Voices: Joe Rogan and Mark Zuckerberg are basically the same person — that’s the awful truth

·6-min read

This week, multimillionaire podcaster Joe Rogan released a three-hour interview with billionaire Facebook/Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The interview was a surprise both because it was unannounced and because the two seem ill-matched. Rogan is generally viewed as an anti-establishment dude, while Zuckerberg is seen as a robotically slick square.

On social media after the interview was published, many Rogan fans were keen to emphasize Rogan is cooler. A number of tweets called Zuckerberg a “reptile” — a more or less intentional reference to antisemitic memes. But the truth is that most of the conversation was low-key and cordial.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Beneath the differences in branding, Rogan and Zuckerberg are practically the same person. They are both extremely wealthy white men in the communication industry. They have similar interests and similar perspectives. And they both are very convinced that they are worthy of their positions of power and influence, and that if there is something wrong with the internet or our political culture, it is someone else’s fault.

Indeed, when listening to them converse, it quickly becomes apparent that Rogan and Zuckerberg have a lot in common. They talk at length, of course, about Zuckerberg’s new virtual reality projects, because that’s what he’s there to promote. From there they go to virtual gaming (they shared a virtual fencing match), and then on to non-virtual sports.

Rogan started his career as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) commentator, and Zuckerberg is now a devotee. The closest the two come to a disagreement is when Rogan insists forcefully that to improve at MMA, you need to do more drilling and less sparring. Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to want to take advice from Rogan on his training regimen, and moves the conversation along.

The portion of the conversation that has gotten the most attention is a discussion of online disinformation. Rogan asks Zuckerberg about Facebook’s decision, in line with FBI guidance, to downrate a New York Post article in 2020. The article reported on a laptop that supposedly contained incriminating information by and about Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son.

GOP partisans have been obsessed with this story for a long time. Trump hoped that revelations about Hunter would swing him the election. He famously tried to blackmail Ukraine into investigating Biden’s son by threatening to withhold military supplies. That’s what led to his impeachment.

The right is treating Zuckerberg’s revelation as a massive admission of wrongdoing. In fact, though, as international relations professor Nicholas Grossman explained on Twitter, Zuckerberg said nothing new, and nothing incriminating.

Zuckerberg admits (as he has before) that he may have been mistaken — the Post’s article has now been verified by other sources. But as The Washington Post says, there was reason for caution, given 2016 disinformation and given Trump’s openly corrupt efforts at election interference.

What’s most revealing in the discussion about disinformation, though, is that neither Rogan nor Zuckerberg are inclined to explore their own worst moments in misleading their audiences.

Rogan makes a lot of humphing noises about the dangers of suppressing information. The subtext here is that he himself has been widely criticized for spreading egregious and dangerous lies about the Covid pandemic. He hosted guests who boosted ivermectin, a quack Covid cure that doesn’t work. He also hosted a widely debunked vaccine denier, and a conspiracy theorist who claims the pandemic was “planned.”

“The thing I really admire about what you do is that you have a commitment to really giving a voice to a lot of people,” Zuckerberg gushes to Rogan during the podcast. That’s one way of looking at what Rogan does.

The other less charitable take — which is borne out by his allowing his platform to be used for dissemination of vaccine disinformation to his 11 million listeners — is that Rogan is an ignorant fool with no editorial standards and little sense of responsibility, who lucked into an enormous platform which he is manifestly unfit to curate.

As bad as Rogan is, though, Facebook has done much, much worse. A competent interviewer would not have focused a discussion of Facebook misinformation on Hunter Biden. He would have focused it on Facebook’s role in the genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar.

The authorities in Myanmar undertook a program of mass killing, rape, and burning in August 2017 in an effort to force Rohingya Muslims from the country. Around 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to flee their homes. The violence was amplified and organized on Facebook, where the government, Buddhist monks, and others shared anti-Rohingya propaganda, including pictures which falsely suggested Muslims were killing Buddhists.

Rohingya refugees are currently suing Facebook for its negligence in allowing its platform to be used to organize and perpetuate a genocide. That’s a live topic that you’d think you might want to discuss in a three-hour interview about the responsibilities of social media platforms.

Instead, though, Rogan finishes up the interview by asking Zuckerberg what it’s like to be so successful. The way he phrases the question, it sounds like he thinks becoming a multi-billionaire is a tragedy akin to losing a loved one or getting a cancer diagnosis. “Am I freaking you out just thinking about it?” he chortles.

But Zuckerberg assures him that no, talking about his ever-increasing wealth and power isn’t upsetting. He goes on for a bit about how he rose from being a fairly privileged Harvard undergrad to being one of the richest people in the world, and concludes that, yes, he really deserved it all. “I think we did it because we cared more,” he says, sincerely. Rogan nods along, presumably thinking about how his own vast reservoirs of caring landed him his $200 million Spotify contract.

Rogan and Zuckerberg are both extremely rich, and like most extremely rich people, they share a conviction that they earned their riches by being virtuous, smart and thoughtful. But would a virtuous, smart and thoughtful person have anything to do with spreading grotesque vaccine disinformation repeatedly during a deadly pandemic? Would a virtuous, smart and thoughtful person let his business be used for genocide? Would virtuous, smart and thoughtful people talk about their responsibilities as communicators for three hours without mentioning these really egregious and awful failures?

The powerful can present themselves as anti-establishment or establishment, as rumpled or polished. But, as Rogan and Zuckerberg demonstrate, they all agree that they deserve power. And they all agree they should not be held accountable.