Last week, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) went on Joe Rogan’s podcast to promote his presidential campaign and his “democratic socialist” policy platform. Some Sanders supporters were quick to defend his appearance on Rogan’s podcast as “bypassing corporate media filters to reach more Americans”, and some media watchers were scratching their heads over Sanders’ and Rogan’s conversation that spanned from marijuana legalization to “secret alien” declassification.
I, however, was asking a different set of questions. First, why would Sanders or any other progressive politicians offer legitimacy to someone who offers a large platform to “ideas” and individuals who deserve none? And from there, are we really giving enough serious thought to the vast web of extremist recruitment that may be hiding in plain sight… And by plain sight, I mean right on our internet enabled devices?
“Lastly, I say to President Trump: Please stop the racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. Stop the hatred in this country that is creating the violence that we’re seeing.”
– Bernie Sanders, in North Las Vegas on August 4
When he was last in Nevada on August 4, Bernie Sanders made a very clear condemnation of white nationalist extremism along with his clearest promise yet to act on the nation’s gun violence epidemic. “Lastly, I say to President Trump: Please stop the racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. Stop the hatred in this country that is creating the violence that we’re seeing,” Sanders declared. He soon added, “Our job is to bring our people together, not to divide them apart.”
Yet only a week later, Sanders did an interview with comedian turned UFC commentator turned superstar podcaster Joe Rogan. They engaged in critiquing the gawd-awful worst of the first two debates, discussing the merits of Vermont grown marijuana, and uncovering the truth behind the many UFO conspiracy theories out there.
Sanders fans at sites like Jacobin and BoingBoing praised Sanders’ “unique ability to communicate left-wing values across the ideological divide.” But in praising Sanders’ performance on the show, they missed the other man on the microphone: Joe Rogan. And in doing so, they missed the core of the problem Sanders and other progressive and mainstream figures contribute to by lending credibility to a platform that regularly bestows credibility upon the darkest elements of the “intellectual dark web”.
So what’s the matter with Joe Rogan?
At first glance, Joe Rogan just seems like a “free thinking” celebrity who’s always “curious about new ideas”. But when we look beyond his now-famous conversations with the likes of Bernie Sanders, Leah Remini, Elon Musk, and other newsmakers who may actually be going on Rogan’s show to promote noble causes, we see a very different picture of the A-List podcaster.
Just two months before the Sanders interview, Rogan invited regular guest and “alt-right intellectual leader” Jordan Peterson back onto his show to promote Peterson’s new “free speech” online social media platform that just so happens to have a paywall and use the same “Big Tech censorship” types of comment moderation that he and other alt-right types lament as “shadowbanning”. Jordan Peterson is notorious for his “learned men’s rights advocacy” that acts as an erudite veil for crass misogyny and transphobia, yet Rogan has repeatedly brought Peterson onto his show to talk “free speech”.
And that’s not all: Rogan’s list of notable guests also includes white supremacist “philosopher” Stefan Molyneux, “comedian” Steven Crowder, expert provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and other “intellectual dark web” fixtures who suddenly gain access to a broader audience when they appear on Rogan’s show. Most notably, Rogan has regularly invited “Conspiracy King” Alex Jones to promote his many (and often racist) conspiracy theories with little or no pushback, and he even continues to invite Jones onto his show as major social media platforms have finally moved in the last two years to limit Jones’ ability to spread misinformation.
And now, a brief(ish?) history of Alex Jones and his war on (factual) information
By now, you may have heard of Alex Jones. When he’s not hawking his many overpriced Infowars brand vitamins, Jones revels in the most outrageous(ly false) conspiracy theories you’ve probably heard way too much about. You know the ones: Barack Obama “wasn’t born here”, “the reptilians” run “The Illuminati” who “run the world”, Satanists want to control America, Hillary Clinton runs a human trafficking and child abuse operation out of a D.C. pizza shop, mass shootings and other terrorist attacks are really just “inside jobs” that the government deploys to control all of us “sheeple”, and that all the “sheeple” will ultimately be led to slaughter in a wide array of “FEMA death camps”.
Again, all these and all the rest of Jones’ beloved conspiracy theories are ridiculously, baselessly false. However due to Jones’ ability to harness the power of the internet to grow a cult following over the years, he’s not only been able to sell them his many overpriced Infowars brand vitamins, but also convince them that “they’re really out to get you”. This has led to some very real, and at times very deadly, consequences: the Tucson shooter who killed six people and injured 13 others, including his attempted assassination of then Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), in January 2011, the couple who spent time aiding and abetting Cliven Bundy in his “Range War” before moving to assassinate Las Vegas Metro Police Officers Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo and civilian Joseph Robert Wilcox in June 2014, and the man who opened fire in the very D.C. pizza shop that was falsely accused of being part of a (fictitious) child sex ring in December 2016 were all drawn in by Alex Jones to his many conspiracy-laden delusions of grandeur, delusions that ultimately proved lethal.
When Jones was merely peddling easily debunkable 9/11 conspiracy theories and promoting an obscure backbench Congressman by the name of Ron Paul (R-Texas) on his Austin talk radio show, he was easy for most of us to ignore. But when Alex Jones found a way to make his conspiracy crazy go viral, it gradually became much harder and less justifiable to ignore Jones’ ability to spread formerly “fringe ideas” to a broader audience (at one point in 2017, broader than that of right-wing talk radio star Rush Limbaugh).
So why should we care about any of these extremists and their “crazy shitposting”?
While Alex Jones himself has generally been careful in “dog-whistling” the most odious aspects of his conspiracy-heavy worldview, it’s not that hard to trace such “dog whistles” back to the Christian Identity ideology at the heart of the contemporary white nationalist movement. And not only is this toxic blend of conspiracy crazy and old-fashioned bigotry reaching all the way into the White House, but it’s also adding fuel to the fire of white nationalist terrorism that’s raging across America today.
While Christian Identity, the Patriot Movement, sovereign citizens, the Oath Keepers, the Minutemen, and other fascist extremist groups were operating long before Alex Jones became famous, Cliven Bundy launched his “Range War” against the federal government, and Donald Trump won the presidency, their success in moving beyond the fringe and sneaking into mainstream political dialogue is causing serious consequences for all of us.
Just last week, a man was arrested here in Las Vegas after the FBI uncovered his plot to attack a synagogue, a bar serving our local LGBTQ+ community, a Jewish civil rights group, and potentially additional targets. In recent days, his online “paper trail” suggests his story may fit into the larger narrative of people being radicalized into the neo-Nazi movement via the “intellectual dark web” of the alt-right. While there’s currently no indication that this man was specifically led to neo-Nazi online networks by Alex Jones and/or Joe Rogan, it’s becoming harder to deny the danger of normalizing hateful extremism, rewarding “trolling” that such extremists use to recuit via “red pill”, and praising those who enable the spread of hateful extremism as “open-minded” and “free thinkers”.
In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll be digging deeper into this “intellectual dark web” of hate. Again, this goes far deeper and far darker than merely a group of trolls who obsess over frogs, celibacy, and “owning the libs” from the safety of the basement at their parents’ house. It’s already gone way past “shitposting”, and it’s long past time we recognize this threat for what it truly is.