Joe Rogan has found himself in the crosshairs of many of America’s most powerful institutions. Although he has long been a thorn in the side of progressives who object to his free-wheeling conversations on America’s most popular podcast, the latest controversy was kicked off by an open letter penned by 270 doctors, health care professionals, and academics who complained about interviews in which Rogan and his guests express skepticism about COVID vaccinations. The letter’s authors demanded that Spotify “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.”
Although they represented a tiny portion of America’s medical professionals, these public health activists were able to win widespread coverage from the mainstream news media, with only minor protest from conservative media, which pointed out that more than two-thirds of the letter’s signatories were neither medical doctors nor doctors of osteopathic medicine.
This activist-media alliance soon won support from a third group: major celebrities. The countercultural musician Neil Young announced that he would be pulling all his music from the Spotify streaming service in protest of Rogan’s presence there. Despite his longtime support for free expression and his own scientific skepticism—he dubbed his 2006 antiwar concerts the “Freedom of Speech Tour,” and remains an ardent opponent of the use of GMOs in food— Young effortlessly slotted himself into the new progressive censorship machine. Soon after, singer Joni Mitchell and rock musician Nils Lofgren joined in.
The U.S. government, forbidden by contemporary constitutional law from simply censoring Rogan itself, dispatched Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to reinforce President Joe Biden’s message imparted last year that social media platforms are “killing people” by allowing too much freedom of speech about the pandemic, the virus, and the vaccines.
“People have a right to make their own decisions, but they also have a right to accurate information to make that decision with,” Murthy told MSNBC. “This is not just about what the government can do,” he coyly noted, “this is about companies and individuals recognizing that the only way we get past misinformation is if we are careful about what we say and use the power that we have to limit the spread of misinformation.”
Murthy’s message reinforced the media outlets that had taken aim at Rogan, inspiring a wave of new reports not only focused on his discussions of COVID but also labeling him problematic in other regards. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, whose role in this ecosystem is to disguise Democratic Party talking points as humor, criticized a segment in which Rogan and author Jordan Peterson poke fun at the absurdity of modern racial categorization, noting that nobody is actually “white” or “Black.” CNN signal boosted Noah’s criticism, as did a range of other outlets. Other activists found old clips of Rogan mentioning (but not using) racial slurs.
Eventually, Spotify got the message. It announced new platform rules that include adding advisories to select content dealing with COVID. It began deleting dozens of older Rogan episodes that contained transgressive content. Its CEO promised to devote $100 million of company money on content from “historically marginalized groups,” which in this case is likely to be defined exclusively by progressive activists (don’t expect a lot of sponsored podcasts on Asian American opposition to racial preferences in college admissions). In the span of a week, Rogan posted two separate apologies for his past content.
The authors of the open letter that initiated the firestorm, however, are not satisfied. One of them told Rolling Stone that the Spotify advisories will just create a “‘false balance’ problem. It’s designed to look like they’re doing something, but they’re not doing anything. It’s more spectacle than substance.”
These activists know how to play the game. If you look back at any of the recent controversies over free speech—from QAnon to COVID to the last two presidential elections—this is how things work when a development or outcome is seen as unfavorable or undesirable by the favored political camp:
First, activists create a panic about misinformation or offensive speech. Second, the social media platforms try to meet them halfway by introducing measures like warning labels. Third, the activists realize they’ve drawn blood, and continue to push for outright censorship. Finally, the social media platforms give in and remove the offending voice from their platforms altogether.
The institutions successfully driving this push for ideological conformity across American life—progressive nonprofits, large portions of the news media, woke corporations, Democrats in government—can collectively be called the “blue stack,” which represents an enforcement mechanism for the ruling ideology to express hegemony over American democracy.
Sometimes the foot soldiers of the blue stack are explicit about their goals. Shortly after conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was banned from Spotify, YouTube, and Facebook in 2018—an early test case of blue stack power—then-CEO Jack Dorsey noted that the reason he wasn’t banned from Twitter was simply that “he hasn’t violated our rules.” Dorsey suggested instead that it was important for journalists to “document, validate, and refute” false information so “people can form their opinions.”
Dorsey, who always had a reputation for being on the more speech-friendly side within his company, was quickly disciplined by the blue stack, as journalists publicly scolded him. “I am not getting paid to clean up your website for you,” the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce told him in a viral Tweet, playing an unusual but increasingly common role as a reporter who doubles as a censor. Pearce was speaking for the stack: Do the job, Jack. Within weeks, Jones was banned by Twitter. Last July, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was clear when she suggested that individual social media bans should apply across the entire internet. “You shouldn’t be banned from one platform and not others for providing misinformation out there,” she said, issuing a sort of directive to Silicon Valley.
The blue stack presents America’s elite with something they’ve always craved but has been out of reach in a liberal democracy: the power to swiftly crush ideological opponents by silencing them and destroying their livelihoods. Typically, American cultural, business, and communication systems have been too decentralized and too diffuse to allow one ideological faction to express power in that way. American elites, unlike their Chinese counterparts, have never had the ability to imprison people for wrong-think or derank undesirables in a social credit system.
But the alliance between the media, progressive activists, certain government officials and bureaucrats, technology firms, and other powerful institutions like business and banking now allows them to shape events through what Tablet’s Wesley Yang has called the vertical messaging apparatus. When a politically inconvenient story appears at an inopportune time—one about, say, the corruption of the Democratic presidential candidate’s son—the blue stack takes unified action to quickly suppress it.
Dozens of former officials from the intelligence community can sign a letter baselessly insinuating that the Hunter Biden story was just Russian disinformation, the mainstream media can publish it, and social media companies friendly to or fearful of the Democratic Party can collude to limit access to the original reporting. “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions,” Terrence Samuels, NPR’s managing editor for news, said at the time, explaining why the publicly funded network wouldn’t cover an incriminating story about the Democratic candidate and his family a few weeks before the election. But who really believes this same sequence of events would have occurred had an identical story been about Donald Trump Jr.’s ties to China? The blue stack is, after all, monochromatic.
As effective as the blue stack is in suppressing stories, it’s even more impressive when it creates them. Events that would have been a minor footnote in a local newspaper, if that, are frequently turned into viral moments with which all Americans are called upon to reckon. A relatively brief and nonviolent argument between a Black birdwatcher and a white dog-walker in Central Park becomes national news—including a 2,500-word story that “rattled the nation” in the paper of record—because it serves the blue stack’s interests in stoking racial tensions.
The social media giant Facebook went from actively suppressing anti-lockdown protests in the spring of 2020 by taking down their pages for violating pandemic protocols to openly endorsing Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had plenty of cover as public health experts, newly minted members of the stack, themselves urged people to ignore pandemic restrictions and take to the streets. Most major corporations in America followed suit, effectively endorsing a movement that, whatever its promised upsides might have been, divided most Americans. As a crucial member of the blue stack, a media that had once at least aspired to the appearance of impartiality pulled its weight. Reuters, for example, fired one of its data scientists for questioning the data that was used to justify Black Lives Matter’s policy platform, such as it was.
Even America’s payment processors have joined the ranks of the stack. If you find yourself too far astray from the ideas that the blue stack deems acceptable, GoFundMe might take you off their platform; Paypal might refuse to process your payments. Donors who gave millions of dollars to support a nonviolent protest led by Canadian truckers were surprised to find that GoFundMe abruptly terminated the fundraiser, earning praise from Canadian authorities, who are functionaries in their own closely related blue stack.
When disgraced New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo became too much of an embarrassment for the blue stack, ActBlue, the progressive fundraising platform that now exerts a near monopoly over the movement’s online donors, kicked him off, crippling his ability to raise money for any future campaign.
To get a sense of what happens when ActBlue removes you from their services, recall that a group of populist activists who had supported Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid created the group Brand New Congress to elect populists to both major parties. But they quickly found that ActBlue would not allow them to fundraise if they supported both Democrats and Republicans, making it virtually impossible for them to pursue their mission. Brand New Congress quickly dropped its goal of electing a bipartisan slate of populists and today only endorses Democrats.
And the goal of cutting off heretics from financial resources extends far beyond campaigns. The conservative author Michelle Malkin, who has long rankled the stack with her views on immigration, was told she and her husband can no longer rent community spaces hosted by Airbnb because she spoke at a conference that was hosted by an organization deemed a “hate group” by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Even booking yourself a vacation home now comes with an ideological litmus test.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the emergence of this vertically integrated aristocracy threatens the liberal democratic nature of the United States. Institutions like the news media, major corporations, and the government don’t naturally align in this way except in the most extreme circumstances when the general public itself may be naturally united, like in the immediate aftermath of an external shock such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
But to the functionaries of the blue stack, every day might as well be 9/11. There’s always some form of crisis that demands complete uniformity of thought across all sectors of U.S. society. If anyone steps out of line, they can be disappeared. Even the president of the United States was subject to a virtual ban across almost all sectors of social media. What makes anyone think that they are any less vulnerable than he was?
In its current arrangement, the blue stack is unsustainable. Continuing to marginalize large swaths of the country will result in increased polarization and even greater suspicion between ordinary Americans and elites. The week before Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, released a report warning governments and social media platforms not to rely on censorship to combat scientific misinformation, noting that “removing content may exacerbate feelings of distrust.”
Quite right: What the United States needs now more than anything is trust. We must learn to get along with each other, even if not everything everyone says is always 100% scientifically accurate or conforms to rapidly evolving progressive standards of etiquette. Trying to berate and bully ordinary people and the outlets they enjoy into submission will only push them into ever darker modes of thought. For the sake of democracy, we have to find a way to break up the blue stack and reinvigorate pluralism in the United States.
Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at inquire.substack.com. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.