United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, says misinformation – much of it on technology platforms – poses a public health threat that has cost lives and prolonged the Covid pandemic.
As Murthy said in a press conference Thursday, health warnings usually relate to things that people physically consume: food, drinks, cigarettes. But the first piece of advice of his tenure in the Biden administration (he was also the surgeon general under President Obama) revolves around what we are consuming with our eyes and ears: misinformation.
The advice includes a set of guidelines on “Building a Healthy Information Environment” with recommendations for everyone from social media users to the platforms themselves (also: health workers, researchers and the media). Murthy also went to some of these platforms to get the word out, including Twitter and Facebook.
"Today we live in a world where misinformation is an immediate and insidious threat to the health of our nation," Murthy said at a press conference, adding that "modern technology companies" are "reducing the spread of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms Accountability "have allowed."
The advice is not a set of instructions to be followed by these companies, but the increased scrutiny and vigilance puts pressure on them to be more aggressive in addressing the falsehoods that are spreading on their platforms.
This health warning comes as Covid vaccination rates drop in the US as cases pick up again and the rapidly spreading Delta variant takes hold. The vast majority of Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths have been in people who have not been vaccinated, despite the widespread availability of vaccines in the United States. And since some people choose not to get vaccinated because they believe misinformation about the vaccines, the Biden government has reportedly decided that it is time to fight back.
Misinformation about the coronavirus is not only found on social media. But social media gives it a stage and reach that offline platforms don't have, and this has been a cause for concern for years. Misinformation or disinformation may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, exacerbated political polarization, contributed to the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory, played a role in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and now helped halt the pandemic.
As researcher Carl T. Bergstrom, co-author of Stewardship of Global Collective Behavior, a paper calling for more research into the impact of social media on society, told Recode's Shirin Ghaffary, "Social media in particular – as well wider range ”of Internet technologies, including algorithmically driven search and click-based advertising, have changed the way people receive information and form opinions about the world. And they seem to have done so in a way that makes people particularly vulnerable to the spread of misinformation and disinformation. "
For their part, social media platforms have tried to stop the spread of false information, including removing posts and videos and banning accounts that spread it, as well as adding fact checks or links to trusted information in posts and videos that are misleading could. As it became more likely that there would be a Covid vaccine soon in late 2020, various platforms proactively prepared for the inevitable vaccine misinformation that followed. It did after years of these companies doing very little to stop the spread of misinformation about other vaccines, and despite many warnings from experts about the potential harm to public health from hosting anti-vaccine content and communities caused.
"We agree with the General Surgeon General – tackling health misinformation requires a society-wide approach," a Twitter spokesman said in a statement to Recode. “We will continue to take enforcement action on content that violates our misleading COVID-19 information policy and will improve and expand our efforts to disseminate credible, reliable health information – now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – and as we go through the together Public navigate upcoming health challenges. "
YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernandez told Recode that the platform “removes content in accordance with our COVID-19 misinformation policy, which we will keep updated based on instructions from local health authorities. We are also downgrading marginal videos and showing significant content for COVID-19-related search results, recommendations and context panels. "
But many believe their efforts are too little, too late, and still not going far enough – including the surgeon general, it seems.
“We expect more from our tech companies,” said Murthy.
Let's see if we can get it – and if it helps now.