US steps up fight against COVID-19 misinformation

The effort comes as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has slowed throughout the US, due in part to false claims.

United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that misinformation has led people to reject vaccines and public health advice on masks and social distancing, undermining efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic and putting lives at risk. [Tom Brenner/Reuters]

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Thursday called for a national effort to fight misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, urging tech companies, health care workers, journalists and everyday Americans to do more to address a problem “that cost us lives”.

In a 22-page advisory, his first as President Joe Biden’s surgeon general, Murthy wrote that bogus claims have led people to reject vaccines and public health advice on masks and social distancing, undermining efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic and putting lives at risk.

The warning comes as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has slowed throughout the US, in part because of vaccine opposition fueled by unsubstantiated claims about the safety of immunisations and despite the US death toll recently passing 600,000.

“Today we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” Murthy said in a press briefing.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks in high-risk settings, it’s led them to turn down proven treatment and to choose not to get vaccinated,” he said.

“Simply put: health information has cost us lives.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday that the Biden administration has increased its tracking of misinformation and is “flagging problematic” social media posts to Facebook.

“There’s about 12 people who are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” Psaki said. “All of them remain active on Facebook, despite some even being banned on other platforms, including ones that Facebook owns.”

Health misinformation was a global problem even before the internet and social media allowed dangerous claims to spread faster and easier than ever before. The problem of COVID-19 misinformation is so great that the World Health Organization has deemed it an “infodemic”.

Given the role the internet plays in spreading health misinformation, Murthy said technology companies and social media platforms should make meaningful changes to their products and software to reduce the spread of misinformation while increasing access to authoritative, fact-based sources.

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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to exercise critical thinking when exposed to unverified claims. If you have loved ones or friends who believe or spread misinformation, he said, it is best to engage by listening and asking questions rather than by confronting them.

First lady Jill Biden looks on as Alfred Lee Smith is vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination at a vaccination facility at Alfred E. Beach High School in Savannah, Georgia, US [File: Jim Watson/Pool via Reuters]

While some groups that push health misinformation do so for profit, Murthy wrote that many Americans may be spreading bogus information without intending to cause harm.

“If you are not sure, don’t share,” he said.

Recent polls show that vaccine hesitancy falls along party lines. A recent survey conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 86 percent of people who identify as Democrats have received at least one vaccine shot, compared with 45 percent of Republicans.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, an outspoken Republican congresswoman from Georgia and a strong supporter of former President Donald Trump, tweeted on Sunday a message urging people not to get the COVID-19 shot, saying it has “very serious life-changing vaccine side effects”. Greene has more than 400,000 followers on the social media platform.

In response, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican and a polio survivor, urged more Americans to get the shot.

“We need to finish the job and a part of it is just convincing the American people of the importance of doing this,” McConnell told reporters during a news conference on Tuesday.

“Everyone who knows this subject says that if you get the disease again, your chances are pretty good, you’re not going to die from it if you get vaccinated,” he said. “So I don’t know how many times we have to keep saying it, but for myself, I intend to keep saying it over and over and over again.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies