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An emergency room physician uses her smartphone to communicate with a remote patient in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2019. (AP/Benton) An emergency room physician uses her smartphone to communicate with a remote patient in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2019. (AP/Benton)

An emergency room physician uses her smartphone to communicate with a remote patient in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2019. (AP/Benton)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy July 26, 2021

Spotify’s Joe Rogan repeats inaccurate claim that ‘they are monitoring SMS texts’

If Your Time is short

  • The Democratic National Committee is fielding reports of misinformation coming from mass text messages, and alerting the companies that allow users to send such messages. 

  • The federal government is not involved with the effort, and there is no evidence that the government or the DNC is intercepting or monitoring private text messages.

  • PolitiFact rated False a separate claim that the government is “infiltrating” personal texts.

In a recent episode of his popular podcast, Spotify host Joe Rogan implied that the government is "monitoring SMS texts for dangerous misinformation about COVID vaccines."

That’s not true. The effort Rogan was referring to is not about intercepting or screening private text messages, and there’s no evidence the government is involved with it, as PolitiFact has reported.

The misleading claim came about an hour and a half into the podcast as Rogan, whose show was the most popular podcast on Spotify in 2020, discussed issues of surveillance and privacy with journalist Abby Martin, his guest for the July 20 episode. 

"Look, we’re living in a panopticon here," Martin said. "We’re in a surveillance state that is undoubtedly so." Martin then asked Rogan if he thought his emails were being watched. 

"I assume all my emails are monitored," Rogan said in response. "But have you seen the new thing about SMS text messages to stop COVID vaccine misinformation?

"They are monitoring SMS texts for dangerous misinformation about COVID vaccines," Rogan continued. "Now look, misinformation is not good, right, with anything. But who’s deciding?"

Rogan’s claim was vague about who "they" are and what messages were being monitored, but in context of discussion of a "surveillance state," it gave the false impression that the government is screening private texts between family and friends — a claim that several conservative politicians and pundits, such as Sen. Josh Hawley and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, made more explicitly.

That allegation grew out of a Politico report about the Biden White House’s efforts to fight back against what it perceives as misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines.

The July 12 report included this nugget about SMS text messages:

"Biden allied groups, including the Democratic National Committee, are also planning to engage fact-checkers more aggressively and work with SMS carriers to dispel misinformation about vaccines that is sent over social media and text messages. The goal is to ensure that people who may have difficulty getting a vaccination because of issues like transportation see those barriers lessened or removed entirely."

DNC spokesman Lucas Acosta told PolitiFact that the party is merely notifying companies that facilitate bulk texting about broadcast SMSs that spread misinformation. Broadcast SMSs are messages that organizers blast out to large lists of subscribers, often through an application such as Twilio or Bandwidth.

"When the DNC's counter-disinformation program receives complaints or reports of fraudulent broadcast SMSs that we believe violate the text aggregators’ terms of service, we notify the broadcast text platform to help combat this troubling trend," Acosta said. 

"Of course the DNC has no ability to access or read people’s private text messages, and we are not working with any government agency, including the White House, to try to see personal text messages," Acosta said. "The only texts reviewed are those distributed en masse to American citizens through broadcast text platforms and reported to the DNC."

Speaking about the effort on his podcast, Rogan did not distinguish between the government and the DNC, or between the personal texts exchanged between individuals and the type of mass texts blasted to mailing lists that the DNC is concerned about, leaving room for confusion. 

Politico reporter Natasha Korecki, who co-authored the report that spawned the false claims of government spying, said in a pair of tweets that the White House is not involved, and that "there is no ability for groups to read individual texts aside from the ones they receive themselves."

And CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless communications industry, said in a statement: "Wireless carriers do not read or moderate the content of text messages that their customers send to each other, nor are carriers working with third parties to do so."

A Spotify representative declined to comment on behalf of the company and Rogan.

Our ruling

In a conversation about privacy and living in "a surveillance state," Rogan said, "They are monitoring SMS texts for dangerous misinformation about COVID vaccines."

Rogan’s vague references to "they" and "SMS texts" could have left some listeners with the misleading impression that the government is snooping on all text messages that Americans send and receive, including private messages. 

That’s not the case. The effort he alluded to comes from the Democratic National Committee, which is alerting companies that facilitate bulk text messaging to reports about mass text messages that spread misinformation in violation of their terms of service. The government is not involved, and no messages are being screened.

The statement leaves out context that could give a different impression. We rate Rogan’s statement Mostly False.

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Spotify’s Joe Rogan repeats inaccurate claim that ‘they are monitoring SMS texts’

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