Rogan and Kennedy in conversation. Screenshots via Spotify/Joe Rogan experience
A broad swath of the anti-vaccine universe celebrated Thursday, when Joe Rogan, the biggest podcaster in the country, hosted a three-hour conversation with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vax luminary turned presidential candidate. The conversation was an orgy of unchecked vaccine misinformation, some conspiracy-mongering about 5G technology and wifi, and, of course, Rogan once again praising ivermectin, an ineffective faux COVID treatment. As RFK began his campaign by downplaying his anti-vaccine activism, the conversation represented a bit of a return to form. But the episode also conclusively demonstrates that Spotify, the platform that reportedly paid more than $200 million to host Rogan’s show, has completely given up on addressing his relentless torrent of medical misinformation, except in the most pallid and surface-level ways.
The show began with Rogan monologuing effusively about how he changed his mind on Kennedy, saying he’d gone from thinking the latter was “a fringey-thinking conspiracy-type person” to agreeing with Kennedy’s stance on vaccines during the pandemic. “I was like, ‘Is this possible that this is the guy that’s telling the truth?’” Rogan asked, rhetorically. What followed was a detailed survey of Kennedy’s most dangerously incorrect views, a far too extensive list to outline in full, all of which Rogan accepted uncritically, his mouth quite often literally agape in awe. (There was also a casual aside near the end in which Kennedy, who believes his uncle, JFK, and his father were both assassinated by the CIA, suggested that he himself may be targeted by the organization. He told Rogan he takes “precautions” against the CIA, although it’s unclear what those might be.)They included innumerable talking points that have already been debunked: at one point, for instance, Kennedy falsely suggested that vaccines cause autism, which has been repeatedly and roundly disproven, with Rogan interjecting supportively. Kennedy also trotted out one of his favorite talking points, that vaccines contain a dangerous form of mercury—something he says a lot. As ever, he conflated ethylmercury, which is not considered hazardous to human health, and methylmercury, which is considered dangerous in even small doses. (Kennedy, in this instance, did acknowledge that there are two different kinds of mercury, but insisted there’s no real difference between them, that ethylmercury lodged in the brains of monkeys in a lab test, and that anyone who might say there is a difference between the two kinds of mercury is a pharma shill.) In reality, methylmercury is much more commonly encountered in the environment, for instance when eating fish or shellfish, whereas ethylmercury primarily appears in thimerosal, a preservative that has been used in some childhood vaccines. But thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines by 2001, and has, in any case, never been found to cause autism or any other negative health effect. Kennedy insisted that vaccines may still somehow cause autism, perhaps through aluminum—which is used as an adjuvant in vaccines and in countless other foods and cosmetic and medical products—or in some other way he could not precisely identify.
“There’s lots of other toxics in the vaccines that, you know, could be responsible,” he said. Kennedy also touted his story “Deadly Immunity,” the now-infamous article he wrote that ran simultaneously in Rolling Stone and Salon in 2005. He also got around to mentioning that the story was ultimately retracted by Salon, after the publication first had to append a humiliating round of extensive corrections. Kennedy claimed to Rogan that the piece was pulled after “pressure from the pharmaceutical industry,” a completely evidence-free statement that Rogan of course did not ask him to prove. Departing momentarily from fake vaccine claims, the gang also had a long discussion about the purported dangers of wifi. Children’s Health Defense, the anti-vaccine organization that Kennedy founded and is the chairman of, has long made a number of false claims about electromagnetic, wireless, and 5G technologies. Kennedy suggested that “wifi radiation” could be causing autism, food allergies, asthma, eczema, or other chronic illnesses, which Rogan, in a rare show of basic critical thinking, suggested was “unlikely.” “I think it degrades your mitochondria and it opens your blood-brain barrier,” Kennedy said, confidently. Rogan paused and then turned to his producer, Jamie, who often acts as the show’s researcher by Googling things. “Do you see anything online about that?” he asked. After a moment in Google, Rogan paused again.
“Oh my God,” he said, finally, “we gotta get rid of wifi.” (To be clear, though, concerns about the potential health effects of wireless technology have been raised by activists, researchers, and journalists, with ProPublica reporting in 2022 that the FCC “has repeatedly sided with the telecom industry in denying the possibility of virtually any human harm.” This kind of thing is the ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories: an alignment between state and corporate power and a lack of transparency not only make ordinary people suspicious, they produce ready ammunition for people like Kennedy.) Both men also agreed that Big Pharma was intentionally suppressing data about the effectiveness of ivermectin against COVID. (Ivermectin is very effective at treating river blindness, a devastating parasitic illness; Kennedy claimed that ivermectin “won a Nobel Prize,” which is not how anything works; two scientists who were involved in discovering its uses were awarded the prize.) “They had to discredit ivermectin,” Kennedy proclaimed. “Because there’s a federal law, the emergency use authorization statute, says you cannot issue an emergency use authorization to a vaccine if there’s an existing medication that has been approved for any purpose that is demonstrated effective against the target illness. So they had to destroy ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.” This is, plainly, bullshit, a Conspiracy 101 claim that has been, again, roundly and easily debunked. Kennedy also claimed that ivermectin studies were “designed to fail,” which is, once again, incredibly not true.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before. In January of 2022, Spotify faced a withering round of criticism for failing to check Rogan’s vaccine lies, with both Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulling their music from the platform in protest. Rogan eventually semi-apologized on Instagram, stating, “I’m not trying to promote misinformation, I’m not trying to be controversial. I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than to just talk to people.”In response to the public outcry, Spotify eventually published its internal platform rules, which include strictures against “content that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information that may cause offline harm or poses a direct threat to public health.” The company specifically prohibits saying COVID is a “hoax,” promoting “bleach products” as a cure or treatment for the disease, and “promoting or suggesting that vaccines approved by local health authorities are designed to cause death.”In response to a request for comment from Motherboard, a Spotify spokesperson offered the following statement: "Spotify has long-standing policies that help us balance creator expression and listener preferences while minimizing the risk of offline harm. We have multiple measures to ensure that content on Spotify is in keeping with our policies." (In a separate email, the same spokesperson added, “Since the beginning of the Covid Pandemic, we removed over 20,000 podcast episodes for violating our dangerous false or dangerous deceptive medical information policies within our Platform Rules.”)
It is that last rule that a Spotify spokesperson, in a brief phone conversation with Motherboard, insisted that Rogan and Kennedy had not broken, since the while the two suggested during their conversation that COVID vaccines are ineffective, and are injuring and killing large numbers of people, they did not explicitly say they were “designed” to do so. Instead, they spent a lot of time ruminating about how young people are suddenly dropping dead on sports fields and such, a clear nod at the debunked but still popular “died suddenly” conspiracy theory. “If you take the vaccine, you’re 21 percent more likely to die of all causes,” Kennedy said, at one point, before claiming that the vaccine also increases risk of cardiac arrest. (A large Australian study released last month found no association between COVID vaccinations and cardiac arrest. They are associated with a very small increased risk of myocardities in some populations, a fact that has been relentlessly exploited by people who distrust vaccines, in order to suggest that young people should not be vaccinated.)The same spokesperson also said that Spotify could, on occasion, take “episode-level” action on a show, for instance limiting its discoverability—then added that the company “does not discuss episode-level actions” taken. There’s no evidence that this particular episode has been made more difficult to find; it has instead simply been appended with the same “Learn More about COVID-19” banner that many of Rogan’s episodes bear. The banner provides links to podcasts about COVID from places like The Guardian, the BBC and Johns Hopkins. And it’s worth noting that even if Spotify did take any action like limiting discoverability, it would be essentially meaningless for a specific Rogan episode. His podcast would, after all, still come up when a user searches for Joe Rogan, as a large number of people do every day, and subscribers would still see it in the feed.Finally, Kennedy also used the episode to air a few grudges, specifically maligning Dr. Paul Offit, a physician and internationally recognized expert in virology and immunology who also co-developed a rotavirus vaccine. Kennedy described Offit as a functionary of the pharmaceutical industry and dubiously claimed that when the two once spoke by phone, Offit could not cite any safety studies done on vaccines. (There are quite a few of them; the American Academy of Pediatrics has a roundup of some of the biggest ones here.) In response, Offit told Motherboard in an email, “I’m not RFK Jr.’s problem. The science that has consistently shown him to be wrong is his problem.”