Look, I think it’s fine that Joe Rogan said, with COVID-case rates coming down in April, he wouldn’t tell a healthy 21-year-old to get vaccinated. That’s a value judgment, not a lie. And we may as well ignore the fact that he treated himself with ivermectin in September, after he got sick himself. He was also taking monoclonal antibodies and steroids (and some studies did appear to show, at first, that ivermectin was effective). But a lot of bullshit spewed on The Joe Rogan Experience, his podcast, is gravely irresponsible; there’s just no arguing this point.
He or his guests have said, for instance, that useful COVID treatments were suppressed by greedy hospital executives, that COVID deaths have been grossly overcounted, that masking simply cannot work to stop disease transmission, that public-health messaging has hypnotized the masses, that recovering from COVID confers permanent immunity, that mRNA vaccines represent “a major threat to reproductive health,” and many other things that aren’t true. The spread of these ideas wastes our time, at the very least. I suspect that it makes us dumber, too, by sucking any serious critiques of vaccine policy into a vapid swirl of blabbing and debunking.
But does it change behavior? I mean to say: Is all of this nonsense not just dumb but deadly? “People are dying because of COVID misinformation that Spotify packages as glib podcast fodder,” a Washington Post column said over the weekend. This all started when a group of health-care workers and scientists accused Spotify, the sole distributor of Rogan’s podcast, of creating “mass-misinformation events” with “extraordinarily dangerous ramifications” for millions of listeners. Soon others joined the chorus claiming that Rogan’s show provides a platform for anti-vaxxers and is costing human lives. (The scandal has since expanded to Rogan’s history of using racial slurs and other past affronts.)
Vaccine refusal, in its broadest sense, has taken a catastrophic toll in the United States, on the order of hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. But the claim that pandemic falsehoods aired on Rogan’s show are substantially responsible ignores the sticky facts of our predicament. Surveys now suggest that roughly one in six American adults says they won’t get vaccinated for COVID-19. That’s roughly what the surveys showed over the summer; it’s also roughly what the surveys showed in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was still young. One in six adults, some 45 million Americans in all, is seemingly immune to any change of context or information. One in six adults—a solid tumor on our public health that doesn’t grow or shrink.
The vaccine skeptics have retained their numbers in spite of endless efforts at persuasion—sprints to vaccinate, months of action, reams of scary data. So, too, have the people in the vaccine-accepting crowd: The Americans who said they would consider getting shots have been holding firm, in spite of all the lies over the past two years. Indeed, there’s little evidence that any super-peddler of doubt—not even Alex Berenson, Tucker Carlson, or Joseph Mercola—has changed the numbers much at all. “Mass-misinformation events,” Lollapaloozas of lies about vaccines, have come and gone and come again. We know that, on some level, these messages are surely doing harm. Yet the U.S. is still mired in the same proportion of refusal as it was in 2020. One in six adults. Could things really be this stuck?
If Rogan makes any difference for vaccines, it’s at the margins. In the spring, the political scientists Dominik Stecula and Matt Motta tried to quantify this nudge. For a set of surveys taken from April 2020 to February 2021, they asked U.S. adults about both their vaccine intentions and their media-consumption habits. After controlling for people’s age, political beliefs, and other factors, they found that regular Rogan listeners had grown 18 percentage points more hesitant to get the shots by the end of the study period. These results were never published in an academic journal, and the data were merely correlational, but they were still “consistent with the idea that Rogan listeners may be heeding his and his guests’ nonexpert medical advice,” the researchers argued in The Washington Post last year.
Stecula and Motta have also tried to gauge the anti-vaxxer power of Fox News. In a paper posted in September that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, and drawing from the same set of surveys as above, they compared Republican adults who watched Fox News every day with those who never watched it. They found no difference between these groups—a “null effect” for Fox—on whether they intended to go in for a vaccine. But that was noteworthy in itself, the authors argued, because, for Republicans, daily exposure to other news outlets—CNN or network news, for example—was associated with greater vaccine acceptance.
This is subtle work, finding whispers in the noise. If listening to Rogan’s podcast or watching Fox News every day is having some effect on individuals, we certainly can’t make out that effect on a macro scale. Since the fall, polls from Gallup, Harris, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and others have consistently pegged the proportion of adults who have already gotten at least one shot, or plan to do so, at 75 to 80 percent. The CDC tells us that 74.4 percent of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated. (It also says that nearly 90 percent of adults have received at least one dose, but that number appears to be substantially inflated, in part because of miscounted booster shots.) “What we’re seeing in our data, and I’m sure this is probably true for all data, is that the numbers are pretty frozen,” says David Lazer, a lead investigator for the COVID States Project, which has tracked pandemic attitudes and behaviors since early 2020. The proportion of adults who have gotten one or more shots “looks really static over the last few waves, across all demographics.”
These rates haven’t simply flatlined—they’ve landed pretty much where polls predicted from the start. In summer 2020, surveys of people’s attitudes toward COVID vaccination found that roughly 16 or 17 percent were never-evers, while the rest fell in a split between immunize-me-now and immunize-me-maybe-later. Since then, we’ve seen the latter group—the maybes—slowly change their mind to yes. (They now represent just 5 to 10 percent of the adult population.) But the never-evers, whose numbers briefly spiked in the fall of 2020, soon snapped back to their baseline, where they’ve remained as never as they ever were. Lazer told me that he’s not at all surprised we’ve come to this plateau. “It was inevitable that there would be some set of people who weren’t going to wake up one morning and say, ‘Huh, why did I think vaccines would kill me?’”
Individual choices can still matter, of course, even in the context of a COVID-vaccine equilibrium. According to the CDC, a couple hundred thousand Americans are getting their first vaccine shot every day. That number includes children and, again, probably some mislabeled booster shots, but in any case it has important implications. All of those doses may not amount to much on a population level—200,000 recipients represent just 0.05 percent of the U.S.—but still they give protection to a huge amount of people. “A percentage-point movement here or there,” Matt Motta told me, means that “millions of Americans are choosing to vaccinate.”
Rogan and others could be driving tiny movements that correspond to large effects in absolute terms, but the details there are muddy. In the meantime, our bigger picture remains both clear and unchanging. Mass misinformation events have not produced a mass hypnosis of young, impressionable Americans, as Neil Young implied they have last month. Rather, we’ve seen a steady and continued rise in vaccinations among adults, as the nation inches ever closer to a vaccine-acceptance ceiling that was present all along, and will remain a major cause of death in the months to come.
Misinformation matters: It distracts, depresses, and divides us. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s the thing killing us in droves. Think of it like this: We have two kinds of animals living in the U.S. One group includes all of those who tend to do as they’re told, even when they’re feeling skittish. Let’s call them … sheep. A sheep might be a little scared of the vaccines, or distrustful of the government, but still it follows others in the flock. (Almost all Democrats are sheep, and so are most Republicans.) The other group includes the willful, fearful animals who will never agree to the vaccines, and who may end up as the sacrificial victims of a self-destructive ideology. Let’s call them goats. (Maybe one in 20 Democrats is a goat, compared with one in four Republicans.)
Sheep and goats sustain themselves on separate diets: Sheep seek out official information and advice; they nibble in the open pastures and sip from the mainstream. Goats prefer to linger in the shade, digging out the woody underbrush of alternative news. Yet even a major change to the ecosystem—imposing a vaccine mandate, for example, fencing in the goats—doesn’t seem to affect the size of either group. Why?
Matt Motta has one theory: Perhaps the environmental shifts are more or less in balance. Efforts to promote vaccines are really working, he suggests; mandates and incentives and public-service announcements are changing people’s minds, keeping goats in check, and helping sheep thrive. But the anti-vaccine activists’ campaigns are working too—their spread through podcasts and social media has fortified the goats, and maybe stopped some sheep from getting vaccinated sooner. In the end, the two population pressures cancel out, and the outcome looks the same: One in six Americans is a goat. The appearance of stability, Motta says, masks a more complicated story.
But this would have to be a pretty grand coincidence, where the net effect of all our pro-vaccination policies and coverage just happens to match up, one for one, with the net effect of every bit of anti-vaxxer propaganda. Another theory holds that the effects aren’t really matched, but rather that the media ecosystem is so expansive and so lush that no animal ever has a problem finding food it likes. Spotify can “silence” Rogan; Twitter can deplatform Robert W. Malone. But the goats will keep on ambling from one patch of ground to another, never going hungry, never losing their resolve. When they can’t find anti-vaccine rhetoric on Fox, they’ll go to Facebook. When they’re getting starved by Spotify, they’ll go to Substack.
Or here’s one more theory: Maybe our mistake is treating sheep and goats as if they’re eating different things. What if the very same roughage that sustains the sheep also helps the goats? Vaccine mandates surely lead to higher vaccination rates, but they also rally vaccine opponents on the right. Likewise, protests against Spotify, and their widespread coverage in the media, may end up bringing more attention to the host they mean to target. “We need to think about all the people who Joe Rogan has not reached yet,” Motta told me. “He is getting a ton of attention right now, and it would not be surprising to me if some people were like, Oh, I should check out what this show is all about.” If that’s the case, then stability in vaccination rates might be less a product of two equal and opposing population pressures than an indication that the population pressures are effectively the same.
These theories aren’t mutually exclusive. However they might be summed together, they might allow for shows like Rogan’s to exert some effect on certain people’s attitudes, while having no perceivable effect on the course of vaccination in America. “I tend to think that, had Rogan’s platform not existed, overall rates would have been higher, even if only fractionally,” Motta said. But his platform is more a symptom than a cause—the latest efflorescence from a root system of distrust that has been in place for many years. “The idea that Rogan and Fox News are making the problem worse? Sure, I’m amenable to that,” Motta said. “But vaccines have been politically contentious well before the COVID-19 pandemic.” In other words: This whole ecology is tainted, and cleaning it up will take a very long time.