Last Saturday, Joe Rogan apologized for his “shameful” use of racial slurs in his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. In resurfaced videos of his show, Rogan says the n-word, compares a movie theater in a Black neighborhood in Philadelphia to “Planet of the Apes,” and muses about differences between the brains of Black people and white people.
If you watched his video apology, you might think Rogan was referencing behavior from a bygone era. But just a month earlier, Rogan’s frequent guest Jordan Peterson told listeners that it’s “strange” to call people Black unless they are “100% African from the darkest place where they’re not wearing any clothes all day.” It’s unclear why Peterson feels qualified to define what Blackness is, although I am not surprised he is using antiquated stereotypes and opaque references to sexual dehumanization to do it.
Spotify reportedly offered Joe Rogan more than $100 million for the exclusive right to host his podcast. And, even as artists like India Arie and Neil Young remove their content in protest over the company’s giving Rogan a platform to spread lies about Covid-19 and hate, Spotify is sticking by its man (for now).
In a statement to Spotify staff, CEO Daniel Elk made it clear the company’s business model is dependent on keeping Rogan. In doing so, the streaming platform is perpetuating a pervasive standard in the digital media landscape: that spreading lies, racism, misogyny, and extremism pays. In fact, it is a profitable enterprise for the people who spread it, and it is a profitable enterprise for the platforms that amplify it. Rogan’s lies, hate, and racism bring more listeners to the platform, which makes the company more money and allows its product to keep competing as a major player in the online streaming space.
So, rather than admit that its business model openly depends on lies and the dehumanization of marginalized people, Spotify said it doesn’t want to “silence Joe.” Meanwhile, some 113 episodes of the show were quietly removed. Elk added in an internal memo, which was later shared with The Washington Post, “We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope.”
It is not a slippery slope. When the most extreme voices are rewarded and amplified, our digital media landscape becomes worse for everyone. Sadly, it’s not just big podcasters like Rogan who use anti-Blackness and hate to build an audience.
Earlier this year, a viral clip of the Fresh & Fit podcast showed hosts Myron Gaines and Walter Weekes’s guest, rapper Asian Doll, walking out of the studio after a heated exchange. Subsequently, clips resurfaced demonstrating the hosts’ pattern of disrespect toward Black women. In one clip, the hosts talk about their mutual distaste for Black women, saying, “I mean, hey, bro, if you wanna date a bunch of Shanequas, go for it,” when discussing a dating app geared toward Black suitors.
Most of the Fresh & Fit attacks on Black women traffic in the worst and most tired racist stereotypes about who we are. In one interview, Weekes tells a Black woman guest that she is “the exact opposite” of most Black women, who are “annoying, ratchet, and don’t know how to be reserved.” It should go without saying that this isn’t a compliment; it’s a racist insult.
And in another episode, Gaines asks rhetorically why, if he really hated Black women, he would continue to invite Black women onto his podcast as guests.
The answer is quite simple. Attacking marginalized people will always find a welcome audience. Toxic masculinity, extremism, misogyny, and racism are incentivized and exacerbated by the digital media ecosystem. Rather than do the work to build systems that do not reward these harmful ideologies, platforms and the tech leaders who run them are instead cashing in on hate and lies.
The hosts of Fresh & Fit, for example, run a virtual training program where, for the low, low price of $700 (or more!), their typo-laden website promises to teach men how to become “High Value Males.” The program includes courses ranging from “Sex and Dominance in Bed” to “Cryptocurrency.” If listeners of these podcasts were better informed about race, sexuality, gender, and dating, they might be less likely to fork over hundreds of dollars to the online frauds who promise to educate them.
This is a problem, not just for the marginalized people being targeted but for all of us. For every viral moment from a podcast attacking marginalized people, we miss an opportunity to spotlight thoughtful and complex conversations about the topics that affect people’s daily lives in real ways. This is to everyone’s detriment: People in our society have become less informed, less aware, and less trusting of each other. This is exactly what bad actors want.
Podcasting is inherently an intimate medium. When we put on our headphones, our trusted and familiar hosts are in our ears telling us their perspective. A podcast host might be the last voice a listener hears before they drift off to sleep for the night, or the first voice they hear in the morning. While you might feel sheepish about watching certain shows on a communal Netflix account in your living room, or to be seen reading certain books on the subway, the content you listen to with your headphones or alone elsewhere is between you and no one else.
Not only does the nature of the relationship between audience and host make the medium an attractive target for bad actors; it also allows for content to go overlooked by researchers. As podcasts are audio- rather than text-based, like much else online, detecting things like hate speech and misinformation in them is challenging for researchers, many of whom have overlooked the medium entirely. That technical challenge is real, but it doesn’t change the need.
Individual creators who traffic in misinformation and hate should be held accountable, but the blame is not theirs alone. This is not a “bad apples” situation; the rot is systemic. Just as much blame belongs to platforms like Spotify that reward and amplify hate at the expense of marginalized people. We deserve a digital media landscape where the loudest voices in the room aren’t also the voices being paid to call us racist names.