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Hundreds of doctors, scientists sign petition demanding Spotify take action against COVID misinformation

Podcaster Joe Rogan.Carmen Mandato/Getty

A petition signed by more than 200 scientists and medical professionals is calling on the music streaming service Spotify to monitor misinformation promoted on its platform. The petition specifically takes aim at its most-popular podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, for peddling “misleading and false claims” about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.

“We are calling on Spotify to take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform,” the petition reads. “With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence. Though Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

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The petition, signed by scientists, professors, and doctors spanning a wide range of fields including microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, and neuroscience, highlights the podcast’s history of false claims related to COVID-19. It points to a “highly controversial” Dec. 31 episode where Rogan, who began his career in comedy in Boston in 1988, interviewed Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist who once researched mRNA technology but is now a vocal skeptic of the COVID vaccines that use it. In the episode, Malone pushed an unfounded theory that millions of people have been “hypnotized” into believing mainstream ideas about COVID-19, including steps to combat it such as testing and vaccination. The discredited theory has been dubbed “mass formation psychosis,” and Malone went on to say that the phenomenon explained Nazi Germany.

Malone has been permanently banned from Twitter for promoting COVID misinformation, and the Rogan episode that features his comments has been removed from YouTube.

“By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals,” the petition said, adding that the Rogan episode is “not the only transgression to occur” on Spotify “but a relevant example of the platform’s failure to mitigate the damage it is causing.”

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The petition goes on to argue that Rogan’s rhetoric has provoked distrust in science and medicine, especially among young people.

“The average age of listeners is 24 years old and according to data from Washington State, unvaccinated 12-34 year olds are 12 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than those who are fully vaccinated,” the petition said. “Dr. Malone’s interview has reached many tens of millions of listeners vulnerable to predatory medical misinformation.”

The 270 scientists and medical professionals backing the petition said they are “tasked with repairing the public’s damaged understanding of science and medicine ...

“We bear the arduous weight of a pandemic that has stretched our medical systems to their limits and only stands to be exacerbated by the anti-vaccination sentiment woven into this and other episodes of Rogan’s podcast.”

The petition called on Spotify to “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation.” Spotify has exclusive streaming rights to the Joe Rogan Experience in a reported $100 million deal. The streamer has remained mum on the matter since the petition started circulating Wednesday.

Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist and research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, co-authored the petition and is among its signers. Rivera has used her social media accounts to debunk viral misinformation related to COVID-19, and her Instagram has amassed more than 380,000 followers. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Rivera said she was horrified to discover that people in her life — people that she considers “quite wise and discerning” — were buying into Malone’s comments.

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“When I saw they were falling victim to this, I spoke to some colleagues and we said something has to be done at this point,” Rivera told the publication.

Postdoctorate fellow Lace Riggs, a neuroscientist at MIT, said she heard about the petition through a fellow neuroscientist. “I was happy to offer my support by signing the petition,” Riggs said in an email to the Globe. “I believe that policy reform is an important step toward addressing medical misinformation that tends to be amplified by streaming services, like Spotify.”

“There needs to be more oversight because these platforms are the means by which precarious individuals can influence consumers’ thoughts, beliefs, and even actions,” Riggs continued. “In this case, the anti-vaccination rhetoric has grave and tangible consequences that need to be seriously considered.

Many of us in the biomedical field are faced with the challenging task of having to constantly combat misinformation surrounding the pandemic. As a scientist, I am obliged to use credible sources to convey the importance of the vaccine to my family and friends — but in the reality, this alone has not been enough for all of them to evade this type of misinformation and actually get vaccinated.”

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Postdoctoral fellow Blair Bentley, a marine biologist at UMass Amherst, was also among the 270 doctors and scientists who signed the petition.

Read the full open letter.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.





Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @brittbowker and on Instagram @brittbowker.