When Stephen K. Bannon, the White House strategist turned podcaster, was explaining the latest Covid-19 developments in 2021, he passed the microphone to a special guest: Clay Clark, an evangelist and anti-vaccine activist.
For nearly 10 minutes, Mr. Clark rattled off one false and misleading statement after another. Covid is “100 percent treatable” with hydroxychloroquine and other drugs. (No.) Covid vaccines are filled with fetal tissue. (False.) Concentration camps are coming. (Nope.) Bill Gates owns a demonic patent for a cryptocurrency that is injected into your body. (Where to begin?)
“There are no conspiracies, but there are no coincidences,” Mr. Bannon concluded minutes later, in what has become his show’s catchphrase.
Mr. Bannon has spent the past few years parlaying his stint as the chief strategist for former President Donald J. Trump into a prominent role as a right-wing personality. His hourlong “War Room” podcast episodes are released at least twice daily, even as Mr. Bannon faces various legal challenges, including a guilty verdict last year for contempt of Congress and accusations from Manhattan prosecutors that he defrauded conservative donors.
In a study released on Thursday by the Brookings Institution, Mr. Bannon’s show was crowned the top peddler of false, misleading and unsubstantiated statements among political podcasts.
Researchers at Brookings downloaded and transcribed 36,603 podcast episodes from 79 political talk shows that had been released before Jan. 22, 2022. When researchers compared the shows’ transcripts against a list of keywords and common falsehoods identified by fact checkers, they found that nearly 20 percent of Mr. Bannon’s “War Room” episodes contained a false, misleading or unsubstantiated statement, more than shows by other conservatives like Glenn Beck and Charlie Kirk.
Overall, about 70 percent of the podcasts reviewed had shared at least one false or misleading claim, the researchers found. Conservative podcasters were 11 times as likely as liberal podcasters to share a claim that fact checkers could refute.
Mr. Kirk, a conservative activist and the founder of Turning Points USA, ranked second, with 17 percent of his episodes containing an unsubstantiated or false claim. “The Rush Limbaugh Show” (which ended when Mr. Limbaugh died in 2021) and “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show” shared third place, while “The Michael Savage Show” ranked fourth.
Valerie Wirtschafter, a senior data analyst at Brookings who led the research, said some falsehoods and errors were expected to slip through on talk shows, where conversations were typically recorded live. “But what does stand out, particularly for a show like Bannon’s ‘War Room’ and a few others, is just how frequently this type of content appears,” she said.
Mr. Bannon said in an interview that the Brookings report was a “badge of honor,” adding that “War Room” was a leader in vaccine skepticism, election fraud claims and other topics commonly flagged as misinformation by fact checkers.
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- Lessons for a New Generation: Finland is testing new ways to teach students about propaganda. Here’s what other countries can learn from its success.
- Covid Myths: Experts say the spread of coronavirus misinformation — particularly on far-right platforms like Gab — is likely to be a lasting legacy of the pandemic. And there are no easy solutions
“What they call disinformation or misinformation we consider the truth,” he said. “And time is proving us out.”
The findings underscore the vital role that Apple, Google and a constellation of podcast apps play in connecting disinformation peddlers to their audiences. Researchers sourced shows from Apple Podcast’s list of the 100 most popular political talk shows and added several more that Apple’s algorithm recommended. Joe Rogan, who hosts “The Joe Rogan Experience,” has also been criticized for sharing misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines, but his show was not included in the analysis because it is distributed only by Spotify.
Big Tech companies have taken a largely hands-off approach to podcast content — and avoiding the kind of scrutiny that has dogged social networks for years. The companies say they have little responsibility for podcast content because they are effectively search engines connecting listeners to shows but never hosting content.
The companies have policies that ban hateful language or content that might incite violence, but researchers said those policies were vague and poorly enforced, allowing false content to spread.
Apple’s and Google’s software connects listeners with podcasts using an algorithm that surfaces recommended shows. Ivy Choi, a spokeswoman for Google, said the company did not recommend shows through its algorithm if they contained “harmful misinformation,” including Mr. Bannon’s “War Room.” A spokesman for Apple declined to comment.
Some liberal podcasters or their guests also shared false or unsubstantiated statements, including statements by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York about child poverty or immigration, which fact checkers rated “false” or “mostly false.”
But Dr. Wirtschafter said conservative shows far outpaced liberal ones in sharing misleading information. Many podcast hosts, she said, leveraged fears over the pandemic to captivate anxious Americans. A roster of anti-vaccination activists and armchair experts pushed baseless theories about the coronavirus and Covid-19 vaccines. They said Covid could be treated or cured using ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, two existing drugs, despite evidence that they were not effective.
“What we wind up with is everybody is a health expert all because they saw some study,” Dr. Wirtschafter said.
Mr. Bannon, for example, frequently prodded for evidence in interviews with guests, conveying an apparent search for truth. But, as clips of these interviews show, he often gave his guests the final word, seldom endorsed opposing views and rarely cautioned his audience to wait for more information.
“Maybe there is some nuance or debate in the conversation,” Dr. Wirtschafter said, but Mr. Bannon leaves listeners with the clear impression that officials and institutions “are totally lying to you,” she added.
“I would agree with that characterization of the world,” Natalie Winters, a co-host and executive editor of “War Room,” said in an interview. She added that the show’s goal was to “go up against the mainstream narratives, to provide the counterpoint to it.”
Mr. Bannon appeared confused in one episode after Steve Kirsch, a technology mogul and founder of the Vaccine Safety Research Foundation, an anti-vaccine group, said it wasn’t known what was inside the vaccine.
“Give us your evidence for that,” Mr. Bannon said.
“We’re not allowed to ask the pharmacist for a vial or even a squirt and then send it to a lab and have it analyzed for what’s actually inside those vials,” he said, asking whether the vaccine contained mercury or other harmful chemicals.
Vaccine manufacturers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide detailed lists of the vaccine’s ingredients.
Mr. Bannon was a prominent voice in the Stop the Steal movement, a coalition of election deniers and Trump supporters who pushed falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election in a bid to overturn the results.
In one episode from 2020, Mr. Bannon ticked off a long list of conspiracy theories about election fraud.
Mr. Bannon also presaged the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, saying on his podcast: “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”
When “War Room” touched on conservative lightning rods like abortion, the show sometimes drifted into conspiracy theories and echoed QAnon, the online movement claiming that “global elites” engage in child sex trafficking and other crimes.
Liz Yore, a lawyer and podcaster who has shared conspiracy theories about the pandemic, said the global elites supported abortion so they could research extending their own lives using fetal tissue. Ms. Yore’s claims appeared to be based on research that used aborted fetal tissue and stem cells to study infectious diseases and cancer in mice.
Ms. Winters said fringe voices on “War Room” represented 0.001 percent of the show.
“You can give everyone a voice,” she said. “Just because it’s printed or said on the show, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re endorsing it.”