Misinformation rampant on American podcasts

Disinformation on all kinds of topics, from electoral fraud to vaccines against Covid-19, is reaching millions of Americans through a medium that is as popular as it is opaque: the podcast.

Various podcasts -audio broadcasts that users can listen to online on their mobile phones- they bluntly promote false or unproven claims.

The Brookings Institution think tank found that the podcast “War Room”, Steve Bannon, former adviser to Donald Trumpissued the largest amount of false information -reaching 135 million downloads- with accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 elections.

Commentator Joe Rogan, whose podcast is the most popular on Spotify, also used his platform to push unproven treatments against Covid-19.

Analysts say that people look for programs that reaffirm their own beliefs. But this intimate, conversational format also helps spread misinformation unchecked.

“There is something inherent in the relationship between host and audience that gives this level of credibility, of trust,” Valerie Wirtschafter, an expert data analyst who led the Brookings research, told AFP.

“And the challenge, of course, is that anyone can be a podcaster, they can have a microphone and start talking about whatever they want,” he added.

Wirtschafter’s team analyzed 36,000 episodes and found that 70% of America’s most popular podcasts shared at least one debunked claim by fact checkers. Many cast doubt on the 2020 election or the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike social media, podcasts offer few or no options for your audience to comment or refute misinformation. This “makes it easier to spread false, misleading, or unsubstantiated content with very little oversight,” the Brookings researchers noted in their February report.

Rogan pulled an episode in January after discussing a tweet about Covid-19 vaccines that was falsely attributed to a Florida doctor.

But this is unusual, and Wirtschafter says moderation is “really tricky” for tech companies.

– High audience confidence –

A study by the Pew Research Center – published in April – found that about half of Americans listen to some podcast andl 87% said they expect the information to be accuratewhich represents a higher level of trust than other media.

“The relationship with the host is different,” Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, director of research on media consumption at the University of Florida, told AFP.

“It’s like having a one-on-one conversation; you feel like that person is talking to you,” he added. “People trust more, and that’s why it has more impact.”

Another podcast the Brookings Center cites is one of Apple’s biggest news talk shows, from conservative activist Charlie Kirk, who falsely claimed that athletes were dying from Covid-19 vaccines and that election officials in Arizona rigged the 2020 results.

Requests for comment made by AFP to Rogan, Bannon and Kirk were not answered. Bannon told The New York Times that he considered his inclusion in the report a “medal of honor” and that what others call misinformation he calls “truth.”

– Need ‘Human Intelligence’ –

Responding to podcast misinformation is challenging because it is decentralized, based primarily on an ecosystem of audio platforms with different moderation rules.

Spotify, for example, has a “dangerous” policy to ban content, but at the same time seeks to “respect the expression of the author.” The company supported Rogan in 2022 when he was accused of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus.

NewsGuard, a company that rates the credibility of websites, announced in May that it would start evaluating the trustworthiness of popular podcasts and publish the ratings of some 200 podcasts by 2024, giving more transparency to the audience and allowing sponsors to avoid podcasts. with misinformation or content that disagrees with your brand.

Eric Effron, its editorial director, said that rating podcasts “more challenging” than other content because the audio format requires time to listen to and examine the transcripts.

“This represents a tremendous investment because we use human intelligence,” Effron said.

Responsibility for countering misinformation on podcasts is unclear. Some point to the platforms that host them, or to the recommendations of the algorithms of tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook.

Analyst Wirtschafter, from the Brookings Center, assures that governments, the hosts of these podcasts and the audiences can -between all- help improve the quality of information.

“Removing things is perhaps not the best solution,” said the expert. “But adding more context, providing a richer environment so people can explore facts or have conversations, I think that would be extremely helpful.”

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