Fighting Misinformation With Science Journalism : Short Wave On December 31, 2021, The Joe Rogan Experience podcast on Spotify posted an episode with an interview with physician Dr. Robert Malone full of misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine. This sparked outrage, a letter from a group of medical professionals, scientists and educators to Spotify and a series of creators pulling their content from the platform. Science Vs., a podcast produced by Gimlet Media which is owned by Spotify, decided to take a stand too.

Listen to the episodes of Science Vs discussed here:
- Misinformation: What Should Our Tech Overlords Do: bit.ly/3u2aaUY
- Joe Rogan: The Malone Interview: bit.ly/3tduljk

Fighting Misinformation With Science Journalism

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

Duderinos (ph), I love a good crossover movie, and we've kind of got one for you today. We're teaming up with another science super podcast to fight the forces of misinformation.

Wendy Zukerman and Blythe Terrell are science communicators on the podcast, "Science Vs."

WENDY ZUKERMAN: "Science Vs" is a podcast that looks at the things you love in the world and puts them under a scientific microscope.

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ZUKERMAN: This is the show that pits facts against fossils...

ROSE RIMLER: Facts against fat...

ZUKERMAN: Facts against fireballs...

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ZUKERMAN: ...with joy and humor.

KWONG: Wendy, who you just heard, is the host of "Science Vs," and Blythe is the editor. How would you describe your relationship to each other?

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ZUKERMAN: Like, what's one up from BFF? Like...

KWONG: One up?

BLYTHE TERRELL: (Laughter).

ZUKERMAN: It's boss best friend...

KWONG: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - your good old B-B-B-B-B-B-F.

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ZUKERMAN: Yeah, B-B-B, 'cause it's Blythe - so it's like boss best Blythe friend.

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KWONG: And just like us on SHORT WAVE, "Science Vs" loves a good fact check.

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RIMLER: Hello, Wendy.

ZUKERMAN: Hey, Rose. How many citations in this week's episode?

RIMLER: This week, there are - this week, there are 165 citations.

ZUKERMAN: 165?

KWONG: That's the voice of "Science Vs" producer Rose Rimler.

ZUKERMAN: We have an independent fact-checker, and we have this amazing team of researchers with Ph.D.s, and producers, and they are just so in love with getting things right.

KWONG: Now, "Science Vs" is produced by Gimlet Media, which is owned by Spotify, but not all shows available on Spotify have the same dedication to facts. And on Dec. 31, "The Joe Rogan Experience" podcast published a three-hour interview with Dr. Robert Malone, a physician and vaccine skeptic. The episode was chockablock with false information about the vaccine, and it was published on Spotify, which has an exclusive deal with Rogan.

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JOE ROGAN: So, first of all, thanks for coming - and very nice tie.

ROBERT MALONE: Thanks.

ROGAN: (Laughter).

MALONE: Christmas present.

KWONG: We at SHORT WAVE got wind of this interview in early January, when a group of medical professionals, scientists and educators issued a joint letter denouncing the Malone episode and calling on Spotify to stop allowing misinformation on its platform. Meanwhile, Blythe, over at "Science Vs," brought this letter to the rest of the team.

TERRELL: I went in and I listened to the episode. And then, once I heard the episode, I was like, all right, I think we should say something here.

KWONG: And then what happened?

TERRELL: Game on.

ZUKERMAN: Yeah.

KWONG: Game on because "Science Vs" started working on their own episode, "Science Vs. Joe Rogan," where they would fact-check claims made in that interview with Malone about the vaccine. Then, Neil Young and a whole bunch of other people - Joni Mitchell, India.Arie, other artists - decided to pull their content from Spotify. And the science podcast, "Science Vs," decided to take a stand too.

ZUKERMAN: We sent in a letter to our CEO, to Daniel Ek, saying that we wanted to see more done to stop the spread of misinformation on the platform, and that we weren't going to make any more new "Science Vs" episodes except those that are there to combat misinformation on the platform.

KWONG: How did it feel to actually put it out there and make this decision?

ZUKERMAN: It was nerve-wracking. How were you, Blythe?

TERRELL: (Laughter) Nauseating, I guess? - being worried about things like doxxing or attacks from people who saw this as an attack on Rogan. But yeah, I mean, I think I felt a little sick to my stomach, and then I was like, I think I'm going to have a glass of wine.

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KWONG: So today on the show - what happens when a podcast fights misinformation fire with misinformation journalism, and how the team at "Science Vs" is holding up and holding their own podcast platform to account. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: By the way, Wendy and Blythe talked to us in the presence of a press person from Spotify. "Science Vs." did end up publishing a deep listen of Joe Rogan's interview with Dr. Robert Malone and found both misinformation and common patterns in how false or out-of-context information travels. And I wanted to talk to them about two of those patterns, cherry-picking and anecdotes.

All right. Let's start with this idea of cherry-picking. In your reporting, you zero in on this moment where Rogan and Malone are talking about myocarditis, this condition that is basically inflammation of the heart muscle. And they point to this paper out of Hong Kong, which looked at adolescents hospitalized after developing myocarditis. Most of them were adolescent boys, and this condition was linked to them getting the vaccine. So tell me about how Rogan and Malone characterized this one study and how it's an example of cherry-picking.

ZUKERMAN: What this Malone interview really intimated is that this was a dangerous condition and that this particular study that they quoted, which came out of Hong Kong - I don't know what Malone was intending to do. We tried to reach out to him, and he didn't answer our questions. But he - it was really this feeling of they say it's mild, but you can't trust them. This is dangerous. This is dangerous.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCIENCE VS.")

MALONE: Now, there's all kinds of hand-waving, that, oh, myocarditis is mild, and they recovered from it. OK. Those statements aren't, let's say, generally based in fact.

ZUKERMAN: I asked one of the authors of this paper about this. Dr. Mike Kwan, are those statements not, let's say, gently based in fact?

MIKE KWAN: I can tell you those are factual. Those are factual. Those patients - they recover completely.

ZUKERMAN: And so what was very curious listening to the episode is that Malone picked the pieces to tell the audience that made the vaccines look scary. He picked out a stat about how many of the boys got myocarditis and trusted that stat 'cause he told the audience over and over again about it. But then he didn't trust what was written in the paper over and over again, that these cases were mild.

KWONG: And you say that scholars - they called this tendency cherry-picking, where you kind of just pay attention to evidence that supports your position, and you ignore the rest.

ZUKERMAN: Yes, yes. And we see this over and over again. It's not just in this Rogan interview. And in fact, there was a paper that analyzed misinformation around COVID more generally, and they said that cherry-picking was something that you commonly see.

KWONG: Yeah, I mean, another common form of misinformation that you identify is stories, meaning that stories are persuasive. There are ways that information can be taken out of context. There are means for outright false information to travel really quickly. What did you find out about anecdotes as misinformation firepower?

ZUKERMAN: Yeah. So there's actually data on this showing that - how powerful an anecdote is, and particularly in the realm of health. So the moment that someone says, you know, I - I went to the doctor, and I came back blue. I'll never go to a doctor. You know, that's the stuff that sticks in your head. You hear about Jemima (ph) and the blue thing? Oh, my God. I heard from some - that's the game of telephone that seems to be the most powerful because our health is everything.

KWONG: Yeah. This part - this whole part of the episode kind of blew my mind because - well, really 'cause it kind of held up a mirror for me to think about what we do. I mean, we're in this business, too. What is the right way to use an anecdote?

TERRELL: I mean, thoughtfully is I guess one starting point, and we talk about this a little bit in that episode, too. You know, we know. We use anecdotes because of that power. And I think we're always trying to be thoughtful about what that anecdote is representing. You know, are we giving you the outlier, or are we trying to tell the bigger story through someone's experience? And that doesn't mean, you know, that person has, like, the story that fits in the exact middle of the bell curve in every detail, but it does mean that, you know, that story is meant to help illustrate what we've learned from the science.

KWONG: Just to kind of talk about what happened with the Malone interview, since January, there's been public outcry over a lot of the things that have appeared on Joe Rogan's podcast in the past, like repeated use of a racial slur and transphobic language. Seventy episodes of his podcast have been taken down, but not the Robert Malone interview. Why? And what do you think about that?

ZUKERMAN: Well, so the 70 episodes that have been taken down - our understanding is that Joe Rogan himself decided to take those episodes down, so not Spotify. And what Spotify has done is released its platform rules, which they say were long-standing. And they give - they are rules that say, you know, what is allowed on Spotify and what's not. And there is one particular rule that discusses, you know, false medical information and how - you know, if it's dangerous and may cause offline harm, then it could be removed from the platform. And so in our most recent "Science Vs." episode, you know, we spoke to a researcher about whether that Malone interview would breach those rules, and she thought, yes. And given that we did a real deep dive on some of the claims in that Malone interview, like, we felt, you know, pretty confident that there was a breach of rules here, or at least it was getting very, very close. And so we really wanted to hear from Spotify. Why didn't they think that? And they didn't answer the question. And so we are still trying to get an answer.

KWONG: And, you know, meanwhile, of course, your episode about the interview is up, looking at the misinformation in it.

ZUKERMAN: Yeah. So I would have loved to hear whether they listened to it and whether they disagreed with anything we put in there.

KWONG: Right.

ZUKERMAN: You know, it was like, we did your homework for you, buddy. You just need to listen to the episode. What do you think now?

KWONG: And, you know, one kind of move you made as a show in a recent episode was looking not at, like, consumers and what they're deciding to do, but what tech companies do when misinformation appears on their platform. What did you find with that work?

ZUKERMAN: What we found is that Spotify can be doing more here. And that was exciting.

TERRELL: And I will say quickly, there was one thing that surprised me, and maybe this wasn't as surprising to you, Wendy, but I actually was surprised that if you - there was some evidence that labelling things as false actually seemed to make a difference - or false or this contains questionable information. I was surprised that that seemed to make a bit of difference.

KWONG: At this point in the interview, it was the top of the hour, and Wendy had to hop off. But I wanted to ask Blythe two last things.

So Blythe, I just want to ask you, what would it take from Spotify to restore "Science Vs." to the show - to a show that explores a range of topics instead of committing just to episodes that counteract misinformation on the Spotify platform?

TERRELL: Sure. You know, we're talking with them, and the lines of communication are open. So it's a little hard to say, but I think it's really - it's promising that, like, we're actually having these conversations. And I think that's all I can probably say, to be honest.

KWONG: And then the last thing I just want to ask you, Blythe, how do you see the show and your job differently from this whole experience?

TERRELL: I guess it's driven home that the work, you know, does matter. And I think, honestly, it's opened my eyes into some of the stuff that's out there that people are saying that I had kind of not been paying as close attention to before, some of this misinformation. But it's also made me excited to work with the great team that we work with. So I think it's given me a lot of pride in my team and our producers, who are just incredible, incredible journalists.

KWONG: Well, we really support the things you're doing as far as, like, addressing misinformation and reporting on it. So thank you so much for coming on the show to talk to us.

TERRELL: Thank you so much.

KWONG: On Friday, March 11, "Science Vs." dropped a new trailer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCIENCE VS.")

ZUKERMAN: We at "Science Vs." have been feeling a little bit out of harmony with our employer, Spotify.

KWONG: And indeed, "Science Vs." is back with a new season today. They're going to be talking about claims made on the Joe Rogan show about transgender kids and, in another episode, the drug ivermectin. As for their talks with Spotify, those are ongoing. We reached out to Joe Rogan and Dr. Robert Malone for comment. They did not respond to our request.

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KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Eva Tesfaye, with help from Berly McCoy. It was edited by Gisele Grayson and Geoff Brumfiel, and fact-checked by Katherine Sypher. Special thanks to my SHORT WAVE co-host, Aaron Scott. The audio engineer for this episode was Margaret Luthar, with help from Gilly Moon. Andrea Kissack is the head of the science desk, Edith Chapin is the executive editor and vice president of news, and Nancy Barnes is our senior vice president of news. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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