Surgeon general warns misinformation an 'urgent threat' to public health

BySasha Pezenik ABCNews logo
Friday, July 16, 2021
Surgeon general calls misinformation 'urgent threat' to public health
The advisory says combatting misinformation is a "moral and civic responsibility" on an individual and institutional level.

WASHINGTON -- The surgeon general is warning Americans about the "urgent threat of health misinformation" amid the government's current push to boost stalling vaccination rates.

Dr. Vivek Murthy's advisory -- the first under the Biden administration -- addresses an epidemic of misinformation and disinformation, and its pernicious impact on public health -- specifically threatening the U.S. response to COVID-19. It frames misinformation as having hindered vaccination efforts, sown mistrust, caused people to reject public health measures, use unproven treatments, prolonged the pandemic and put lives at risk.

The advisory says combatting misinformation is a "moral and civic responsibility" on an individual and institutional level.

The decision to elevate this issue in his first official advisory comes as some Republicans have used the government's coronavirus response and vaccine messaging as a political wedge.

While Murthy doesn't call out by name any of the Republican elected officials who have criticized a distorted interpretation of Biden administration's vaccine push, he does suggest accountable "stakeholders" in the fight against misinformation include public officeholders as important public messengers.

Chicago reinstates travel rules for unvaccinated visitors as the U.S. reported that COVID-19 cases doubled over the past three weeks.

"Misinformation tends to flourish in environments of significant societal division, animosity, and distrust," the advisory says. "Distrust of the health care system due to experiences with racism and other inequities may make it easier for misinformation to spread in some communities. Growing polarization, including in the political sphere, may also contribute to the spread of misinformation."

The advisory also digs into social media platforms as having greatly contributed to the "unprecedented speed and scale" of misinformation's spread and Murthy calls on technology and social media companies to "take more responsibility to stop online spread of health misinformation."

"Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic," Murthy said in a statement. "As Surgeon General, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk ... tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation."

And eight months into the pandemic, the effects of that misinformation is apparent. A sizeable portion of the population is still resisting the push to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Julia Lucas, a family nurse practictioner, said she's heard a lot of false claims from patients at her clinics in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area.

Some have told her they want to wait to take the vaccine until they become infected, believing it can cure the virus. The vaccine is not a treatment for the disease, and in fact, doctors recommend against getting the vaccine if you're currently battling a COVID-19 infection.

"I've also had a lot of patients worried that the vaccine could give them COVID," Lucas said. "And that's not how the vaccine works."

At Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, experts are taking steps to catch misinformation before it spreads.

"So what we've done here at Duke is to create a system that can help Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter find fact checks more easily, match them with inaccurate content," said Bill Adair, a Knight professor in the practice of journalism and public policy at the university.

The Surgeon General's advisory lays out how to better identify and avoid sharing health misinformation, engage with the community on the issue and develop local strategies against misinformation.

  • Health professionals and health organizations can proactively engage with patients and the public by listening with empathy and correcting misinformation in personalized ways. The advisory suggests using social media and partnering with community groups to get out accurate information.
  • Governments can prevent and address misinformation by finding "common ground on difficult questions," increasing investment in research, fact checking and engaging in rumor control. Murthy advised partnering with trusted messengers, using proactive messaging and community engagement strategies. Health teams should identify local misinformation patterns and train public health misinformation researchers.
  • Technology platforms can assess benefits and harms of how their products are built and "take responsibility for addressing the harms;" strengthen their monitoring of misinformation and improve transparency; and proactively address information deficits. The companies could also prioritize early detection of misinformation "super-spreaders" or repeat offenders, and amplify trusted messenger, prioritizing protecting health professionals, journalists and others from online harassment.
  • Journalists and media organizations can make sure their teams are trained in recognizing, debunking and avoiding amplification of misinformation by carefully reviewing materials that have not been peer reviewed.Educators and schools can shore up evidence-based programs that build a "resilience" to misinformation by teaching people how to be more discerning about it and talk to friends and family who are sharing misinformation.
  • Foundations can provide training and resources for grantees working in communities that are disproportionately affected by misinformation, including areas with lower vaccine confidence, and monitoring health misinformation across multiple languages.
  • Researchers and research institutions can strengthen their monitoring of health questions and concerns, assess the impact that misinformation might be having and tailor interventions to the needs of specific populations, with an understanding of how people are exposed to and affected by misinformation.

ABC News' Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.