The Joe Rogan Experience
Most people have heard of Joe Rogan. You might remember him from early 2000s reality TV when he hosted Fear Factor. You may have heard his voice passionately commentating UFC fights, or you may have even seen a video of him practicing Jiu-Jitsu. You could have seen him perform standup live or on Netflix. Even more likely, you’ve probably seen or listened to one of thousands of episodes of his extremely successful podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
It’s obvious that Joe Rogan wears many hats – his interests, passions, and hobbies are all across the map from archery and hunting, to DMT and aliens, to comedy, and back around to fitness and fighting. On his podcast, Rogan takes the opportunity to wear different hats with different guests. I believe this is why people’s opinions about Rogan can sway drastically from “he’s an openminded individual with a great podcast” to “he’s an alt-right supporter and he’s providing a platform to hateful people.”
There’s no doubt that Rogan invites controversial people onto his show. If you look at the list of his most watched episodes of all time (https://www.jrepodcast.com/popular-episodes/) you can see that many of his most viewed videos feature individuals that some viewers may deem contentious, so contentious in fact that in 2018 a woman named Rebecca Lewis published an article in which she labeled Joe Rogan, several guests on his show, and many other YouTubers as the “Alternative Influence Network.”
The Alternative Influence Network (AIN) and the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW)
What is the Alternative Influence Network? It started with Eric Weinstein coining the term “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW) on Sam Harris’s podcast to describe an informal group of people who generally believe that identity and partisan politics are overwhelming education and the media. Some say he coined the term ironically. IDW was popularized by an opinion piece for the New York Times written by Bari Weiss (just a warning, the article is pay-walled https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/opinion/intellectual-dark-web.html).
Rebecca Lewis eventually published a study closely related to the IDW. Lewis added many more content creators to the group, changed the named to “The Alternative Influence Network,” and created this infamous web of “reactionary” YouTubers.
Her claim is that libertarian and conservative YouTubers are working together in a way that leads people down a “rabbit hole” all the way to white nationalism and the alt-right. She argues that while YouTube’s algorithm is partially to blame, influencers like Joe Rogan, who has a massive platform, are mostly to blame because they are providing a space for people with, let’s say, unacceptable opinions to express those opinions. Here is a direct quote from her study:
“This debate is part of a larger phenomenon, in which YouTubers attempt to reach young audiences by broadcasting far-right ideas in the form of news and entertainment. An assortment of scholars, media pundits, and internet celebrities are using YouTube to promote a range of political positions, from mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism. While many of their views differ significantly, they all share a fundamental contempt for progressive politics—specifically for contemporary social justice movements. For this reason, I consider their collective position “reactionary,” as it is defined by its opposition to visions of social progress. United in this standpoint, these YouTubers frequently collaborate with and appear with others across ideological lines. Together, they have created a fully functioning media system that I call the Alternative Influence Network (AIN).”https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/DS_Alternative_Influence.pdf
Misrepresentation on the AIN
For me, the closer you look at the map, the more confusing her argument becomes. For starters, Joe Rogan is a self-proclaimed pot-smoking, LA-living liberal (or libertarian, he’s described himself as both). This past year he had both Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders on his podcast and even endorsed Bernie Sanders later on.
The map misrepresents many more people than Joe Rogan:
- Tim Pool is a left-wing journalist known for his work during Occupy Wall who has been a Bernie and a Tulsi Gabbard supporter.
- Styxhexenhammer666 (Tarl Warwick) is a libertarian, pro-choice, pro same-sex marriage occultist who has a mix of left and right wing views (and a very nice garden).
- Ben Shapiro is a conservative Jewish man, and while some of his opinions are controversial to progressives (he is anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage), these beliefs fall in line with his religious beliefs, and it seems a little unfair to lump a Jewish person into the same group as people being called white nationalists or white supremacists.
- Destiny is an extremely liberal Twitch streamer who gets into heated debates with conservative guests (or hosts) about feminism and gay/trans rights issues.
- Dave Rubin is a libertarian gay man who hosts a political talk show and supports liberal issues such as same-sex marriage and criminal justice reform.
- Blaire White is a transgender woman who mostly makes content regarding trans-issues/experiences and politics (she got her spot in the intellectual dark web because she is a Trump supporter and has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement).
- Candace Owens is a conservative black woman who speaks openly about how she thinks the democratic party “claims” black voters for their party, and how black conservatives are often treated poorly for their beliefs. She started “Blexit” in 2018.
My point in sharing who these people are and what they believe is to show that this “alternative influence network” is labeling people as alt-right, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and overall “anti-progressive” when many of them simply aren’t. Many of them have a complicated mix of viewpoints built off their own personal experiences. They’re “mistake” is that they didn’t disavow or stop talking with others on the map with more controversial (or less progressive) opinions (think men’s rights, anti-immigration, anti-same-sex marriage, pro-2nd amendment, anti-abortion, and so on).
How Labeling Libertarians and Conservatives as “Reactionaries” is Increasing Political Tension
Though Rebecca Lewis set out to prove that this group of people are dangerous reactionaries, I tend to disagree. It’s undeniable that some of the people on this list are very far right and that some of them have made politically incorrect comments that are offensive to different groups of people. If she had called those specific people out for harmful behavior, perhaps her argument would have held stronger. However, targeting an unorganized group of people with an extremely wide range of opinions that interact with each other online (and don’t necessarily support each other) weakened her argument, especially because most of the people she targeted do not spread alt-right or white nationalist views, they’re just not progressive enough for her taste.
America is severely divided by left/right politics. The contempt that each side has for the other can be seen all over the media and the internet. I picture the left and right as being separated by an ever-widening abyss of cancel culture; there are the hardcore liberals on one edge, hardcore conservatives on the other edge, and everyone who doesn’t fall perfectly into one camp or another is tossed back and forth between both sides or thrown into the darkness to be ignored.
For America to unite and heal from decades of increasing political tension, we are going to need to stop writing people off for expressing an opinion, even if it is different from our own. In reality, most people have a mix of left and right views, and a mix of left-wing and right-wing friends (and everything in between); diversity of opinion should make us stronger and smarter as a nation, not tear us apart.
I don’t see Joe Rogan as the first step into a deep dark spiral of far-right beliefs. I believe his podcasts helps unite the left and right, in small ways, because he features such a variety of people and opinions on his show, and in doing so has created a space where viewers can be exposed to ideas they’ve never heard before that may make them reconsider their beliefs or strengthen their already existing beliefs. There will always be people who can become obsessed with an online personality and end up behaving like a cult member, but this is not the norm and should not be considered inevitable. In a country where freedom of speech and religion is paramount to our way of life, Americans should be able to hear opinions they disagree with, without attempting to toss perceived outsiders into the abyss.