Reprinted with permission from ProPublica
Late at night on Jan. 5, the day before President Donald Trump was scheduled to deliver a defiant speech before thousands of his most dedicated supporters, his former adviser Steve Bannon was podcasting from his studio near Capitol Hill. He had been on the air several times a day for weeks, hyping the narrative that this was the moment that patriots could stand up and pull out a Trump win.
“It's all converging, and now we're on the point of attack tomorrow. It's going to kick off, it's going to be very dramatic," Bannon said in his fluent patter, on a day that would see four of his “War Room" shows posted online, up from his usual two or three. “It's going to be quite extraordinarily different. And all I can say is strap in. You have made this happen and tomorrow it's game day."
The next morning Bannon was back. “We're right on the cusp of victory," Bannon said, as protesters massed at the Ellipse to hear from Trump.
“This is not a day for fantasy, this is a day for maniacal focus. Focus, focus, focus," Bannon went on. “It's them against us. Who can impose their will on the other side."
To the protesters massing in Washington, Bannon's message was clear: They could force the outcome by pressuring Vice President Mike Pence and Congress not to certify the electoral vote.
Ultimately, the day resulted in a bloody brawl that took the lives of both police and protesters, in a security breach unlike any America has seen in decades. It was planned in explicit detail across websites that were taken offline, like Parler, or censored, as Twitter did with thousands of QAnon-affiliated accounts and even the president's.
But Bannon, who himself was banned from YouTube and Twitter after saying in November that Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded, continues to reach an enormous audience via Apple's podcast app, which is installed by default on every iPhone. Although the app doesn't show the number of times the show has been streamed, Bannon gives updates every few days on its popularity. As of last week, he claimed total downloads of 29 million.
Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.
It's not just Bannon. Several podcasts that spread baseless claims of election fraud, including shows by former Trump strategist Sebastian Gorka and Judicial Watch's Tom Fitton, continue to be broadly available on major platforms. The fact that such beliefs were the battle cry of a violent mob that threatened congressional leaders has brought podcasting platforms face to face with a difficult question: What are their responsibilities when it comes to stifling what otherwise could be seen as protected speech?
In the weeks since Nov. 3, Bannon has spent several hours a day exploring the minutiae of baselessly disputed elections in several states, giving ample airtime to Trump defenders like Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and presidential adviser Peter Navarro. Using a mix of football, military and religious analogies, Bannon speaks often in apocalyptic terms about the risk of losing.
“It's the children of light and the children of darkness," he said on Jan. 3, after interviewing the right-wing Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, whom Pope Francis fired as the Vatican's ambassador to the United States after he sided with anti-gay culture warriors. “One side's going to win and one side's going to lose. Everything that the Judeo-Christian West represents is at stake. That's what this battle is about. That's what Wednesday is about."
While social media companies have become more willing over the past few months to censor accounts that engage in hate speech, podcasts are still largely unmoderated. Part of that has to do with the industry's structure: The main podcast portals merely index the shows, like Google indexes websites. Despite canceling Bannon's YouTube channel, Google Podcasts still indexes “War Room." (Apple accounts for more than half of the number of podcast streams, with Spotify a distant second.)
“Online platforms know that rhetoric promoting violence and disinformation absolutely matters. That is why most of them ban such activities in their own terms of service," said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who has studied the right-wing podcasting ecosystem.
“However, in the case of podcasts, Apple usually explains that they are just cataloging the show and not actually distributing it," Squire said. “For example when they banned Alex Jones, they just stopped listing him, but what guidelines they used were a bit unclear. Contrast this to their app store guidelines, which are very clear."
Apple declined to comment on how it evaluates whether to de-list a podcast. Its terms of service prohibit “content that is illegal or promotes illegal activity, self-harm, violence, or illegal drugs, or content depicting graphic sex, gore, or is otherwise considered obscene, objectionable, or in poor taste."
Audio files themselves are supported by a much more fragmented network of hosting services — which costs money, unlike simply being catalogued by a portal like Apple's. “War Room" is hosted by Podbean, which did not return a request for comment. Its terms of service forbid content that is “malicious, false, or inaccurate."
To be clear: Since his “heads on pikes" episode, Bannon has shied away from advocating violence. He sometimes caveats his calls to arms by cautioning that he's talking about political protest or “coloring inside the lines." He has downplayed allegations against Dominion Voting Systems, which threatened to sue other Trump allies and news outlets for spreading baseless claims of fraud. In the wake of Jan. 6, like many in the right-wing media ecosphere, he has praised peaceful protest and claimed the riot was instigated by liberal agents provocateurs rather than Trump supporters.
However, extremism experts say the rhetoric still feeds into an alternative reality that breeds anger and cynicism, which may ultimately lead to violence. Julia DeCook, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago's school of communications, notes that listeners who are convinced about one conspiracy theory are more likely to accept others, which is what makes more mainstream commentators like Bannon “dangerous."
“It's not like they hit you with the crazy stuff all at once. It's the little things that sow distrust and skepticism," DeCook said. “Steve Bannon goes right up to the line of what is acceptable and what is hate speech. But platforms are really bad at understanding borderline content."
Bannon seems to understand very well how the information he's putting out in the world influences his audience. On the eve of the Capitol riot, one of his co-hosts interviewed a young man at a pregame rally in downtown Washington who said his whole family had been dejected after the election. After discovering “War Room," they were increasingly encouraged and listened to every episode, resulting in his presence at Freedom Plaza that night. The “War Room" crew celebrated this exchange as evidence of its impact.
“As soon as you're able to create the structure or the context, and let them come to their own conclusions, they're going to be able to have their own mental map, they can then start making their own decisions, and then become disciples or force multipliers," Bannon said. “We've helped provide the information to people who are jacked up."
(Of course, Bannon also had an interest in helping Trump, who reportedly is prepared to use his pardon powers to dismiss a federal charge concerning Bannon's alleged misuse of funds donated to a charity that said it was helping to build a wall on the border with Mexico.)
De-platforming Bannon, however, would be tricky.
Podcast directories and hosting services are loath to open the Pandora's box of content moderation. Todd Cochrane runs one of the largest, called Blubrry, which hosts 85,000 shows and indexes 1.3 million of them. Since Jan. 6, he said that many of his customers — especially Christian shows — are worried about being de-listed from other podcast directories. As long as they aren't using hate speech or inciting violence, which Blubrry's terms of service forbid, he said they're safe on his platform.
“This is a fine line for us," Cochrane said. Blubrry has a formal process for submitting complaints about shows with objectionable content and has only ever removed a handful. “Let's say I respond to a social justice campaign saying this show is ultimately resulting in violence. It's an internal decision of whether or not we want to host that content, but I wouldn't want to be in Podbean's position today."
Even if “War Room" were kicked out of Apple's directory or dumped by Podbean, that might fuel the argument — which Bannon has already exploited after being booted by Twitter and YouTube — that Big Tech has it out for conservatives. Plenty of liberal-leaning shows aren't paragons of truth either, but they haven't been banned.
“The inconsistency is a huge catalyst for these folks, because it gives them an endless supply of pretty accurate grievances to raise about 'why are we being shut down in this way,'" said Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University. “It amplifies their sense that there's this left-wing conspiracy that's hell-bent on preventing them from even expressing their views."
Though Apple offers access to an enormous audience, it may only be a matter of time before Bannon and others are able to build up an alternative streaming universe that doesn't depend on the grace of Silicon Valley tech giants. On Jan. 13, Bannon talked on his show with Andrew Torba, the founder of Gab.com, which has become a haven for conspiracy theorists. Torba boasted of having built up enough of his own data-center capacity to support all of the traffic from people leaving Twitter and Facebook, but service is still groaning under the weight of new traffic. In emails to Gab members, Torba has been soliciting donations to support the expansion. “No one is coming to save us," he wrote on Jan. 8. “We must save ourselves."
“It's a conundrum, because now you have the right wing moving into their own silos," said Adele Stan, the editor of Right Wing Watch, a project of the left-leaning People for the American Way. “The thing we know about the right is that they're good at building infrastructure, in the way that the left has never gotten their act together on. We're just at this moment of chaos where it's hard to know if there's a base that's radicalized enough to be there for the long haul, when things start to not look very good for their side."
In the meantime, Bannon seems to know exactly how far he can go before his remaining platforms have an excuse to yank his access.
Also on Jan. 13, having just been booted off YouTube after the site banned videos that spread false election fraud statements, Bannon again had Giuliani as a guest. The leader of Trump's legal team said he had acquired videos showing “Antifa" agitators leading the Capitol violence, and at one point he suggested that one of them had actually shot Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran who was, in fact, killed by a Capitol Police officer.
Bannon tried to rein in Giuliani and finally cut him off. “I don't mind being shut down for my craziness, but I'm not going to be shut down for yours," he told the former New York City mayor, who seemed offended. “I don't say crazy things," Giuliani responded, after Bannon had directed listeners to Giuliani's website to view the videos.
“I know, I'm teasing you," Bannon said.