Feb 07 2022

Joe Rogan and the Media Algorithm

The latest controversy over Joe Rogan and Spotify is a symptom of a long-standing trend, exacerbated by social media but not caused by it. The problem is with the algorithms used by media outlets to determine what to include on their platform.

The quick summary is that Joe Rogan’s podcast is the most popular podcast in the world with millions of listeners. Rogan follows a long interview format, and he is sometimes criticized for having on guests that promote pseudoscience or misinformation, for not holding them to account, or for promoting misinformation himself. In particular he has come under fire for spreading dangerous COVID misinformation during a health crisis, specifically his interview with Dr. Malone. In an open letter to Rogan’s podcast host, Spotify, health experts wrote:

“With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE, which is hosted exclusively on Spotify, is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence,” the letter reads. “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

Then Neil Young gave Spotify an ultimatum – either Rogan goes, or he goes. Spotify did not respond, leading to Young pulling his entire catalog of music from the platform. Other artists have also joined the boycott. This entire episode has prompted yet another round of discussion over censorship and the responsibility of media platforms, outlets, and content producers. Rogan himself produced a video to explain his position. The video is definitively not an apology or even an attempt at one. In it Rogan makes two core points. The first is that he himself is not an expert of any kind, therefore he should not be held responsible for the scientific accuracy of what he says or the questions he asks. Second, his goal with the podcast is to simply interview interesting people. Rogan has long used these two points to absolve himself of any journalistic responsibility, so this is nothing new. He did muddy the waters a little when he went on to say that maybe he can research his interviewees more thoroughly to ask better informed questions, but this was presented as more of an afterthought. He stands by his core justifications.

First lets dispense with the notion that this episode has anything to do with the First Amendment, free speech, or censorship. It doesn’t. The First Amendment deals with the government, and says nothing about the rights of a private company to determine their own speech. Spotify has the right to use whatever editorial policy they see as most appropriate to determine who has access to their platform, and the public is free to vote with their feet or their dollars. Artists are also private citizens who are free to make their political will known by either supporting or boycotting the platform. What would be a violation of free speech is if any government agency forced Spotify to host content they did not want to host.

We can also dispense with the premise that all content is equal, and that the only thing that matters is free market forces – who chooses to listen to (or read or watch) the content. This premise assumes that there are no facts, that all claims to truth are equal, and that there are no reasonable methods by which we can label one piece of information valid and responsible and another dangerous misinformation. At the same time we would not want popular media outlets to micromanage content, to prejudge ideas, or to chill open discussion or the free exchange of ideas. So there is a balance between openness and quality control. This balance also depends on the context. Within academia, for example, there is a fierce defense of academic freedom, while there is simultaneously a rigid adherence to scholarship and academic quality (at least in the ideal). A respectable university would not hire as a professor a complete crank who would teach their students demonstrable nonsense. They should not hire an astrologer to each astronomy, or a flat-earther to teach geology. That’s not censorship – it’s scholarship. But they might hire as professors, or promote within their ranks, those who hold respectable but minority, even contrarian, opinions within their field, as long as their scholarship is sound. There’s a gray zone there, but that’s for experts to work out – striking that optimal balance.

The same balance should exist in other arenas, such as journalism and big media outlets. This comes down to journalistic responsibility – if you present something as a verified fact, you should have followed an accepted journalistic process to verify it. Journalists should also provide reasonable balance in their reporting, not giving excess time to the 1% minority opinion, or spending 20 minutes gushing over a pseudoscientific claim then providing a 5 second generic rebuttal from a talking head scientist and calling it balance. In politics, this means fairly presenting all reasonable sides. No outlet is perfect, and there will always be some editorial bias, but at least this should be the recognized ideal.

But that’s not the world we live in. Sure, there are some great journalists out there, and some media outlets that strive for high quality, but such is no longer the default or baseline. The media has always followed other algorithms to determine what and how to report the news and information. The oldest is simply sensationalism – if it bleeds it leads. If you are a business entity as well as news source, then eyeballs and attention matter. Choosing stories that have an emotional element, are dramatic or strange, will always garner attention. You can also emphasize the most dramatic elements of any story, or find sensational angles to present. Following this algorithm distorts the news and misrepresents reality. But sensationalism is a very old concept, and most people (in an historically open society) are familiar with it and able to calibrate for it.

There are more recent media algorithms, however, that are more pernicious. One is increasingly blending news and entertainment (so-called infotainment). This goes beyond making the news more entertaining, and includes presenting entertainment as if it were news. Another phenomenon is presenting advertisements as if they were news, either by influencing the media outlets or through straight-up sponsored content.

Far worse, in my opinion, is following a news algorithm that comes from abandoning the fairness doctrine and deliberately catering to a particular political demographic. This approach was pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, but perhaps its most successful practitioner is Fox News. This algorithm curates the news, or presents opinion as news, so that it appeals to the existing political biases and opinions of the viewers. This approach abandons all pretense to balance, and instead just feeds its audience what it wants to hear. This sets up a dangerous feedback loop. Getting a steady diet of one political side tends to radicalize the audience, which then demands more and more extreme content. This approach also feeds on outrage, so the audience is deliberately angered and emotionally manipulated, and their anger is aimed at some villain. The “other side” becomes progressively demonized, so this approach also has a polarizing effect. Perhaps the most outrageous example of this approach is Info Wars.

Rogan is not following this radicalizing algorithm. He is following something closer to the previously mentioned ones – sensationalism and infotainment. Rogan laid out his algorithm for everyone to see, and it’s one that media in general like to follow. First, he absolved himself as having to serve as a journalistic filter, because he’s just a regular guy with a podcast. That stopped being the case long before, but definitely after, he signed up with Spotify and had an audience of millions of listeners. He is now a major media outlet, whether he wants to recognize that or not.

But second he said outright that he chooses guests who are “interesting”. That was the only qualification he mentioned. Following the “interesting” algorithm, however, leads you to people who hold increasingly odd or contrarian views. This does not mean they are necessarily wrong, but it certainly increases the probability that they are. If 99% of experts hold one opinion, and 1% hold a contrary opinion, the 99% are more likely to be correct in the long run. It depends on how robust and mature the evidence is in the field and with regard to any specific claim, but a robust consensus exists for a reason. I know there are those who deny this simple fact, but they have no good argument for doing so (just conspiracy theories and logical fallacies). I am also not saying the consensus is always correct – I am only saying that probability is on its side. In fact, science is all about probability, and what the consensus is saying is that – if you look at all the existing evidence, this is the answer that is most likely to be true.

So in effect, when the media follows the “interesting” algorithm they are choosing opinions and experts who are most likely to be wrong. If you combine this with a very low journalistic filter, then we have a problem. These two factors, which Rogan made explicit (remember, he’s just a regular guy and this is just entertainment), essentially have made him into a firehose of misinformation. Even still, it took a pandemic and Rogan spreading dangerous health misinformation to get any significant reaction.

Rogan is also a good representation of how social media has exacerbated (but again, did not cause) this problem. On social media, anyone can get into the game, and anyone can theoretically rise to the top, without ever having to earn their journalistic bones or work with an editor, simply by being entertaining. This is the world we made and are living in right now. How are you liking it?

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