Health

Surgeon General Assails Tech Companies Over Misinformation on Covid-19

President Biden’s surgeon general on Thursday used his first formal advisory to the United States to deliver a broadside against tech and social media companies, which he accused of not doing enough to stop the spread of dangerous health misinformation — especially about Covid-19.

The official, Dr. Vivek Murthy, declared such misinformation “an urgent threat to public health.” His pronouncement came just days after representatives from his office met with Twitter officials, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Surgeons general have traditionally used advisories — short statements meant to call Americans’ attention to a public health issue and provide recommendations for addressing it — to talk about such health matters as tobacco use, opioid addiction, suicide prevention and breastfeeding.

But Dr. Murthy’s advisory, a 22-page report with footnotes, had a more political context. Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, along with their guests, are among those who have been casting doubt on Covid-19 vaccines, which studies show are highly effective at preventing death and hospitalization from the disease.

Dr. Murthy couched his criticism of tech companies in a broader declaration about the dangers of inaccurate and false information about health, including misinformation about coronavirus vaccinations. He called on all Americans to take pains to share accurate information, and said the United States needs “an all-of-society approach” to combat the problem.

But at a news briefing Thursday, Dr. Murthy joined the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, and made clear that tech and social media companies were his main target, saying they have a singular responsibility to be more aggressive in fighting misinformation and citing Facebook by name.

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

“We expect more from our technology companies,” he added. “We’re asking them to operate with greater transparency and accountability. We’re asking them to monitor misinformation, more closely.”

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all said Thursday that they had taken steps to crack down on misleading health information, in keeping with their coronavirus misinformation policies. All three said they had introduced features to point users to authoritative health sources on their platforms.

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

YouTube said in a statement that it welcomed many aspects of the surgeon general’s report. Twitter said it agreed with Dr. Murthy’s approach and welcomed his partnership.

Calling out tech and media companies is tricky business, and the White House has danced around the question of whether it would try to regulate companies like Facebook that have become platforms for health disinformation. Asked about this at her Wednesday briefing, Ms. Psaki was noncommittal.

“Obviously, decisions to regulate or hold to account any platform would certainly be a policy decision,” she said. “But in the interim, we’re going to continue to call out disinformation and call out where that information travels.”

Hours after Dr. Murthy’s report was issued, the Rockefeller Foundation announced in a news release that it would provide $13.5 million in new funding to strengthen coronavirus response efforts in the United States, Africa, India and Latin America, and particularly “to counter health mis- and disinformation.”

The Digital Public Library of America also said it would partner with the surgeon general by bringing librarians, scholars, journalists and civic leaders together to talk about the role libraries can play in combating misinformation.

Misinformation about social distancing, mask use, treatments and vaccines has been rampant during the pandemic. The report is a sign that the Biden administration, faced with a steep decline in the number of new vaccinations, is moving more forcefully to confront it. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and many top health experts have called for the president to do more to reach people who have yet to get shots.

While nationwide cases and hospitalization numbers remain relatively low, more local hot spots are emerging and the national trends are moving in the wrong direction, fueled by the spread of the more contagious Delta variant. Vaccines are effective against the variant. Counties that voted for Mr. Biden average higher vaccination levels than those that voted for former President Donald J. Trump. Conservatives tend to decline vaccination far more often than Democrats.

The surgeon general’s report is assiduously apolitical, and does not name any specific purveyors of misinformation. But it comes as some Republican leaders, concerned that the virus is spreading quickly through conservative swaths of the country, are beginning to promote vaccination and speak out against media figures and elected officials who are casting doubt on vaccines.

Health misinformation is not a recent phenomenon — and is not limited to news media. In the 1990s, the report notes, “a poorly designed study” — later retracted — falsely claimed that the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine caused autism. “Even after the retraction, the claim gained some traction and contributed to lower immunization rates over the next 20 years,” the report said.

It cites evidence of the spread of misinformation, including a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found, as of late May, that 67 percent of unvaccinated adults had heard at least one Covid-19 vaccine myth and either believed it to be true or were unsure. A Science Magazine analysis of millions of social media posts found that false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be shared than true stories.

Another recent study showed that even brief exposure to misinformation made people less likely to want a vaccine, the surgeon general said.


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