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Not Every Public Conversation Is Journalism
Joe Rogan, and the ambiguous categories of “harm” and “misinformation”
Because it happens on proprietary platforms frequented by media people, much public conversation is treated as though it is appearing in the legacy media; that is, it is fact-checked, edited, policed and critiqued against the standards of journalism - though of course only where it offends the values of journalists.
But not every conversation that takes place in public is journalism; especially since the standards of journalism as currently practised are more connected to the social status of individual journalists than to the pursuit of truth.
If all of our conversations are going to take place on social media there will have to be space to allow people speak in a normal human manner - to speculate, and sometimes talk out of their ass; even if those conversations are popular and influential.
With that in mind let’s talk about Joe Rogan, the Lord Haw-Haw of Covid.
Neil Young told Spotify to take his music down because he didn’t like being on the same platform as Rogan; Spotify did as he requested. Joni Mitchell has now done the same, citing solidarity with Young and his stand against “Vaccine misinformation.” During the last week the Head of the WHO praised Young and condemned Rogan for his part in the “infodemic”, and the American Surgeon General (the highest Public Health official the US) invited Rogan’s deplatforming, saying that Big Tech has a role to play in “limiting disinformation”.
The first clue that this is about something other than disinformation is none of the statements above actually specify what Rogan said that warrants this backlash. Isn’t that weird? The failure is indicative of people who are more interested in how things appear and how they publicly position themselves than they are in the details.
Rogan has said plenty of dumb shit that can be characterised as disinfo. But then there’s plenty that has been written and said about him that can be characterised in that way as well. It’s not clear why Rogan’s comment that a healthy 21 year old might not want to get vaccinated, or his platforming of Robert Malone constitute disinformation which simply cannot stand; but that repeatedly and intentionally mis-charaterising a drug with a long history of use by humans as only fit for animals doesn’t.
A podcast clip that people often point to as evidence that Rogan is both uninformed and dangerous is where he he noted that he understood the vaccine was causing cases of myocarditis; his guest pointed out the risk of Myocarditis itself is far greater for people who get covid. Rogan disputed this; there was a back and forth on air which led to Rogan fact-checking it live; the guest was right and Rogan was forced to admit that.
It seems strange to count this as a point against Rogan since it helped establish, on air, that he was wrong; and it means there is 100% more live fact-checking and correcting of the host’s opinions on the Joe Rogan podcast than on any of the mainstream sources that critique him.
“The issue is this talk causes real harm!” Yeah but you say that a lot, don’t you? Talking about policing in the wrong way causes real harm and can’t be tolerated. Talking about gender in the wrong way causes real harm and can’t be tolerated. Talking about genetics, poverty, freedom of speech etc etc etc. The concept of harm has been intentionally inflated as a tactic to gradually exclude everything that journalists (or journalist-type people) don’t like from public conversation. “This kind of talk is dangerous - it can’t be allowed” isn’t a big red button that a journalist only presses in the most dire of circumstances. Their finger is never off the button.
Consider different types of harm. Michael Brendan Dougherty has written a good bit, and well, about the uses of masking in schools and amongst children in the United States, based on his personal experiences of his own child’s needs. His view is that masks in schools are unhelpful, the science supporting the practice is ambiguous and they cause harm to children that won’t go away when the masks do. It’s not necessary to believe he is correct, only that his views are reasonable, which they are.
But no one who promotes the use of masks in school, or dismisses arguments against masking school children, will ever be accused of disinformation and deplatformed on that basis. Journalists, as a group, will never reach for the big red button because they like restrictions and will support and amplify anyone who calls for more of them.
I am not willing to hear claims of harm that are only applied in a single ideological direction and that assume no agency on the part of the person being harmed. I am not interested in claims of mis- or disinformation because I know that it just means “a piece of information that a journalist is uncomfortable with, which may or may not be a lie”.
I don’t like social-climbers or activists; and everyone who is considered a legitimate media figure is really just an amalgam of both of those things. I refuse to live in a world where my conversation is policed by them and calibrated exactly to reflect their class predjudices and neuroses, just because it happens to take place on social media. If I want to wonder aloud whether something they think is false is true, or something they think is bad is good, then I’m going to do that, and anyone else who does that will have as much support as I can give them without being ruined, yes, even Rogan.