U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Thursday called for a national effort to tackle misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, urging tech companies, healthcare workers, journalists and ordinary Americans to do more to cope to a “serious public threat”.
In a 22-page opinion, his first as President Joe Biden’s surgeon general, Murthy wrote that false claims led people to reject vaccines and public health advice on masks and social distancing, undermining efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic and putting lives at risk.
The warning comes as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has slowed in the United States, in part due to opposition to the vaccine fueled by unsubstantiated claims about vaccine safety and despite the death toll from the vaccines. United States recently exceeding 600,000.
“Limiting the spread of health disinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort,” wrote Murthy, who also served as a surgeon general under former President Barack Obama.
Health misinformation was a global problem even before the internet and social media allowed dangerous claims to spread faster and easier than ever. The problem of misinformation about COVID-19 is so serious that the World Health Organization has called it an “infodemic”.
Given the role the internet plays in spreading health misinformation, Murthy said tech companies and social media platforms should make significant changes to their products and software to reduce the spread of misinformation while increasing access to authoritative factual sources.
Teachers, he said, should develop media literacy and critical thinking. Journalists, he suggested, should strive to responsibly demystify misinformation about health without inadvertently disseminating it further. And public health officials and doctors, he suggested, should better answer questions and explain why public health guidelines sometimes change based on new information.
As for ordinary Americans, Murthy urged them to verify questionable health information with reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to be critical when exposed to unverified claims. If you have relatives or friends who believe or spread misinformation, he said, it’s best to engage by listening and asking questions rather than confronting them.
While some groups that push for health disinformation do so for profit, Murthy wrote that many Americans can spread false information without intending to do any harm.
“Misinformation has not only damaged our physical health – it has also divided our families, friends and communities,” Murthy wrote. “The only way to fight health misinformation is to recognize that all of us, in all sectors of society, have a responsibility to act.
Klepper reported from Providence, RI