The problem of Joe Rogan is a problem of the modern internet.
2022 has not started off well for Joe Rogan — even before the headline-grabbing Spotify controversy that has made him a perhaps unwitting figurehead for extremist rhetoric. First, hundreds of health experts complained that he was frequently spreading Covid-19 misinformation through his massively popular podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. Then a jaw-dropping compilation video of Rogan saying the n-word 24 times in his 12 years hosting the podcast surfaced.
These things seem like the hallmarks of a far-right ideologue, but Rogan, who called Barack Obama the “best president we have had in our lifetime,” can’t easily be pigeonholed as racist. He also can’t be easily pigeonholed as an anti-science bigot, despite having made misogynistic, anti-feminist, fatphobic, homophobic, transphobic, and anti-vax statements. It’s not even easy to peg the podcaster, who famously endorsed progressive candidate Bernie Sanders in the 2020 election (before anti-endorsing Biden), as right-wing.
In fact, one of the things that makes Joe Rogan so popular among his millions of fans is that his politics are so difficult to pin down. Rather than simply and easily slotting into a box labeled “conservative,” “liberal,” or even “reactionary,” he mainly holds both the far right and the far left in contempt; depending on which day you check in, he’s either a left-leaning centrist or a right-leaning libertarian. But his contrarian tendencies lead him to embrace and toy with lots of ideas, including those from the fringe.
As his critics are quick to point out, in portraying himself as open-minded, Rogan platforms a lot of people whose ideas are dangerous. And without a background in journalism or seemingly any type of journalistic editorial oversight, Rogan, who has spent most of his podcasting career as a fully independent media host, hasn’t always been the best person to critique or fact-check his highly influential guests.
When Rogan’s more polarizing guests and their unchecked influence join with his own long history of saying offensive things, the results can be grim. Alongside the reasoned political debates and philosophical arguments, his massive audience of primarily mainstream, middle-American men gets dosed with toxicity and extremism. Rogan is always quick to defend his show’s content in the name of free speech and preserving the voices of straight white men. But as the New York Times noted in a 2021 profile of Rogan, while his self-deprecating brand of authenticity has made his listeners view him as just another regular guy, his influence has grown “hulking,” enough to make him one of the most formidable single voices in media to exist — maybe ever.
What we have, then, is a problem that is both unique to the internet and reflective of the giant problem of the internet as a whole: Like the internet itself, Rogan and whatever dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories, jerky bigotry, or offensive views he wants to serve up today are all unstoppable and essentially answerable to no one. He has all of the audience, money, attention, and prestige of a traditional gatekeeper, but with barely any real pressure to assume responsibility for repeatedly making high-profile mistakes on the job.
The public’s growing lack of trust in traditional journalism and legacy media outlets — a wariness evinced by media throne usurpers like Rogan himself — has made it even less likely for him to be effectively held accountable or face real consequences for repeated mistakes. After all, fans who are already prone to distrust the media are hardly going to support the journalism they dislike for trying to call out the podcaster they do like — especially not for what they see as foibles rather than serious flaws.
That, too, is a unique problem: If Rogan’s audience doesn’t agree that his guests or his rhetoric are problems to begin with, or that his pattern of platforming bigotry and misinformation is an issue, then who’s to say they’re wrong?
Rogan’s tenure at Spotify has been beset with controversy
Rogan’s exclusive Spotify deal, announced in May 2020, should have been an easy win for the company, which has been investing heavily in expanding its podcast content across a wide variety of genres and target audiences. The deal, which was initially reported as netting Rogan around $100 million but was recently reported as closer to $200 million, placed the vast majority of Rogan’s staggering episode vault — currently up to nearly 1,800 eps — exclusively on the Spotify platform.
But from the beginning, there were issues. Spotify quietly had Rogan remove about a dozen episodes — interviews Rogan had done with alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and with Gavin McInnes, founder of the extreme-right Proud Boys movement. The Times recently reported that Spotify staff had vocalized their concerns about Rogan’s content as early as September 2020.
Then came Rogan’s increasingly skeptical views on generally accepted Covid-19 medical advice. On the show, Rogan advised young adults not to get vaccinated, claimed to be treating himself with harmful rogue treatments including an animal dewormer not recommended for Covid-19, and hosted anti-vax guests. The scientific community’s response to his spread of misinformation peaked in January with the open letter to Spotify. In response to the physicians’ criticism, legendary rock musician Neil Young protested Rogan by pulling all of his music from Spotify.
It was a jarring callout for Rogan, whose fans say they love him for being a moderated, reasoned voice in the middle of an increasingly polarized media space. And that fan base is enormous: By some estimates, he draws as many as 11 million regular listeners per episode, though the numbers aren’t confirmed. Even modest estimates make the show’s regular listening audience big enough to rival the Super Bowl, even after his core listenership declined since moving to Spotify.
The Neil Young controversy had barely been doused — Rogan apologized, sort of, explaining, “I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron” — before another erupted. This time, another musician, India Arie, threatened to pull her music from Spotify over Rogan, sharing on her Instagram the video of Rogan saying the n-word 24 times on the podcast. In his subsequent apology, Rogan admitted that he’d previously had a long history of saying the actual racial slur instead of saying “the n-word.”
“I thought as long as it was in context, people would understand what I was doing,” he said. “But it is not my word to use. I’m well aware of that now … I never used it to be racist because I’m not racist, but whenever you’re in a situation where you have to say, ‘I’m not racist,’ you fucked up.”
In response to the video and Rogan’s apology, Spotify asked Rogan to remove an additional 70-ish offensive episodes from the platform, including episodes where he made racialized remarks and joked about sexual assault. With that unpleasantness out of the way, the company stood firmly by Rogan. “We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope,” company CEO Daniel Ek told the New York Times.
Rogan stressed that the video — which has been floating around the internet for a while — had been taken out of context, compiled over his show’s 12-year history. Still, the implication that Rogan “only” said the n-word on-air an average of two times a year (as The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah described it, “like he bought it in bulk at Costco”) is pretty galling by itself. It doesn’t help that the video also included the time Rogan described entering a Black neighborhood as like entering the “planet of the apes” — a statement Rogan claimed he only made to be “entertaining,” not to be racist.
As Rogan himself admitted, all of this looks and sounds horrible. But with zero consequences being laid at his door and his fan support unwavering, does any of it ultimately matter?
Rogan’s evolving influence is as unwieldy as it is massive
Rogan got his start in comedy and still primarily identifies as a comedian — though that may be difficult for people who are mainly familiar with his more recent career to parse. As a standup comic, he performed in Boston, then moved to Los Angeles and scored roles on the ’90s sitcoms Hardball and NewsRadio. His comedy career continued around his entertainment jobs, including the role that launched him into stardom: the often confrontational host of NBC’s “eat these worms” reality show Fear Factor. Rogan has said he took the job as Fear Factor host so he’d have more material for his standup routines. But in fact, his hosting abilities would pave the way for a career in podcasting.
When Rogan began The Joe Rogan Experience on Christmas Eve in 2009, the landscape of podcasting looked hugely different from how it looks today. Some legacy media had forayed into the podcasting world, most notably This American Life, which began distributing episodes as a podcast in 2006. But barring some rare exceptions, podcasting was almost entirely an independent, amateur, grassroots space — not an industry at all, but rather a community of predominantly high-income, extremely online tech nerds, mostly men, flocking to the audio equivalent of a blog. The small-town intimacy of podcasting in those days allowed podcasts like Rogan’s to do well, not only because of listener loyalty but also because they were the only game in town. If you wanted to listen to a funny, comedian-centered chat show, or a meaty, lengthy interview, Rogan was right there with plenty of content to chew on.
Rogan was fast, prolific, and consistent, putting out long weekly, then biweekly, then multi-weekly episodes like clockwork. These initially featured long interviews with other comedians like Dane Cook or Bill Burr, but it didn’t take long for other high-profile interviews to sneak in: Kevin Smith, Anthony Bourdain, Melissa Etheridge. Rogan’s wide-open approach to guests was effective but unwieldy: By 2013, he was chatting with scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, but also courting fringe conspiracy theories of every variety, ranging from his long-held belief that the moon landing was faked to the existence of DMT elves.
Rogan’s podcast debut coincided with the introduction of Google’s Android into the smartphone space, a development that exacerbated the rise not only of modern social media but also of the podcast as a ubiquitous smartphone presence. It also coincided with the increasing obsolescence of traditional media; between 2006 and 2016, awareness of podcasting doubled while trust in media on the whole plummeted, reaching new lows year over year.
Even more crucial to Rogan’s success was YouTube: Rogan filmed and released his podcast episodes on YouTube as well, giving him access to two growing online ecosystems. These were increasingly united not only by a common DIY ethos but a sense that influence and authority, if not expertise, could be earned through nontraditional pathways.
For Rogan, that authority took the form of embracing his masculinity and encouraging his listeners — the vast majority of whom were and are young men — to do the same. He offers “a motivational shove in the general direction of success and happiness,” a clarion call for audiences to step up and take control of their own lives that fits somewhere between a Tony Robbins seminar and Reddit’s favorite “lawyer up and hit the gym” mantra. In his bio, Rogan highlights his longstanding side gig as an MMA commentator and notes that he had a black belt in tae kwon do as a teen. It’s perhaps significant that he lists those accomplishments before his Fear Factor hosting gig — the latter might be a more recognizable achievement to the general public, but the former underscores the stamp of authentic machismo that his fans value.
But Rogan also, perhaps surprisingly, eschews toxic masculinity (even as Rogan himself eschews the whole idea of “toxic masculinity” and a potpourri of other progressive buzzwords). He urges listeners to be vulnerable, to forge close male friendships, to celebrate “male energy.” As Andrew Sullivan recently observed, “He readily admits when he’s wrong and often self-deprecates. He’s not afraid to show emotion and choke up — whether it’s over the triumph of female fighters or putting down a puppy or the death of Chadwick Boseman. … His masculinity is unforced, funny and real.”
While a desire to uphold men and masculinity might make Rogan more relatable to his audiences, however, it also leaves them more receptive to Rogan’s wide-ranging social and political views — and the extremist views of some of the guests he platforms. For example: Even after the 2018 collapse of his Infowars empire, right-wing extremist conspiracist Alex Jones continued to reach a massive mainstream audience as a guest on Rogan’s show, thanks to a 2019 appearance that was downloaded more than 30 million times before its eventual Spotify removal. Rogan’s most recent episode with recurring guest and right-wing philosopher Jordan Peterson was over four hours long; excerpts of it have already been viewed millions of times on YouTube alone. That’s a lot of potential new eyes and ears turned toward a man whose reactionary politics have won him a huge following among white supremacists.
Rogan has also increasingly faced charges of being an alt-right gateway drug, despite and perhaps even because of his progressive political endorsements — and research into YouTube’s ballooning far-right sphere of influence has borne out some of that alarm. Though Rogan has never overtly courted the internet “manosphere,” with its long tail of toxicity and function as an introduction into harder extremism, many of his fans are drawn to his podcast for the same reasons they’re drawn to the manosphere: Rogan’s permissive, understanding approach to being a man in a world increasingly critical of masculinity.
None of this context fully explains how Rogan arrived at the “injecting himself with dewormer” stage of Covid-19 conspiracies. But it does imply that unlike, say, a right-wing news anchor who might preach vaccine wariness while being fully vaccinated themselves, Rogan’s mistrust of authority and anti-establishment contrarianism are more than just words. The complicated reality is that Rogan seems to genuinely dislike “woke” progressive politics and what he perceives as the hypersensitive, overly semantic identity politics of leftism, while also despising Donald Trump and everything he represents. Recognizing that the two aren’t mutually exclusive moral vectors is arguably one of Rogan’s strengths; he won’t cancel you for disagreeing with him. “I disagree with myself all the time,” he’s said.
His fans likewise see his self-deprecating openness about his own ignorance as a value rather than a flaw. And all the racist language? That, too, is a nonstarter with fans as a serious criticism of Rogan — which makes sense when you consider that one of the main ways modern racism flourishes is through a reliance on nuance that skirts the line between ironic racism and actual racism, between intent and effect. NPR critic Eric Deggans calls Rogan’s “I’m not X-ist, despite doing these many literally X-ist things” approach to these topics “bigotry denial syndrome,” which he defines as “the belief that, because you personally don’t view yourself as a bigot, you don’t believe that you can say or do something that is seriously bigoted or damaging.”
“The problem here isn’t just that Rogan may have hurt feelings or given offense,” Deggans writes. “The bigger issue is the way such jokes foster acceptance of stereotypes that are damaging and persistent. … In fact, you can argue that — by providing more palatable ways for fans to use a horrible racial slur and laughing off a joke he admitted was racist — Rogan did damage that is tougher to address than an admitted racist openly advocating white supremacy.”
Deggans is focused here on Rogan’s history of racist language usage. But he’s also pinned the slippery, bigger problem with Rogan as a public figure. Rogan is the influencer’s influencer — a new-generation media mogul whose fame is predicated less on being accurate or being professional than on being popular and relatable. Paradoxically, that allows him not only to get away with professional-level mistakes — errors that might have ended his career if he had a boss, worked in an office environment, or had anyone to hold him accountable — but also to claim ownership of those glaring mistakes as a part of his brand of relatability and honesty.
Instead of being canceled (he’s “too big to cancel”), Rogan has dragged us all in the opposite direction: He’s just respectable enough, and more than powerful enough, to have helped shift the Overton window of acceptable, respectable social views toward a messier, uglier roundtable that, sure, includes Bernie Sanders and Neil deGrasse Tyson, but also includes Alex Jones and a bunch of alt-light right-wingers. Spotify might have been the driving force that could have attempted to hold Rogan accountable for his decision to consistently platform extremists, but Spotify, battling its own set of problems in the podcast space, kowtowed to Rogan and graciously gave way.
In other words, Rogan, one of the most powerful voices in the world, now may have more freedom than ever to dictate the terms of public conversation — to decide who and what gets to be listened to, and why. As Deggans notes, that sort of influence is much harder to fight than out-and-out extremism.
It’s in that gray space that Rogan flourishes. It’s in that gray space that his listeners, exhausted by the endless polarization of sociocultural discourse, find comfort in Rogan’s ambiguities and contradictions and uncertainties. But it’s also that gray space that harbors bad actors, bad science, misinformation, and disinformation. By playing host to them all but claiming it all as fair game in the name of free speech, Rogan has taught his followers a simple but effective playbook for how to appear balanced without actually being balanced.
Whether Rogan himself believes his dedication to cultivating a moderate and open viewpoint is almost beside the point: It only takes one bad seed to yield a lot of bad apples. And for every Roganite who gravitates to his show because of his more moderate guests, there are the Roganites who come for the Elon Musks but get drawn to the Jordan Petersons and Ben Shapiros. That’s all part of Rogan’s appeal, no matter how much his fans might insist that it isn’t. And the more he teaches his followers how to weaponize that denialism, the harder it gets to pass off Rogan’s brand as that of a relatable guy who’s just royally fucking up once in a while.
Yet what if Rogan were to drop the artifice? If he were to actually admit that there are limits to the acceptable nature of the views he’s been platforming? For all Rogan’s shows of authenticity, that level of honesty seems almost unthinkable.
Rogan, and people like Peterson alongside him, have been able to stretch the Overton window because not enough of his followers and the general public are convinced that what they’re preaching is socially unacceptable discourse. But if Rogan admits that it is, then he’s turned his show into yet another moral line in the culture war sand — and another hill for his fans and far-right reactionaries to die on. If Rogan admits that amplifying abhorrent views in the name of free speech isn’t worth the trade-off, then the safe comfort zone he’s spent 12 years constructing for his audience comes crashing down.
And if Rogan admits, out loud, that the safe zone he built hides monsters, then we all have to reckon with having allowed him to build it. And to reckon, not just with Joe Rogan but with the past decade of our cultural conversation constricting itself in knots in order to establish a legitimate platform for white supremacy, white nationalism, and a bottomless cauldron of hate. For ideas that should never have been treated as legitimate to begin with.
Surely, rather than unpack that mess, it’s easier for everyone to let Joe Rogan keep Joe Roganing — for Spotify to sidestep a distasteful canceling, and for fans to continue viewing Rogan as a vanguard of moderated discourse.
The only problem is one of attrition: The more we let Rogan get away with it, the more we set ourselves up for something worse down the line — for something even more unacceptable to slowly become acceptable.
What’s more unacceptable than 24 n-words? We can barely imagine. But one thing already seems like an inevitability: The next Rogan-esque influencer who comes along may have even less pretense, and even more fans who are willing to follow him into the dark.