U.S. Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy has said misinformation – much of it on tech platforms – is a public health threat that has claimed lives and prolonged the Covid pandemic.
As Murthy said at a press conference on Thursday, health advisories are generally about the things people physically consume: food, drink, cigarettes. But the first advice of his tenure in the Biden administration (he was also a surgeon general under President Obama) concerns what we consume with our eyes and ears: misinformation.
The advice is accompanied by a set of guidelines on how to ‘build a healthy information environment’, with recommendations for everyone from social media users to the platforms themselves (also: health workers, researchers and the media). Murthy has also gone to some of those same platforms to spread the message, including Twitter and Facebook.
“Today we live in a world where disinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to the health of our country,” Murthy said at a press conference, adding that “modern technology companies” have made it possible disinformation and disinformation to spread on their platforms “with little responsibility. . ”
The advisory is not a set of orders that should be followed by these companies, but the increased scrutiny and attention is causing them to fight more aggressively against the lies that spread across their platforms.
This health advisory comes as Covid vaccination rates in the United States decline, as cases resume and the rapidly spreading delta variant takes hold. The vast majority of Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, despite the wide availability of vaccines in the United States. And with some people choosing not to get the shot because they believe the vaccine misinformation, the Biden administration reportedly decided it was time to fight back.
Disinformation about the coronavirus is not limited to social media. But social media gives it a stage and reach that offline platforms don’t have, and it’s been a concern for years. Misinformation or disinformation potentially influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, increased 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 prolong the pandemic.
As researcher Carl T. Bergstrom, co-author of “Managing Global Collective Behavior,” an article that calls for more research into the impact of social media on society, told Recode’s Shirin Ghaffary, “the media social in particular – as well as a wider array of Internet technologies, including algorithmic search and click-based advertising, have changed the way people get information and form opinions about the world. And they seem to have done it in a way that makes people especially vulnerable to the spread of misinformation and misinformation. “
For their part, social media platforms have attempted to stop the spread of false information, including removing posts and videos and banning accounts that disseminate them, as well as adding fact checks or links to reliable information about posts and videos that could be misleading. . As it became more likely that there would soon be a Covid vaccine in late 2020, various platforms were proactive in preparing for the misinformation about the vaccine that would inevitably follow (and follow). This came after years when these companies have done very little to stop the spread of misinformation about other vaccines, and despite numerous warnings from experts about the potential damage to public health caused by the hosting. anti-vaccine content and communities.
“We agree with the Surgeon General – tackling health misinformation requires a whole-of-society approach,” a Twitter spokesperson told Recode in a statement. “We will continue to take enforcement action on content that violates our COVID-19 Misleading Information Policy and improve and expand our efforts to elevate credible and reliable health information – now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – and as we collectively face the public health challenges ahead. ”
YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernandez told Recode that the platform “removes content in accordance with our COVID-19 disinformation policies, which we keep up to date based on guidelines from local health authorities. We’re also demoting boundary videos and highlighting authoritative content for COVID-19 related search results, recommendations, and pop-up panels. “
But many believe their efforts are insufficient, too late, and still not going far enough – including, it seems, the surgeon general.
“We expect more from our technology companies,” Murthy said.
Let’s see if we get it – and if at this point it will help.