WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy raised the alarm on Thursday over a growing wave of misinformation about COVID-19 and related vaccines that threatens efforts to quell the pandemic and save lives, urging technology companies and others to act.
In his first advisory as the nation’s top doctor under President Joe Biden, Murthy called on tech companies to tweak their algorithms to further demote false information and share more data with researchers and the government to help teachers, healthcare workers and the media fight misinformation.
“Misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” Murthy said during remarks Thursday at the White House. “We must confront misinformation as a nation. Lives are depending on it.”
Given the role the internet plays in spreading health misinformation, Murthy said technology companies and social media platforms must make meaningful changes to their products and software to reduce the spread of misinformation while increasing access to authoritative, fact-based sources.
Too often, he said, the platforms are built to encourage, not counter, the spread of misinformation.
“We are asking them to step up,” Murthy said. “We can’t wait longer for them to take aggressive action.”
Teachers, he said, should expand education on media literacy and critical thinking. Journalists, he suggested, should work to responsibly debunk health misinformation without inadvertently spreading it further. And public health officials and doctors, he suggested, should do a better job answering questions and explaining why public health guidelines sometimes change based on new information.
As for everyday Americans, Murthy urged them to verify questionable health information with trusted sources like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to exercise critical thinking when exposed to unverified claims. If people have loved ones or friends who believe or spread misinformation, he said, it’s best to engage by listening and asking questions rather than by confronting them.
“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,” he said in the advisory, first reported by NPR.
False information can lead to hesitancy to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, leading to preventable deaths, Murthy said, noting misinformation can affect other health conditions and is a worldwide problem.
“American lives are at risk,” he said in a separate statement.
The advisory also urges people not to spread questionable information online, something the head of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a group that tracks COVID-19 misinformation online, said will not be enough.
“On tobacco packets they say that tobacco kills,” the group’s chief executive Imran Ahmed told NPR. “On social media we need a ‘Surgeon General’s Warning: Misinformation Kills.'”
U.S. COVID-19 infections last week rose about 11% over the previous week, with the highest increases in areas with vaccination rates of less than 40%, according to the CDC, and continued to tick up on Wednesday.
Cases plummeted in the spring as the vaccine rolled out following a winter spike in infections, but shots have slowed and just about 51% of the country has been vaccinated, Reuters data show.
While some groups that push health misinformation do so for profit, Murthy wrote that many Americans may be spreading false information without realizing it.
“Misinformation hasn’t just harmed our physical health — it has also divided our families, friends, and communities,” Murthy wrote in the advisory. “The only way to address health misinformation is to recognize that all of us, in every sector of society, have a responsibility to act.”
Representatives for the nation’s largest tech companies could not be immediately reached for comment on the advisory.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report