Surgeon General Assails Tech Companies Over Misinformation on Covid-19

President Biden’s surgeon general used his first formal piece of advice to the United States on Thursday to deliver a broadside against tech and social media companies that he accused of not doing enough to spread dangerous health misinformation – in particular about Covid-19 – stop.

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

Surgeons in general have traditionally used advice – brief statements designed to draw Americans’ attention to a public health problem and make recommendations for its resolution – to talk about health topics such as tobacco use, opioid addiction, suicide prevention, and breastfeeding.

But dr. Murthy’s Counselor, a 22-page report with footnotes, had a more political context. Fox News presenters like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, along with their guests, are among those who have raised doubts about Covid-19 vaccines, which studies show are very effective in preventing death and hospitalization from the disease.

Dr. Murthy formulated his criticism of technology companies in a broader statement about the dangers of inaccurate and inaccurate health information, including misinformation about coronavirus vaccinations. He urged all Americans to endeavor to share correct information and said the United States needs “a societal approach” to address the problem.

But at a press conference on Thursday, Dr. Murthy appealed to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, making it clear that technology and social media companies are his primary target, saying they have a unique responsibility to be more aggressive against misinformation and citing Facebook by name.

“Modern technology companies have allowed misinformation to poison our information environment without being held accountable to their users,” said Dr. Murthy.

“We expect more from our tech companies,” he added. “We ask them to work with greater transparency and accountability. We ask you to monitor misinformation more closely. “

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

“We are permanently banning pages, groups and accounts that repeatedly violate our Covid misinformation rules, and that includes more than a dozen pages, groups and accounts from some of the people referred to in the press conference today,” said Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Facebook.

Updated

July 15, 2021, 7:14 p.m. ET

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

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

“Of course, decisions to regulate or hold a platform accountable would certainly be a political decision,” she said. “But in the meantime we will continue to shout disinformation and indicate where this information is going.”

Hours after Dr. Murthy announced in a press release by the Rockefeller Foundation that it would allocate $ 13.5 million in new funding to step up coronavirus response efforts in the United States, Africa, India and Latin America, and in particular “health.” To fight grievances ”. – and disinformation. “

The Digital Public Library of America also said it will work with the surgeon general by bringing together librarians, scholars, journalists and citizen leaders to discuss the role libraries can play in combating misinformation.

Misinformation about social distancing, mask use, treatments, and vaccines was rampant during the pandemic. The report is a sign that the Biden government is more determined to face this in the face of a sharp drop in the number of new vaccinations. Less than 50 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and many top health experts have urged the president to do more to reach people who haven’t been vaccinated.

While nationwide cases and hospital admissions remain relatively low, more local hotspots are emerging and 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 had higher vaccination rates on average than those that voted for former President Donald J. Trump. Conservatives are far more likely to reject vaccinations than Democrats.

The General Surgeon’s report is eagerly apolitical and does not identify any specific providers of misinformation. But some Republican leaders, worried the virus is spreading rapidly in conservative parts of the country, are beginning to promote vaccination and speak out against media and elected officials who cast doubts about vaccines.

Health misinformation is not a new phenomenon – and is not limited to the news media. In the 1990s, the report said that “a poorly designed study” – later withdrawn – falsely claimed that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused autism. “Even after the withdrawal, the claim gained momentum and contributed to lower vaccination 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 in 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 unsafe. An analysis of millions of social media posts in Science Magazine found that hoaxes are 70 percent more likely to be shared than true stories.

Another recent study showed that even brief exposure to misinformation reduces the likelihood that people will want a vaccine, the surgeon general said.

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