A new report by The New York Times dives deep into the widespread misinformation about vaccines on podcasts and radio. The article also touches on the content guidelines of companies that own radio stations and publish podcasts like Apple, iHeart, and Spotify and what they are doing to prevent the misinformation of coronavirus vaccines.
Are audio companies doing enough to stop the increase of misinformation related to COVID-19 vaccines?
There are scientific studies that have shown that vaccines protect people against coronavirus for long periods in addition to reducing the spread of the virus. Despite that fact, more than 40 percent of Americans are not fully vaccinated. iHeart, Spotify, Apple, and other audio companies have done made minimal efforts to regulate what radio hosts and podcasters say on the topic of the ongoing virus and vaccination efforts.
The article includes an example of Rick Wiles, a pastor and self-described “citizen reporter,” who on a recent episode of his podcast said that “vaccines were the product of a “global coup d’état by the most evil cabal of people in the history of mankind.” In his October 13 episode, Wiles said “It’s an egg that hatches into a synthetic parasite and grows inside your body,” adding, “This is like a sci-fi nightmare, and it’s happening in front of us.”
“There’s really no curb on it,” said Jason Loviglio, an associate professor of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “There’s no real mechanism to push back, other than advertisers boycotting and corporate executives saying we need a culture change.”
A recent survey from the National Research Group found that 60 percent of listeners under 40 get their news primarily through audio. “People develop really close relationships with podcasts,” said Evelyn Douek, a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. “It’s a parasocial medium. There’s something about voice that humans really relate to.”
The article mentions several podcasters and radio hosts who died of COVID-19 complications.
Marc Bernier, a talk radio host in Daytona Beach, Fla., whose show is available for download or streaming on iHeart’s and Apple’s digital platforms, was among the talk radio hosts who died of Covid-19 complications after expressing anti-vaccination views on their programs. The deaths made national news and set off a cascade of commentary on social media. What drew less attention was the industry that helped give them an audience.
Jimmy DeYoung Sr., whose program was available on iHeart, Apple and Spotify, died of Covid-19 complications after making his show a venue for false or misleading statements about vaccines. One of his frequent guests was Sam Rohrer, a former Pennsylvania state representative who likened the promotion of Covid-19 vaccines to Nazi tactics and made a sweeping false statement. “This is not a vaccine, by definition,” Mr. Rohrer said on an April episode. “It is a permanent altering of my immune system, which God created to handle the kinds of things that are coming that way.” Mr. DeYoung thanked his guest for his “insight.” Mr. DeYoung died four months later.
Are companies doing enough to stop the rampant spread of misinformation regarding vaccines? iHeart does not have an explicit policy concerning false statements on COVID-19 or vaccination efforts and Apple’s content guidelines for podcasts prohibit “content that may lead to harmful or dangerous outcomes, or content that is obscene or gratuitous.” Spotify, which has 299 million monthly listeners, prohibits hate speech in its guidelines. In a written statement, the company said it also prohibits content “that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive content about Covid-19, which may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.”
Interestingly enough, the audio industry has not been subject to the same scrutiny as social media companies who have been questioned about their roles in spreading false or misleading information. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have also made efforts to remove content with false claims about coronavirus vaccines.
Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, a media professor at the University of Florida, said that podcasts may be more effective in spreading false information than social media. “People who go to podcasts have much more active engagement,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I went on Facebook and I scrolled through and saw this misinformation.’ It’s more likely that you’re engaged, you’re interested in this host, you actively seek this person out and listen to what he or she has to say.”