Yes, the Crazies Really Do Have Influence
Pretending they don't has become a cottage industry among many conservatives. But denying it is increasingly implausible.
Above: today’s conservative movement
In recent weeks and months, I have noticed a tendency among certain conservatives to implausibly deny the influence that dangerous and crazy people have on the conservative movement. The latest person conservatives try to pretend is a minor, non-influential figure is Candace Owens — but the habit of dismissing crazies’ speech as inconsequential has extended to Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, and just about everyone else pushing crazy and/or stupid opinions that motivate the populist Trumpist base of the GOP.
Yes, Candace Owens Has Influence
Let’s start with Owens, who recently suggested that we invade Canada (!) due to Justin Trudeau’s arguable overreach in responding to an illegal blockade of trade routes by vaccine-hating truckers.
David French pointed out the insanity of Owens’s tweet, noting that while many claim Owens is a “fringe” figure, she has quite the following on Twitter:
Many conservatives pounced (an activity they have great experience with, if Big Media has taught us anything). Some chided French for supposedly “defending” Trudeau by comparing him to Putin, conveniently ignoring the fact that Owens was the one who had originally made the comparison, absurdly claiming that Trudeau’s actions present a greater concern to Americans than Putin’s do. More relevant to this newsletter are the efforts by other conservatives to portray Owens as a minor figure in the conservative movement who really has no particular influence.
The Kitchen Pundit Weighs In
A prime example of that was presented by my friend Joe Cunningham in his generally excellent newsletter The Kitchen Pundit. Joe argues as follows:
The population of the United States is about 330 million people. If we're being extremely generous and saying that all 3 million of her followers are U.S.-based followers, that's 0.9% of the U.S. population, which is statistically fringe. But that also assumes that all 3 million of her followers interact with her tweets, and that is statistically impossible.
According to the website SpeakrJ.com, the engagement on Owens' tweets isn't very high. She averages, at best, around 1 percent engagement from her followers. For that particular tweet, there are about 120,000 interactions, and a lot of them are mocking her.
It's completely irrational to think that social media numbers are somehow indicative of the strength of a movement. On a website where fake accounts, bots, and purchasable followers exist, it's beyond unreasonable to base an assumption about a group of people on one Twitter account.
Yes, 1 percent engagement would mean about 30,000 people, and that is a big number of people who may agree with her. But 30,000 keyboard warriors on Twitter does not a revolution make. You very likely aren't going to see those 30,000 people rise up and stage a coup somewhere. What you will find is that, if they're called, they won't serve the "cause," whatever the cause French is worried about may be.
Candace Owens does not represent the full right. She doesn't really represent much of anyone. There are not untold numbers of people out there basing their activism and their votes on what Owens tells them to. They follow her for the entertainment value.
Given that conservatives routinely complain about social media’s bias against conservatives in apocalyptic terms, it was surprising to learn that all of a sudden a political pundit’s reach on Twitter is essentially meaningless. Even a millipede with six toes on each foot would need a calculator to count the number of times we have been told that a Twitter or Facebook ban of any conservative is a direct assault on our most precious speech freedoms, and must be addressed with the traditional conservative tool for solution for attacking any large societal problem: namely, extensive and burdensome government regulation. Yet here, all of a sudden, we are told that one’s Twitter following is a meaningless metric! My head is spinning at how fast that happened.
As a brief aside: When Joe says: “You very likely aren't going to see those 30,000 people rise up and stage a coup somewhere,” the thought that immediately occurs to me is this: I can easily see these exact same arguments being made in advance of January 6, 2021 to pooh-pooh the concerns raised by the upsurge in Internet traffic on far-right Web sites referencing the upcoming count of electoral votes in Congress. Stop with the conspiracy theories that say Trump is trying to stay in office or that there will be violence. The Internet is not real life. Indeed, Joe was one of the people who assured us that Trump wasn’t going to try to stay in office. But Trump did. Sure, he didn’t barricade himself inside the Oval Office and force armed people to pull him out kicking and screaming. But nobody seriously ever contemplated that. What we contemplated was that he was going to do something wacky and extralegal to try to hold onto power — and by now it’s quite clear that’s exactly what he did. (And thus ends the brief aside.)
Beware Sites That Claim to Measure Twitter Data
But let’s take on some of Joe’s specific arguments. As for SpeakrJ.com, looking more closely at the site, it measures "engagament" [sic] "received on the twitter [sic] account in that specific day." Apparently as your numbers go up, "engagament" goes down. According to the site, noted non-influencer Kim Kardashian West's "engagament" is zero.
A section that compares her to other influencers has a table that makes it clear that, even according to the metrics of this dubious site, the larger your audience, the lower the level of your engagement (or, if you prefer, “engagament”) per user:
That makes sense. As your audience extends into the millions, a lower and lower percentage of people are going to actively engage with all your tweets. But the absolute number of people you influence is still going up with every thousand extra followers you gain.
Even without these red flags, I think it’s questionable to rely too heavily on this SpeakrJ.com Web site — or any similar site — to begin with. People tend to be overly credulous about sites that claim to "measure" things on social media.
For example, I remember that once, people in the Brett Kimberlin orbit touted a site that claimed to measure fake followers, which claimed that my Twitter account had only 100 real followers. Conclusion: I had purchased thousands of fake followers! Except that I counted the number of *verified* followers that I had, and stopped counting at 150 or so. Obviously an account that has 150+ verified followers is likely to have thousands of real followers, since verified accounts are something like .2% of all users. So that site was hot garbage.
Another claim made by the Kimberlin crowd is that a Twitter analysis from another “metrics” Web site supposedly showed that I routinely tweeted during business hours during a particular three-month period. I looked at every tweet I had sent during that three-month period, and not a single one had gone out during business hours. Not one.
But people who cite such measurement sites almost never investigate their reliability, especially when they like the results they are seeing. Reliance on such sites is an example of motivated reasoning.
Motivated Reasoning Is Driving the Minimizing of Influential Crazies’ Influence
And that’s where I am going with all this: denying the influence of obviously influential people so often seems to stem from motivated reasoning — “the phenomenon in cognitive science and social psychology in which emotional biases lead to justifications or decisions based on their desirability rather than an accurate reflection of the evidence.” I haven’t spent all this time refuting specific aspects of Joe Cunningham’s reliance on SpeakrJ.com to pick on Joe, whom I like. My real point is that denying that Candace Owens is an influential person within the conservative movement is an argument based on motivated reasoning — in other words, it’s an argument that makes sense only if you really want it to make sense.
Think about it. Not only does Candace Owens have those 3 million followers — about 200 times the number I have, and only about 1/6 of Joe Biden’s 18 million followers — but she has a book deal for a book that has sold 480,000 copies, which is a staggering number for a non-fiction book. (Tom Woods, who has written several books, notes that “[i]t’s extremely difficult to sell in excess of 50,000 copies of a nonfiction title.” His book Meltdown was on the New York Times bestseller list for 10 weeks and sold only 70,000 copies.)
But that’s not all. Candace Owens is a featured speaker at CPAC. The folks running CPAC obviously list the speakers in order of their perceived influence with CPAC’s hyperpartisan and Trumpy base — and there she is, fourth in line just behind Trump, Trump Jr., and Ron DeSantis.
Further down the list, if you scroll down, are Texas senator and perennial presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, Trump’s Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Mike Pompeo, and other also-rans.
What’s more, in September 2021, the McLaughlin group found Owens polling at 5% in a hypothetical 2024 primary poll of Republicans without Trump:
Note that Owens comes in fifth in that group — beating out Nikki Haley, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Mike Pompeo, and a host of other potential hopefuls. No, she hasn’t always done that well, and yes, it’s only one poll. But I’m not arguing that she’s the most influential conservative in America. I’m just rejecting Joe Cunningham’s contention that “Candace Owens . . . doesn't really represent much of anyone.” That strikes me as far closer to wishful thinking than clear-eyed analysis.
Metrics matter. Someone with three million followers on Twitter, who is selling 480,000 copies of her book, and once polled three points higher than the guy who came in third in the 2020 primaries (and just two points behind the guy who came in second) is not someone who “doesn’t really represent much of anyone.” Just like ratings matter to TV, Twitter follower counts say something about political influence. (And ratings do matter. In fact, when CNN has poor ratings, conservatives are perfectly happy to cite them as a key indicator of CNN’s waning influence. Joe Cunningham agrees.)
Yes, Joe Rogan Has Influence
We have seen the same motivated reasoning at work in the arguments made by defenders of Joe Rogan. There’s a tendency to minimize the obvious ability he has to influence his listeners. Here’s one such example from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, a sensible guy whom I have met in person more than once and like a great deal. Here’s Conor:
I told Conor I would take him up on that bet in a heartbeat — and if you keep reading, I’ll explain why I am so confident.
Similarly, my friend Jay Caruso wrote in his generally excellent Substack newsletter The Monday Notice that (to quote his deck headline): “The podcaster is not ‘dangerous’ because of his vaccine views.”
At the same time, I have issues with such pressure campaigns to get someone off a platform because of “misinformation” and what they say is “dangerous.” Worse, it comes with the assumption that since Rogan has a lot of listeners, they’re all unvaccinated and brushing their teeth with horse paste when they get the sniffles.
Why would someone assume that? Because someone is listening?
Jill clearly doesn’t believe what Rogan says about vaccines or COVID treatment. What makes her so brilliant that she understands, but Rogan’s audience doesn’t? And how many of them did Rogan convince not to get vaccinated? His views are more likely to be confirmation bias than persuasion.
My grandmother used to listen to Howard Stern all the time when he was at 92.3 K-Rock in New York City. Whenever she visited, I’d get up in the morning, and there she was, listening away. She’d tell me, “He’s so disgusting! All he does is talk about penises, breasts, and vaginas!” But, as much as she hate-listened, he never convinced her of anything.
That’s not to suggest everyone who downloads a Rogan podcast is a hate-listener. But I suspect many are, particularly in journalism, because they must report what he says. At the same time, I am also not convinced he’s turned millions of people into anti-vaxxers. Is it possible he persuaded some people? Perhaps. But again, so what?
“Well, what if he had someone that’s a scientist or doctor on the show who gives bad information?”
Still, that is up to the person listening or watching to decide for themselves.
Let me be clear about a couple of things. I agree that Rogan should not be canceled. I agree that people bear primary responsibility for their own decisions.
But I also believe his speech is dangerous and should be called out as such.
If you’re one of those people who doubts that he has platformed vaccine misinformation, or that he has displayed a clear bias on the issue, you really should become a paid subscriber and read my recent post on Joe Rogan, which contains a section titled “Does Joe Rogan Spread Misinformation?” In fact, you don’t even have to be a paid subscriber to read it. I actually made the public an offer regarding that post, and it still stands: just tell me you want to read that post, and I’ll forward it to you, for free, with no strings attached. All you have to do is respond to this email and tell me you want to read the Rogan post. A few people took me up on that offer when I first made it, and it remains open to anyone on this list. If you’re actually curious about that issue and have not listened to his podcast much or at all, it’s worth your time. Maybe, if you like it enough, you’ll decide it’s worth becoming a paid subscriber! In any event, you won’t be able to complain that I offered you no evidence that Rogan is spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines.
So yeah: Rogan is spreading dangerous misinformation. Just how dangerous it is, I can’t say. Just how many people have been convinced or confirmed in their decision not to get vaccinated, as a result of listening to Rogan and his crank guests, I can’t say. But I believe it’s beyond question that he has influence, and I’ll soon explain why.
BuT wHeRE aRe tHe sTUdIeS?!?!1!
Before I present my argument, let me address one of the common ways people try to argue that Joe Rogan has no effect on vaccine uptake: by issuing demands that I “prove” that Rogan indeed does have an effect, apparently through “data” and “studies.” These people seem to think that “scientific studies” are the only way that I can prove that Joe Rogan certainly has an effect on some people’s decisionmaking process when it comes to the vaccines. If this is your position, I mean you no personal offense when I tell you that this is really just sophistry. The fact is, nobody is ever going to do a “study” regarding whether Joe Rogan’s podcast had a but-for effect on people’s decision not to get vaccinated. And if anyone tried to conduct such a study, it would necessarily resort to measures that many sensible people find unreliable, like self-reporting. Trying to do a statistical analysis of some sort would be complicated immensely by the fact that correlation does not equate to causation. After all, many elements of Rogan’s audience might gravitate towards his podcast because of their skepticism about vaccines.
Does that mean the issue is unknowable? I don’t think it does. Again, we can’t know to what extent Rogan influences people, but there is a common sense argument available that all but proves that he influences some people. The reason has to do with how f[vowel omitted]cking big his audience really is.
You Probably Have Not Thought About Just How Big Joe Rogan’s Audience Actually Is
I think it's easy to miss just how large an audience 11 million people really is. I think the following question really helps drive it home. What if I were to ask you how many Joe Rogan fans will likely commit suicide in the year 2022? Before moving on to the next paragraph, ask yourself: what would your gut tell you? Close your eyes and muse upon the subject before you read on any further. See if you can come up with an answer. Zero people? One or two? A handful? Don’t read the next sentence until you have your own answer.
What was your answer? Well, given that I am asking the question, you’re probably guessing higher than you otherwise would. Maybe you guessed a dozen? As many as twenty? Surely it can’t be that high!
Here’s the surprising answer: statistically, about 1500 or so of Joe Rogan’s listeners will kill themselves in 2022. If you don't believe me, look up the numbers and run them yourself. In 2020, “[t]he provisional number of suicides was 45,855, compared with 47,511 in 2019, the CDC said.” (The number was lower during the pandemic, oddly enough.) Pick 45,000 out of 330 million people as a good round number. It’s about .01%. For 11 million people, the number is roughly 1500. Another site says that “[t]he age-adjusted suicide rate in 2019 was 13.93 per 100,000 individuals.” 11 million people is 110 times that number, or 110 multipled by 13.93 = 1532. Any way you slice it, it’s about 1500 people. Given that Rogan’s audience skews young and male, the number of 2022 suicides among his audience will likely be more than the approximately 1500+ that statistics tell us will commit suicide every year.
This is not a knock on his audience; it’s just an illustration of the size of his audience. 11 million people is a lot of people. That's a huge audience. And you can do similar math to learn the likelihood of other unlikely or rare events happening to people in Rogan’s audience. For example, hundreds of Rogan listeners will die in auto accidents this year. A handful of Joe Rogan’s listeners will be struck by lightning! This year! That’s how big his audience is. Things that have a “one in a million chance” of happening will happen to about 11 people in his audience.
If you’re still not convinced that Rogan is influential, consider this question: advertising. Do advertisers pay Joe Rogan to promote their products? Why, yes, they do . . . a lot. The Verge reported in December:
One ad buyer, who also requested anonymity to speak freely about rates, says Spotify upped prices for its acquired and licensed shows. CPMs, or the cost per thousand listeners, on those programs are up three times as much, they say. A host-read ad that lived forever on Joe Rogan’s show used to cost tens of thousands of dollars previous to him going exclusive to Spotify. Next year, to get any ads on Rogan, the minimum spend is $1 million, they say, at a CPM upward of $60.
One million dollars!
Do you think advertisers pay $1 million to get an ad read by a guy . . . who can’t persuade anyone to change their behavior? Yeah, I don’t think that’s happening. Advertisers are not utterly irrational. They think Joe Rogan will change listener’s buying habits, and they are putting their money where their mouth is. Pretty irrational of them … if it’s true that his statements to an audience of 11 million influence nobody’s actions.
Some people argue that the decision to get vaccinated is different from making a purchasing decision. And so it is . . . but the factors cut both ways. A lot of people tune out advertising because they know the host is being paid to pimp the product. Meanwhile, someone who tunes in to listen to a crank like Robert Malone spew nonsense about vaccines for three hours really wants to hear that message. They’re not typically going to bring the same level of skepticism to that podcast that they might bring to a paid advertisement. And yet, advertisers pay millions for those advertisements.
When you consider the huge size of Rogan’s audience, together with the fact that he has given oxygen to the anti-vax movement, I find the compulsion to argue that Joe Rogan never convinced anyone of anything to be pure silliness. It strikes me as a clear example of motivated reasoning.
Jay Caruso says in the passage I quoted above that “many” in the audience are journalists and/or likely hate-listeners. I think his math is waaay off. A recent estimate found there to be 6,536 journalists in the United States. Common sense tells you that not all of those journalists are Rogan listeners — and if they were, they would not all be hate-listeners. But assume, just for the fun of it, that 100% of all journalists listen to Rogan and they are all hate-listeners who won’t be persuaded by a thing. Jay’s statement that this constitutes “many” people in Rogan’s audience still does not pass the smell test. 6,536 people out of 11 million people is .00059418 of the total, or about .06% of the audience. That’s a fraction of a fraction. To call that “many” of his listeners seems like a stretch, doesn’t it? It makes sense only if you want it to.
No: in an audience that large, it’s obvious that Rogan has convinced some people not to get vaccinated. Say it’s only 1% of his audience. I’d guess it’s more, but let’s go with that very low percentage. That would be 110,000 unvaccinated people. And in any group of 110,000 unvaccinated people, some people are going to die because they didn’t get vaccinated. Rogan’s misinformation will almost certainly result in some number of deaths. How many deaths? I don’t know, but I feel confident the number is not zero. I think it’s just inevitable in an audience that crushingly large.
Jay says: "Is it possible that some 21-year-old listened to Rogan and chose not to get vaccinated as a result? Possibly. And my response to that is, 'So what?'" But what if someone who is middle-aged with comorbidities did? Or many, many such people did? Well then it's almost certain that someone will die as a result. And it's hard to say "so what?" to that. If someone were putting out misinformation about the dangers of smoking to 11 million people, that too would be dangerous — even if smoking ultimately is your own choice.
I still say don't cancel Rogan. All I ask is that people understand that the decision not to do anything about him is a trade-off that comes with costs. Given our commitment to free speech in this country, I think it's a pretty easy decision to make, even given the trade-off. But people should recognize that it is indeed a trade-off.
The problem is, when people defend cherished freedoms, they often refuse to recognize the trade-offs inherent in the exercise of those freedoms. That discussion comes next.
Defenders of Freedom Often Dislike Acknowledging that the Freedoms Come with Costs
One side effect of motivated reasoning is that defenses of freedom often morph into arguments that an exercise of the freedom has no cost. When someone gets in a Las Vegas hotel room and shoots hundreds of people, who are the first people manning the ramparts trying to minimize or deny the harm that guns cause? Strong supporters of the Second Amendment, that’s who. And who are the first to question the idea that political speech can result in harm? Strong defenders of the First Amendment, that’s who — like our friend Conor Friedersdorf mentioned earlier.
You’ll see this over and over every time someone defends a cherished freedom. It’s too apparently too uncomfortable to talk about trade-offs these days, so you’ll often see defenders of a cherished freedom engaged in increasingly absurd attempts to minimize and deny the damage caused by said cherished freedom. When it comes to controversies over free speech, the second any protest starts to sound like an attempt at “cancellation,” emotions and self-righteousness start to run strong. We often see that, even if someone is exercising a cherished freedom such as speech in a harmful way, many people will denounce as fascism any criticism of the speech — even if the criticism acknowledges both the existence of the freedom and the lawfulness of its exercise. We hear: “But people will use the same arguments to shut our freedom down!” And thus, the way other people might misuse our criticism is cited as a reason we ought not even voice the criticism to begin with.
Someone whose writing I enjoyed for years, but has lost his mind in recent weeks and months, told me flat-out that anyone who did not denounce Neil Young’s protest of Rogan was a bad person. And thus does every argument become even more stupidly polarized, because you’re not allowed to even criticize Rogan, or any other “in” group — even if you’re right — because to do so, supposedly, would give aid and comfort to those seeking to cancel Rogan entirely. The people demanding such absolute fealty — either take up rhetorical arms against Neil Young or you are a Bad Person — think they are fighting the Good Fight for Speech, Baseball, Hot Dogs, and the American Way. In reality they contribute to the tribalism they claim to condemn.
Another aside: Due to the same mechanisms of motivated reasoning I have just described, it is an unfortunate fact that many people who are strongly anti-mandate often become at least somewhat anti-vax. (I should clarify that “at least somewhat anti-vax” in this context often does not mean “resolutely opposed to taking vaccines” but rather giving a chin-scratching “hmm” to the dark mutterings of the cranks about unknown side effects and the like. Many of these people are vaxxed.) Again: one starts off defending a cherished freedom (like bodily autonomy) and then often one starts grasping at any argument that supports the cause of freedom (maybe those vaccines are not as effective as we thought, or maybe they have more side effects than we realized!) (End aside #2!)
Similarly, many who appropriately argue Joe Rogan should not canceled end up arguing his speech hurts nobody. But it obviously does, for all the reasons I have been at pains to discuss here. And efforts to deny his influence — or the influence of Candace Owens — end up sounding like partisan special pleading that can only convince people who badly want to be convinced.