In his first advisory since he was appointed by President Joe Biden, Murthy said that the U.S. had come a long way in its battle against the pandemic. However, disinformation campaigns remained the biggest hurdle to see the nation move past the coronavirus.
He also called out tech companies for failing to rein in anti-vaccination posts that pose an “imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health.”
“Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users,” Murthy said Thursday at the White House. “They’ve designed product features, such as ‘Like’ buttons, that reward us for sharing emotionally charged content, not accurate content. And their algorithms tend to give us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation.”
Surgeon General advisories are typically reserved for urgent public health threats. Past ones have been issued about tobacco, opioid addiction and suicide. Murthy’s latest warning comes amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases around the U.S., primarily due to the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus.
Although more than 160 million people are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus in the U.S., regions with lower inoculation rates are particularly vulnerable to the delta strain. And despite the high transmissibility of the delta variant, vaccines have proven to be effective at preventing the severe illness and death associated with COVID-19.
Almost all of the nation’s coronavirus deaths are among people who remain unvaccinated.
In the advisory, Murthy said misinformation had hindered the country’s effort to see Americans vaccinated. He revealed that he had lost 10 family members to COVID-19, and said it was painful to know that many of the latest deaths in the U.S. could have been prevented by vaccinations.
“Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health,” Murthy said in the advisory. “It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”
Major social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have taken steps to remove or minimize the spread of false COVID-19 claims. But misinformation has remained rampant throughout the pandemic, both at home and abroad.
The White House added Thursday that it was disappointed with Facebook’s efforts to stop the major peddlers of misinformation. Press secretary Jen Psaki said there were about a dozen accounts responsible for a vast majority of anti-vaccine misinformation and they were all still posting on the platform.
“Facebook has repeatedly shown that they have the levers to promote quality information,” Psaki said during a press briefing. “We’ve seen them effectively do this in their algorithm over low-quality information and they’ve chosen not to use it in this case.”