Florida’s surgeon general makes the conspiracy-theory podcast rounds

Florida’s surgeon general makes the conspiracy-theory podcast rounds


Earlier this month, in the early evening of the Friday before Columbus Day weekend, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo published a new recommendation for residents of his state: Young adult men shouldn’t take mRNA vaccines aimed at combating covid-19.

Removed from useful context, that’s a remarkable development. A senior health official in a state expressing such serious concern about the vaccines that he recommends against them? But the context is particularly important here. Ladapo has been expressing skepticism about coronavirus vaccines (and masks and other infection-reduction mechanisms) since early in his tenure as the state’s surgeon general. It seems clear that his laissez-faire approach to the pandemic — not particularly common in the medical community — is a central reason that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) selected Ladapo for his position. And, sure enough, experts on the medical question at hand (which Ladapo, while a doctor, is not) quickly denounced the research on which Ladapo’s announcement was predicated.

All of this would simply stand as another skirmish in the endless and grim feud over how the pandemic was handled were it not for an unexpected development this week: Ladapo appeared on two podcasts centered on spreading explicit misinformation about politics and the pandemic.

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One (as spotted by Alex Kaplan of Media Matters) was “X22 Report,” a podcast that was ousted from Spotify in 2020 for advocating the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory. The day before the Capitol riot, its host declared that “we the people, we are the storm, and we’re coming to D.C.” (“The storm” is a common QAnon reference to the ouster of the movement’s perceived enemies.)

Ladapo appeared via video conference, as video of the interview posted to the podcast’s website shows. On Friday morning, the interview was positioned next to an ad reading “PELOSI AND BIDEN WILL GO TO WAR WITH CHINA” and above a text link informing visitors that they could “SAVE $50 on a 4-Week Food Kit.”

The ostensible reason for the appearance was a biography Ladapo wrote, though he had to remind the host at the end of the interview to discuss the subject. Instead, much of the conversation focused on the host drawing Ladapo into criticisms of the vaccines and other responses to the pandemic — a conversation that Ladapo was certainly willing to have.

For example, the host asked why the Biden administration didn’t contest a judge’s decision to remove the mask mandate for airplanes. One obvious reason is that the decision came after Democratic leaders had already decided that the spread of the omicron variant and hostility to mask-wearing made mandates difficult to support politically. But Ladapo offered his thoughts on the airline mandate more broadly.

“It was a manipulative, destructive, divisive policy that was implemented for the purpose of control and maintaining control,” he said, “and showing people who’s boss and making people bow down to this covid-19 mind-set hegemony.”

The host didn’t disagree. Nor, unsurprisingly, did he push back on Ladapo’s presentations about his vaccination decision.

Ladapo also appeared on the podcast of conspiracy theorist Stew Peters (as spotted by journalist Nick Martin). Peters has actively amplified pretty much every false assertion that you can think of, from Arizona ballots being flown in from Asia to covid misinformation. The title of the episode in which he interviewed Ladapo was “EXCLUSIVE Interview w/ FL Surgeon General: Stew Peters DROPS NUKES Exposing C19 Bioweapon Jab.” After Ladapo, Peters talked to guests who warned about dangers including “Penial disfunction,” the website reports.

If you extract only Ladapo’s part of the conversation, it seems fairly straightforward: He offers his assessments in measured medical terms. He even acknowledges that the vaccines do help decrease mortality. But that was interspersed with Peters, who was framing everything as he saw fit — as when he claimed that “professional athletes [are] dropping dead all over the place,” a long-standing and false conspiracy theory about the vaccines. Ladapo didn’t push back on Peters’s idea.

This is precisely why most government officials don’t appear on podcasts of conspiracy theorists and cranks. By treating Peters as someone worth talking to and not challenging his assertions, Ladapo lends the credibility of the Florida state government to Peters’s idea that vaccines are killing athletes. By appearing on X22 Report, Ladapo is sending a message that X22 Report is something to be afforded credibility, equal in some way to other media outlets that have interviewed him.

The question that arises is why Ladapo considered these podcasts useful vehicles, even if his goal was simply to promote his book. (A question sent to his office did not receive a response by the time of publication.) Does he not view those shows as conduits for misinformation? Does he think that the benefits outweigh any costs?

It’s worth noting that one thing DeSantis has done effectively as governor has been outsourcing his appeals to the right-wing fringe. While Donald Trump used to eagerly jump into social media fights, DeSantis tends to leave that culture-war memeing to staffers such as Christina Pushaw. Ladapo’s appearances this week lent state authority to the hosts — but also offered a chance for the DeSantis administration to speak to a not-insignificant group of right-wing listeners without DeSantis having to draw scrutiny himself.

Meanwhile, about 40 Floridians are dying of covid-19 every day. If peer-reviewed research and data from other jurisdictions are any guide, those deaths are disproportionately occurring among the unvaccinated. And since vaccines were made universally available to American adults, the rate of excess deaths in Florida and Ohio was far higher among Republicans than Democrats.

That’s the other cost of amplifying vaccine skepticism.

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