President Biden’s surgeon general used his first formal consultation with the United States on Thursday to warn of the dangers of health misinformation, calling it an “urgent public health threat” and calling on all Americans – and tech and social in particular -Media companies – to do more to curb the spread of falsehoods about Covid-19.
The official warning from Dr. Vivek Murthy is unusual; General practitioners have traditionally used their official “deliberations” – brief statements that draw the attention of the American people to a public health problem and advice on how to address it – to discuss health issues ranging from tobacco use to opioid addiction to breastfeeding suicide prevention.
But this new notice, contained in a 22-page report with footnotes, is in 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.
During the coronavirus pandemic, health misinformation about social distancing, mask use, treatments, and vaccines was widespread. The report is a sign that, amid a sharp drop in vaccination rates, the Biden government is more determined to face this. 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 virus numbers remain at one of the lowest levels since the pandemic began, they are slowly rising again, 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 Donald Trump. Conservatives are far more likely to reject vaccinations than Democrats.
“Health misinformation is a serious public health threat,” said Dr. Murthy in the report. “It can create confusion, sow distrust, harm people’s health and undermine public health efforts.”
In a statement, he added, “From the tech and social media companies who need to do more to combat proliferation on their platforms, to all of us who identify misinformation and avoid tackling this challenge, requires a societal approach. but it is critical to the long-term health of our nation. “
But calling tech and media companies 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 it at her briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was non-committal.
“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.”
The 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, “one poorly designed study” – later withdrawn – falsely alleged 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 twenty years,” the report said.
Dr. Murthy is expected at the White House briefing Thursday to discuss his report. 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 was true or were unsure about his Truthfulness; and 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 Covid-19 vaccine, the surgeon general said.
This is Dr. Murthy’s second assignment as a general surgeon; he also served under former President Barack Obama. Often referred to as the “Doctor of the Nation,” the position offers little formal authority, but draws its strength from the harassed surgeon general’s pulpit, and previous surgeons general have had a profound influence on the health of the nation.
The advice of Dr. Murthy received immediate praise from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an organization particularly concerned about false information suggesting Covid-19 vaccines could be harmful to pregnant women. There is no evidence of this.