US surgeon general issues official warning over vaccine misinformation but won’t pinpoint culprits

Top health official calls misinformation on social media an ‘insidious’ threat

John Bowden
Friday 16 July 2021 16:41
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<p>Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.</p>

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.

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US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has issued a warning that misinformation is now the main public health threat driving the United States’ ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.

The US’ top doctor issued an official warning about the spread of false information on Thursday, and appeared at the daily White House press briefing to deliver a stern call to social media companies, which he identified as a major home for false claims about Covid-19 and the vaccines.

“Almost every death we’re seeing now from Covid-19 could have been prevented”, Mr Murthy warned.

“Today we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” the surgeon general added.

Asked repeatedly by reporters to identify specific public figures or officials responsible for spreading misinformation, Mr Murthy and White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined, only noting that much of the total volume on Facebook comes from roughly a dozen people.

The administration was firm on one point, though: social media companies bear the brunt of the blame for allowing much of this misinformation to continue.

“Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users”, Mr Murthy said.

The Independent has reached out to Facebook for comment on the officials’ remarks. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that company officials met with Mr Murthy earlier in the week, and supported his assertion that misinformation was a major public health issue.

“We agree with the Surgeon General – tackling health misinformation takes a whole-of-society approach. We’ll continue to take enforcement action on content that violates our COVID-19 misleading information policy and improve and expand our efforts to elevate credible, reliable health information — now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and as we collectively navigate the public health challenges to come,” said a Twitter spokesperson.

“We continue to work in close consultation with global public health authorities, public health experts, and elected officials to help people find authoritative, public health information about COVID-19. We welcome the Surgeon General’s leadership and partnership in this work,” they added.

Facebook remains under investigation by the attorney general of Washington DC regarding its handling of Covid-19 misinformation, and the AG’s office has criticized the company in the press for not being transparent about efforts to stop false claims that health officials say are costing lives.

Thursday’s press conference was the latest event in a long line of efforts by President Joe Biden to depoliticize the Covid-19 pandemic, which became a bizarrely dividing force in America over the last year. Skepticism about the danger posed by the virus, the effectiveness of masks, and the safety of Covid-19 vaccines is all higher among conservatives than among liberals in the US.

Much of the division may well be linked to former President Donald Trump, who famously refused to wear masks on numerous occasions, downplayed the danger posed by the virus ahead of the main US outbreak, and often flouted procedures such as social distancing advised by health officials to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks.

A superspreader event occurred at the White House last fall when supporters of the president gathered to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, resulting in numerous guests and attending press becoming infected.

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