.

Not doing so, he said, is to “to only worry about yourself and not society.” Unvaccinated people, he added, “are propagating the outbreak” because they can “inadvertently and innocently” spread the virus to others, even if they don’t show symptoms.

Rebecca Wurtz, an infectious-disease physician and population health informaticist who teaches at the University of Minnesota, pointed out that as of April 21, “266 deaths of people between the ages of 0 and 17 have involved covid” and that more than 3.7 million children have been diagnosed with the illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — all of whom were “at risk for multisystem inflammatory syndrome” and for spreading the disease to others.

“He is incorrect when he says that young people don’t need to worry about covid,” Wurtz told The Post by email. “I’m really glad that his children had minimal symptoms from the virus. I hope that anyone who caught it from them, or caught it from those who caught it from them, are doing as well.”

Rogan responded to the controversy on his podcast Thursday by slightly walking back the sentiment and saying, “I am not a respected source of information even for me,” a comment he often makes to defend his more outlandish views.

“I am not an anti-vaxx person,” Rogan added. “In fact, I said I believe they are safe and I encourage many people to take them. I just said if you’re a young healthy person, you don’t need it. Their argument was you need it for other people. But that’s a different conversation. And yes, that makes sense.”

It’s difficult to overstate the hold Rogan has on a certain segment of the population, one that skews young and male. Testosterone is his brand. He got his start as a stand-up comic before appearing on sitcoms such as “Hardball” and “NewsRadio.” He later became a commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, hosted “Fear Factor” and eventually launched his podcast.

His show was being downloaded more than 190 million times each month before Spotify acquired it for more than $100 million last year and probably widened his audience. (Neither Spotify nor Rogan responded to The Washington Post’s request for comment.)

Part of Rogan’s appeal, especially to this audience, is as a provocateur. Casually questioning generally held beliefs or even outright facts — often while stoned — is part of his brand, so much so that the Onion spoofed him with the headline, “Joe Rogan Starting To Make A Lot Of Sense To Man Who Gets All His News From Joe Rogan.”

His off-the-cuff style has led to him spreading misinformation in the past. Just this past September, he apologized for claiming that people were arrested for lighting forest fires in Portland, Ore. “I was very irresponsible not looking into it before I repeated it,” he tweeted at the time.

Spotify has even pulled more than 40 episodes of his show, including one featuring conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Most of his assertions are wild claims — that astronauts didn’t land on the moon, or that the government found aliens in Roswell. Normally, it’s easy enough to shake off his ramblings, but experts say his questioning of both vaccines and the severity of covid-19 is putting people at risk.

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Misinformation coming from someone like Rogan “continues to perpetuate doubt,” said Kolina Koltai, a vaccine misinformation researcher at the University of Washington. “A lot of young adults follow him … and he’s encouraging people to have hesitation.”

Koltai pointed out that “no one is getting all of their information from Joe Rogan.” But when his comments clash with what experts tell us, it helps muddy the waters. “Hearing these conflicting messages from someone you might trust and someone you might agree with typically, it can potentially cause you to be concerned,” she said. “Oftentimes, it just ends up confusing people and making them not sure what to do.”

What’s particularly striking is that at times he has focused on covid caution. At the beginning of the pandemic, he dedicated a 90-minute episode to an interview with epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who detailed the seriousness of the disease. Later, he had on sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis to discuss the mechanisms behind mRNA vaccines. He posted a clip of that conversation to his YouTube page with the title “The Safety & Efficacy of Potential COVID Vaccine.”

Then, in January, Rogan zigzagged and said he wouldn’t be taking the vaccine, adding, “I would if I felt like I needed it. I just feel like if you maintain your health — and I think for some people it’s important, for some people it’s good.” And that was after he put the show on hold in October when his producer tested positive for coronavirus. Now, he’s suggesting young people shouldn’t take it either — flying in the face of everything experts have said.

Koltai said it’s impossible to quantify how much damage Rogan’s comments cause, but “we know it takes a while to correct” any misinformation someone like him spreads.

If a friend or relative is questioning the vaccine based on Rogan’s comments, Koltai suggests asking them to explain their reasoning, and share with them the guidelines from official agencies like the CDC. Finally, “emphasize that the vaccine is not just about protecting yourself, but also protecting your loved ones.”

Finally, Koltai said, it may be useful to point out that many athletes — who tend to be young and healthy — have gotten the vaccine.

“Emphasize that you really care about them, that you want them to be safe, that you don’t want them to catch covid,” she said. “Vaccination is one of the ways to prevent it.”

This story has been updated.

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