Brazil’s Joe Rogan Faces His Own Firestorm Over Free Speech
RIO DE JANEIRO — He is perhaps the nation’s most popular podcaster. He broadcasts hourslong interviews, often with divisive newsmakers. He sometimes gets high with his guests. And he is now in the middle of a firestorm over his comments.
Those statements could describe two men: Joe Rogan, the American comedian turned podcaster, and Bruno Aiub, a gamer turned podcaster who goes by Monark and is Brazil’s version of Joe Rogan.
Mr. Aiub, 31, modeled his interview show, Flow, after Mr. Rogan’s, sending it skyrocketing to become, by some measures, Brazil’s most-listened-to podcast in just three years. Now he has suddenly found himself in a similar predicament as his idol — the latest flash point in a roaring debate over free speech and so-called cancel culture that is spreading far beyond the United States.
Mr. Aiub’s problems began last Monday. In an episode of Flow with two members of Brazil’s Congress, he defended the right of the Nazi party to exist in Brazil, where it is outlawed, arguing it should be protected by free-speech principles.
On Tuesday morning, he awoke to an angry online mob. Thousands of people on social media called him a Nazi, sponsors pulled their funding and government prosecutors opened an investigation into his comments. By day’s end, Mr. Aiub’s production company announced that he had been removed from the podcast and that he would divest from the company.
“I am being destroyed for defending an idea that is constitutional in the United States,” Mr. Aiub said in an interview. “I’m not a Nazi,” he said. “Please write that you could tell I’m not.”
To many in Brazil, where antisemitism and Nazi imagery are a crime, Mr. Aiub’s comments were unforgivable and justice was delivered swiftly. To many others, Mr. Aiub was the victim of a self-righteous cancel culture that has now infected Brazil.
In the United States, like in Brazil and beyond, the debate over free speech is dividing communities, posing tricky questions for tech platforms and advertisers, and becoming one of this age’s biggest hot-button political topics.
The discussion has engulfed the music and podcast industry in recent weeks after new scrutiny of Mr. Rogan’s interviews with vaccine skeptics and use of racial slurs.
The resulting uproar created a crisis for Spotify, which paid $100 million for the rights to Mr. Rogan’s show, and which is now facing an exodus of music artists and listeners over his podcast. Spotify removed dozens of his episodes but decided to continue to broadcast his show.
In Brazil, Mr. Rogan was cheered on by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has his own past of pandemic misinformation and racist comments.
“I’m not sure what @joerogan thinks about me or about my government, but it doesn’t matter,” he wrote on Twitter early this month. “If freedom of speech means anything, it means that people should be free to say what they think, no matter if they agree or disagree with us. Stand your ground!”
Days later, after Mr. Aiub’s comments, Mr. Bolsonaro tried to walk the line between renouncing Nazism and supporting free speech. “Nazi ideology must be repudiated,” he wrote, adding, “as well as any and all totalitarian ideology that jeopardizes the fundamental rights of people.”
Over the past several years, seemingly a new prominent voice each month has been the subject of viral online criticism for saying something offensive or divisive, including the author J.K. Rowling, the N.F.L. quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the comedian Dave Chappelle. In the modern vernacular, these people are “canceled,” suggesting a sort of societal exile. In reality, many continue to thrive, sometimes even capitalizing on their newfound notoriety.
The debate has spread rapidly around the world. In India, comedians have been criticized and even arrested after comments that offended some Hindus. In France, politicians and intellectuals have warned that American “woke culture” is threatening French identity after students blocked certain academics from speaking at universities. And in Brazil last week, a TV pundit was fired from a popular talk show after he defended Mr. Aiub — and then signed off with a wave resembling a Nazi salute.
Mr. Aiub, suddenly in the cross hairs, said the trend was dangerous. “We have a political movement that believes they’re on patrol to censor everyone who has a thought that might look like something they’re against,” he said. “It’s a patrol without borders.”
Joan Donovan, a Harvard University researcher who has studied the global debate, said that being criticized for expressing offensive views is often appropriate. “What sounds like censorship to some is just accountability and responsible brand management to others,” she said.
Mr. Aiub entered the public eye in 2010, at the age of 20, by narrating his adventures through the video game Minecraft, often with sophomoric jokes. Then Mr. Aiub discovered Mr. Rogan’s podcast and was inspired by his long, deep and often irreverent interviews with prominent people in the news.
“I said, ‘Man, it would be really cool if I did that here in Brazil, since nobody else is,” he recalled.
He started Flow in September 2018 with his friend Igor Coelho, another YouTube gamer. As they gained popularity, their rotation of guests evolved from other gamers, internet personalities and a ufologist to academics, opinion columnists and presidential candidates. What did not change: The frequent profanity, crude jokes and the practice of getting drunk and stoned during interviews, which they called “bar banter.”
This model — irreverent interviews with serious newsmakers — drew millions of fans to both Mr. Rogan’s and Mr. Aiub’s shows. It also is what got them in hot water. As a host of TV’s “Fear Factor,” Mr. Rogan was once known for putting people’s heads in boxes of tarantulas, while Mr. Aiub got his start playing a video game most popular with children. Now they had become among their countries’ most important interlocutors and most influential voices. They had always said questionable things, but now their words had new weight.
Mr. Aiub regularly argued that people should be able to express any opinion, no matter how abhorrent. That view drew criticism last year when he suggested that having racist opinions should not be a crime. (In Brazil, racist comments and actions are crimes.) The backlash led a food delivery app to drop its sponsorship.
Then his comments last Monday set off a much larger controversy. “The radical left has much more space than the radical right, in my view. Both must be given space,” he said during the conversation with two lawmakers. “I think a Nazi has to have a Nazi party recognized by law,” he added. “If a guy wants to be an anti-Jew, I think he has a right to be.”
André Lajst, a political scientist and executive director of StandWithUs Brasil, a pro-Israel group, said the comments were dangerous because of the history of Jewish persecution and the size of Mr. Aiub’s megaphone. “It was a statement aimed at a persecuted group. There are thousands and thousands of people listening,” he said.
“And if you put the public’s safety at risk,” he added, “this is going to generate a reaction.”
In the hours after the controversy exploded, Mr. Aiub posted an apology video that blamed his comments on how drunk he had been. The show’s bartender gave him “a really crazy drink,” he said. “I don’t even know what it was, to be honest, but it worked.”
In an interview two days later, he was more contrite.
“The point that I was going to make that day was about the First Amendment in the United States. But I defended it in a really bad way, in a stupid way,” he said. “I want to assure you that I am totally against any kind of prejudice.”
His next plan? Start a new podcast. And, if he can dream, get a cameo on Mr. Rogan’s show. “It would be a tremendous honor to talk to him,” he said. “I need a little international help.”
Leonardo Coelho contributed reporting.