An Australian celebrity lifestyle influencer is hosting some of the world's most notorious conspiracy theorists on his podcast
- Pete Evans is a celebrity chef in Australia who claims to promote wellness on his podcast.
- On the podcast he interviews notorious conspiracy theorists who spread medical misinformation.
- Podcasts like Evans' often evade the scrutiny that social media accounts are subject to.
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In an edition of his podcast, "Evolve," last November, Australian celebrity chef and lifestyle influencer Pete Evans introduced his latest guest, "biophysicist" and researcher Andreas Kalcker.
On the show, Kalcker claimed to possess a "100% effective solution" to the coronavirus, chlorine dioxide. He claimed that shadowy forces controlled by the International Monetary Fund were seeking to suppress the substance.
Their goal, he said, was to enrich themselves and perpetuate the "plandemic," a term for the coronavirus pandemic popularized by conspiracy theorists.
Evans listened respectfully, not pushing back on any of Kalcker's claims as they became increasingly outlandish.
He did not tell listeners that the substance his guest was promoting, chlorine dioxide, is a toxic bleach blamed for several deaths, that Kalcker has no medical credentials, or that the research he cited is at best disputed.
The episode was an example of how conspiracy theorists have found safe haven in podcasts even as other platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have forced them out.
His podcast is listed as one of Apple's most popular on nutrition. It used to be available on Spotify but was removed in January.
Many listeners were likely drawn to Evans' show because they knew him as judge of cooking show "My Kitchen Rules."
Besides information on diet and wellness tips, listeners are also introduced to medical misinformation, conspiracy theories, and bogus cures.
Evans did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Insider, nor did Apple.
Acast, a podcast platform that hosts Evans' show, said they would be removing it from the platform in April.
On podcasts, misinformation flourishes
The spread of misinformation on social media platforms received renewed attention as the pandemic swept the globe.
Public health authorities have battled to rebut misinformation about lockdown measures, the source of the virus, the effectiveness of masks, and the vaccines' safety developed to suppress it. Sites like Facebook have banned content containing false claims about the vaccines.
Less remarked-on is the role of podcasts, where guests and hosts on hugely popular shows spread misinformation about the coronavirus unchallenged.
Sean Creevy is the director of Kinzen, a company that helps clients monitor and combat disinformation. He said that podcasts allow guests to establish a particularly close bond with followers.
"What makes podcasting so unique is that it's incredibly intimate. That person's voice comes right through into our earbud. And so it's easy as listeners to let our guard down. Also, there isn't as much research on the problem of misinformation in podcasts, and so as a citizenry, we are probably less aware of the threat compared with the big platforms," he said.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former chief strategist, used his Apple-hosted podcast, "War Room," to spread false claims about the coronavirus and stir fears of election fraud.
Joe Rogan has hosted Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and Infowars frontman banned from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook for inciting violence.
Insider reported in January that Rogan also hosted the owner of a clinic that sells stem cell treatments for conditions where there is no evidence it is effective.
It's an area where little research has been done, so the problem's extent is unknown.
The Associated Press found several popular podcasts on major platforms spreading misinformation about the presidential election in January.
The pandemic has seen strange connections between wellness influencers with established media profiles, like Evans, and right-wing movements. Hostility to scientific and medical elites is their common cause.
Ariel Bogle, who monitors disinformation at Australia's ASPI Cyber Policy think tank, said that several influencers like Evans had started to embrace more controversial forms of medical misinformation.
"Many of the accounts that sell forms of wellness necessarily have some level of skepticism or mistrust of the medical establishment (justified or not), as they must offer an alternative," Bogle said.
"For some, there does seem to have been a veer into more clearly conspiratorial content during the pandemic, whether it be QAnon, conspiracies about vaccination etc."
She said that, to an extent, podcasts are less of a problem than other types of information because they are less shareable.
"Audio can't really spread or be amplified in quite the same way that visual media can be on a platform like Facebook, for example. It's not quite so replicable and easily and quickly consumed," she said.
Nonetheless, she added, being associated with prestigious brands like Apple or Spotify confers an air of legitimacy.
This can attract a mainstream audience that isn't available to accounts on fringe platforms where conspiracy theorists congregate, such as Parler.
The challenge of moderation
While social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook use automated techniques to track problematic keywords and block networks of "bot" accounts, policing content on podcasts is harder.
"The biggest barrier is the cost of transcribing the audio from a podcast into text format, which can then be more easily searched," he explained. "These costs are not insignificant, and when a platform has to consider transcribing millions of podcasts, those costs quickly become extraordinarily high."
He suggested that one option is targeting podcasts that had been repeatedly flagged and monitoring those closely.
Another difficulty is drawing the line between content that contains dangerous falsehoods and that which is controversial and, to some, highly offensive but a legitimate expression of freedom of speech.
Evans continues to host conspiracy theorists
As Evans has embraced medical misinformation and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, his mainstream reputation has been damaged. He was barred from Facebook in December, Instagram in January, and his podcast removed from Spotify the same month.
But despite losing his social media accounts, he continues to use his podcast to court a new audience among fans of conspiracy theories and supporters of populist political movements.
Among the guests in January was Gareth Icke, an anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown activist from the UK. Icke's father is the notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke, who believes that a cabal of lizard-men control the world.
Evans has ambitions to take his political activity beyond his podcast. In February, he announced that he was considering a Senate run representing The Great Australian Party, led by the anti-vaccination MP Rod Culleton.
Bogle, the disinformation analyst, said of Evans: "He says outrageous things, gets covered for them, and his status grows - which he profits from."