July 16, 2021

Covid-19 misinformation is 'an urgent threat to public health,' surgeon general warns

Daily Briefing

    Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a formal advisory on Thursday declared Covid-19 misinformation to be "an urgent threat to public health" and said tech companies aren't doing enough to stop its spread.

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    What's inside the surgeon general's advisory

    In the advisory, Murthy called on "an all-of-society approach" to combat Covid-19 misinformation, citing data from the Kaiser Family Foundation in late May that found that 67% of unvaccinated adults had heard at least one myth about Covid-19 vaccines and were either unsure it was true or believed it to be true.

    The advisory provides guidance on helping Americans better identify misinformation and limit its spread. The advisory also offers specific ways that organizations in the health care, education, media, research, and government sectors can combat misinformation.

    Recommended strategies for health care organizations include:

    • Engaging proactively with patients to address misinformation, drawing especially on the credibility that doctors and nurses have built with their patients;
    • Sharing accurate health information via technology and media platforms, including serving as subject matter experts to journalists; and
    • Teaming up with community groups to tackle health misinformation in their local communities.

    "As surgeon general, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk," Murthy said in a release. "From the tech and social media companies who must do more to address the spread on their platforms, to all of us identifying and avoiding sharing misinformation, tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation."

    In a press conference, Murthy said tech and social media companies have a particular responsibility to be aggressive in combating misinformation, specifically naming Facebook.

    "Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users," Murthy said.

    The advisory comes days after representatives from the surgeon general's office met with officials from Twitter, a person familiar with the matter told the New York Times.

    "We expect more from our technology companies," Murthy said. "We're asking them to operate with greater transparency and accountability. We're asking them to monitor misinformation more closely."

    How tech companies are responding

    Following the advisory, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all said they had taken steps to stem the spread of health misinformation and added that they had introduced features to guide users to authoritative health information sources.

    "We permanently ban pages, groups and accounts that repeatedly break our rules on Covid misinfo[rmation], and this includes more than a dozen pages, groups and accounts from some of the individuals referenced in the press briefing today," Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Facebook, said.

    YouTube said it agreed with many aspects of Murthy's advisory, while Twitter said it agreed with Murthy's approach and welcomed his partnership.

    Hours after the advisory was announced, the Rockefeller Foundation announced it will provide $13.5 million in funding to improve coronavirus response efforts in the United States, Africa, India, and Latin America with a particular focus on "counter[ing] health mis- and disinformation."

    The Digital Public Library of America also said it will partner with the Surgeon General to bring librarians, scholars, journalists, and civic leaders together to discuss the role libraries can play in stemming the spread of health misinformation. (Stolberg/Alba, New York Times, 7/15; HHS release, 7/15)

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