Surgeon General Calls On Tech Platforms, Media Outlets To Take Greater Steps To Combat Covid-19 Misinformation; White House Singles Out Facebook

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during the daily briefing at the White House (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

UPDATED, with Facebook comment: As the rate of Covid-19 vaccination slows and cases rise again, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Thursday called on tech platforms and the news media to take greater steps to combat misinformation.

Appearing at the the White House briefing room, Murthy spoke about the role that social media plays as a super spreader of Covid-19 and vaccine disinformation.

“Today we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” Murthy said, as he blamed falsehoods as one reason the pace of vaccinations was slowing. Data show that 99% of new hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.

“Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives,” he said.

Murthy today issued a Surgeon General Advisory, reserved for urgent public health threats, on the dangers of health misinformation. (Read it here.) Included are a host of recommendations for tech platforms, including redesigning algorithms to avoid amplifying misinformation and take quicker action against “super spreaders” and repeat offenders.

As the for news media, he called on media organizations to train journalists and editors in ways to avoid amplifying misinformation and to “proactively address the public’s questions, as well as to reconsider headlines that “shock and provoke.”

“If a headline is designed to fact-check a rumor, where possible, lead with the truth instead of simply repeating details of the rumor,” the report recommended.

Murthy also called for context.

“For example, when discussing conflicting views on an issue, give readers a sense of where the scientific community stands and how strong the available evidence is for different views,” his report recommended. “Consider questions like: How much disagreement is there among experts? Is a given explanation plausible even if it is unlikely? If evidence is not equally strong on all sides of an issue, avoid presenting it as such.”

During the briefing, there was no mention made of specific individuals, but there have been concerns that voices on the right have been feeding doubts about the vaccine, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson. On a recent show, Carlson suggested that the alarm D.C. officials have over the unvaccinated “make you think” that “maybe none of this is really about Covid. Maybe it’s about social control.” Laura Ingraham has had a succession of guests who have questioned the need for a vaccine.

On Newsmax, one of its news anchors, Rob Schmitt, went so far as to say that vaccines in general are “against nature,” and that “there’s just an ebb and flow to life where something’s supposed to wipe out a certain amount of people.” Fox News has pointed to other figures on the network who have encouraged viewers to get the vaccine, and Newsmax distanced itself from the remarks.

But much of the White House’s attention was on social media and the way that misinformation can quickly spread.

“Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users,” Murthy said. One theory that spread across social media: That vaccines will make you magnetic.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that senior staff and members of the Covid-19 response team have been in touch with executives at the platforms and are flagging problematic posts.

She said that the White House has recommended a series of proposed changes to Facebook, including providing a way to measure and share the impact of misinformation on their platform, not just the level of engagement. She also said that the White House wants Facebook to create a “more robust” enforcement strategy, as she said that there are “about 12 people that are producing 65% of the misinformation.” They want Facebook to more quickly remove posts that violate their standards, as well as to change their algorithm to boost quality information.

“They have done it before, but have chosen not to do it in this case,” she said.

A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement, “We’ve partnered with government experts, health authorities and researchers to take aggressive action against misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to protect public health. So far, we’ve removed more than 18 million pieces of COVID misinformation, removed accounts that repeatedly break these rules, and connected more than 2 billion people to reliable information about COVID-19 and COVID vaccines across our apps.” According to Facebook, a daily survey of Facebook users, done in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, showed that vaccine acceptance had gone up by 10 to 15 percentage points since January, and that racial disparities have narrowed. The company also said that in the second quarter, the most viewed posts were not related to Covid or the vaccines, and that for those that were related to the inoculations, the vast majority were from authoritative sources like UNICEF and WHO.

The misinformation about the vaccines has extended to White House efforts to promote them. Last week, after President Joe Biden announced a plan to reach people door-to-door at their homes to given them information of the vaccines, figures on the right on the seized on the remarks. When Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) said that such a campaign could lead to the confiscation of guns and Bibles, it led to a flurry of stories with the headline repeating the wild claim.

On Thursday, countering the misinformation, Twitter ran a headline in its “what’s happening” section that read, “Biden’s door-to-door vaccination effort is an education initiative for community leaders to inform others on inoculation efforts, fact-checkers say.”

Still, there are doubts that the effort will work, given that so many people now live in their own media bubbles.

Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist, wrote in a column for The Washington Post this week, “In the case of Fox News celebrities in particular, they must know that discouraging vaccination — by exaggerating risks, highlighting unproven alternative therapies and normalizing anti-vaccine voices — will result in additional, unnecessary deaths. This is hard to get my head around.”

Frank Luntz, the Republican communications consultant, wrote on Twitter, “I fear many Americans are past the point of no return – they won’t even put politics aside to keep people (or themselves) alive.”

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