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Misinformation is 'serious threat to public health,' surgeon general warns

In his first advisory as the nation’s top doctor, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on tech companies to tweak their algorithms to further demote false information.
Image:  Vivek Murthy
Vivek Murthy speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 8, 2020.Susan Walsh / AP file

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy raised the alarm on Thursday over a growing wave of misinformation about Covid-19 and related vaccines that threatens efforts to quell the pandemic and save lives, urging technology companies and others to act.

In his first advisory as the nation’s top doctor under President Joe Biden, Murthy called on tech companies to tweak their algorithms to further demote false information and share more data with researchers and the government to help teachers, healthcare workers and the media fight misinformation.

“Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. 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,” he said in the advisory, first reported by National Public Radio.

False information can lead to hesitancy to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, leading to preventable deaths, Murthy said, noting misinformation can affect other health conditions and is a worldwide problem.

“American lives are at risk,” he said in separate statement.

The advisory also urges people not to spread questionable information online, something the head of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a group that tracks Covid-19 misinformation online, said will not be enough.

“On tobacco packets they say that tobacco kills,” the group’s chief executive Imran Ahmed told NPR. “On social media we need a ‘Surgeon General’s Warning: Misinformation Kills.’”

Murthy is scheduled to appear at a 12:30 p.m. (1630 GMT) White House news briefing.

U.S. Covid-19 infections last week rose about 11 percent over the previous week, with the highest increases in areas with vaccination rates of less than 40 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and continued to tick up on Wednesday.

Cases plummeted in the spring as the vaccine rolled out following a winter spike in infections, but shots have slowed and just about 51 percent of the country has been vaccinated, Reuters data show.

“It’s been hard to get people to move” from not wanting the COVID-19 vaccine “to recognizing that the risk is still there,” Dr. Richard Besser, a former CDC chief who now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told MSNBC.

Representatives for the nation’s largest tech companies could not be immediately reached for comment on the advisory.