On April 23, Spotify released a podcast in which Joe Rogan made up a guy: a healthy 21 year old who was seeking Rogan’s advice on whether they should get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. To this imaginary guy, who was healthy in both exercise and nutritional habits, Rogan advised against the vaccination for COVID-19, which has a global body count of over 3.1 million people.
Rogan’s comments were swiftly debunked by Dr. Anthony Fauci and many others, including this very website. One piece identified an actual 21-year-old, Cody Lyster, a collegiate athlete, who died in the hospital nine days after contracting COVID-19.
Rogan’s take was also amplified and defended by the primetime darling of white nationalists, Tucker Carlson. How far Rogan’s dumb opinion traveled, from a podcast to Fox News, illustrates a corroded pipeline that has little to do with public health, and everything to do with how fast misinformation travels, whether it’s about a mask or a hamburger.
Earlier this week, Fox News pushed a burger persecution complex onto its audience, reporting a rumor that President Joe Biden will be limiting beef consumption to one burger per month, only to issue an on-air correction days later. A Daily Mail blog from April 22 set off the panic by erroneously warning that Biden’s climate plan “could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH.” But the damage was done, and the paranoia didn’t cease with the correction. “They’re coming for your burger,” warned one Chicago Tribune columnist this morning, somehow linking to an article titled “No, Biden’s Not Banning Burgers—But Meat Is a Real Climate Problem” as proof. In response to the Fox News coverage of the false burger scarcity, Donald Trump Jr. boasted that he probably ate 4 pounds of meat the prior day.
Meanwhile, experts, some of whom have appeared on Rogan’s show, advise that everyone who is eligible to get the vaccine should do so, not just for their own protection. Rogan’s own thoughts on the virus have been inconsistent in the past, but now are just wrong, according to medical experts.
A February report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University Minnesota explained that the goal of vaccination is “to prevent deaths and reduce hospitalizations,” in part so hospitals are not overwhelmed. An author of this report, epidemiologist and member of Biden’s transition COVID-19 advisory board, Dr. Michael Osterholm, appeared on Rogan’s podcast on March 10, 2020.
More recently, in December 2020, Alex Berenson, who the Atlantic calls “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man,” also appeared on Rogan’s podcast to downplay the severity of the coronavirus and bravely question how vaccines work and why they’re scary. Two days after Rogan’s anti-vaccine guidance, Berenson dubiously used the death of a renowned Internet security researcher—whose own family said he died from complications from diabetes—as a possible vaccine-related casualty. Those who were looking for a vaccine-related casualty—which, if you’re following Berenson for reasons beside self-hatred, you probably were—got what they wished for. A correction doesn’t even matter; the original splash is what counts, and what makes it down the pipe.
Still, Rogan’s take, his imaginary 21-year-old mentee, and the ensuing backlash, landed on prime time television. Tucker Carlson defended Rogan’s statement on Tucker Carlson Tonight, and expressed a similar lack of understanding that vaccines have broader implications beyond the individual.
Carlson had his own pandemic-related advice this week: call the police or Child Protective Services if you see a child wearing a mask. While showing his entire ass on national television, Carlson compared the sight of a vaccinated person wearing a mask outdoors to a man “exposing himself in public.” This comment, to his credit, appears to acknowledge the efficacy of the vaccine.
Banal or off-hand statements from people with large platforms can have widespread results, even when it is not a matter of life and death. George H.W. Bush affected people’s stance on broccoli when he said he hated it. When his son became president and invaded Iraq, France refused to support it, and “patriotic” outrage directed at the European nation led to the creation of the pathetic term Freedom Fries.
This line of thinking has mutated guidance on vaccines, masks, and other pandemic precautions into trivial argument points, at the same time that beef products are wielded as tools to fight oppression, in the same way toilets (prior to Bathroom bills) were a battleground for libertarians. Toilet freedom fighters like Rand Paul wanted Big Government out of American commodes so they could enjoy the industrial woosh of a free market toilet, without water flow restrictions. This pet peeve somehow oozed into President Trump’s brain as he complained about water pressure in bathroom sinks.
As visible and prominent Americans beat their chests as they bravely confuse “herd immunity” for “groupthink,” people in India are dying preventable deaths due to COVID-19 right now. Dead bodies are overwhelming Delhi crematoriums, as the country suffers from a shortage of vaccines and basic medical supplies like oxygen. Meanwhile, Americans are being whipped into a frenzy over an imagined war on hamburgers, and wrong opinions about vaccines are touted on television as a sign of bravery. Given the sheer amount of death involved in this pandemic, we should consider who—and why—some people are getting so much oxygen.