WASHINGTON – Speaking to the White House press corps on Thursday during the daily briefing, U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Hallegere Murthy warned that health misinformation is “a serious threat to public health,” as Biden administration officials grow increasingly concerned about misleading claims about coronavirus vaccines.
Earlier on Thursday in a twenty-two page long advisory memorandum the Surgeon General wrote; “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”
Indirectly taking aim at social media giant Facebook, Murthy told the reporters in the briefing room, “Now, health misinformation didn’t start with COVID-19. What’s different now though is the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spreading. Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users. They’ve allowed people who intentionally spread misinformation — what we call “disinformation” — to have extraordinary reach,” he said.
“They’ve designed product features, such as “Like” buttons, that reward us for sharing emotionally-charged content, not accurate content. And their algorithms tend to give us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation,” he added.
He then outlined the recommended steps being promoted by the Biden Adminstration coronavirus task force;
“First, we include recommendations for individuals and families. We ask people to raise the bar for sharing health information by checking sources before they share, to ensure that information is backed by credible, scientific sources. As we say in the advisory, “If you’re not sure, don’t share.”
Second, we’re asking health organizations to proactively address misinformation with their patients. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics is announcing an educational campaign to help parents navigate online health information. I’m encouraged to see this commitment. And, again, this is just the beginning.
Third, we’re asking educational institutions to help improve health information literacy. We’re asking researchers and foundations as well to help us learn more about how health [mis]information spreads and how to stop it.
Fourth, we’re saying we expect more from our technology companies. We’re asking them to operate with greater transparency and accountability. We’re asking them to monitor misinformation more closely. We’re asking them to consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.
Fifth, we’re also asking news organizations to proactively address the public’s questions without inadvertently giving a platform to health misinformation that can harm their audiences.
And sixth, we know that government can play an important role too by investing in research, by bringing individuals and organizations together to address misinformation, and by supporting groups that are working on this issue.”
He then added; “On a personal note, it’s painful for me to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented. I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID and who wishes each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
I say that also as a concerned father of two young children who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, but I know that our kids are depending on all of us to get vaccinated to shield them from this virus.
Every week, I talk to doctors and nurses across our country who are burning out as they care for more and more patients with COVID-19 who never got vaccinated — all too often because they were misled by misinformation.
We must confront misinformation as a nation. Every one of us has the power and the responsibility to make a difference in this fight. Lives are depending on it.”
During the questioning period after his statement, one reporter asked, “Surgeon General, is misinformation the number one reason why people are not getting vaccinated?”
He responded saying; “Well, it’s one of several reasons why people are not getting vaccinated, but it’s a very important one because what we know from poll is that two thirds of people who are not vaccinated either believe common myths about the COVID-19 vaccine or think some of those myths might be true. Myths like, “You can get COVID from the vaccine,” which is absolutely not true. So we know that it’s not the only driver that’s leading people not to be vaccinated, but it is a very important one.”
Another reporter asked; “We had an ABC News-Washington Post poll that showed that 93 percent of Democrats say they’re vaccinated or will be vaccinated, but only 49 percent of Republicans say the same. So, how do you break through to the people who may be trusting some of these elected leaders that are pushing, maybe, some of this misinformation more than they actually trust members of your administration?”
Murthy replied; “[…] We’ve got to recognize that sometimes the most trusted voices are not the ones that had the most followers on social media or are the ones that have the most, you know, name recognition. Sometimes the most trusted sources are a mother or father or a faith leader or a local doctor or a nurse, and that’s why, to reach people with accurate information, what we have to do is partner with those local trusted voices.
That’s why, in this advisory, one of the things that we point out an important role for government is to support local organizations, including healthcare professionals, so that they can get out there and speak directly to people and share that information.”