With about a third of adults in the U.S. still completely unvaccinated, and cases of COVID-19 on the rise, the U.S. surgeon general is calling for a war against "health misinformation."
On Thursday, Dr. Vivek Murthy released the first surgeon general's advisory of his time serving in the Biden administration, describing the "urgent threat" posed by the rise of false information around COVID-19 — one that continues to put "lives at risk" and prolong the pandemic.
Murthy says Americans must do their part to fight misinformation.
"COVID has really brought into sharp focus the full extent of damage that health misinformation is doing," Murthy told NPR in an exclusive interview ahead of the advisory's release. Surgeon general's advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that demand immediate attention.
In some cases, he says, the simplest way to stop the spread is to not share something questionable you read online: "If you're not sure, not sharing is often the prudent thing to do."
The U.S. has dealt with misinformation around other public health crises, including decades of persistent rumors about HIV/AIDS, but Murthy says the coronavirus pandemic is underscoring just how problematic the false information and rumors related to health can be.
Rates of COVID-19 are rising nationwide, driven in large part by the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant. A recent analysis by NPR shows that cases are highest in places where vaccination rates lag. Multiple factors, including inadequate access to vaccines, can keep vaccination rates low in some communities, but Murthy says fear about possible side effects or extremely rare adverse events are also a powerful driver of vaccine hesitancy.
In many cases, false information about the vaccines feeds that hesitancy. According to polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of unvaccinated adults either believe vaccine myths or are unsure about whether they are true. Murthy says that means misinformation is literally putting lives at risk.
"Every life that is lost to COVID-19 when we have vaccines available, is a preventable tragedy," Murthy says.
Talk to friends and family, the surgeon general suggests
Murthy hopes that drawing public attention to the harms of misinformation will lead more Americans to take action in their own lives, including through simple one-on-one conversations with friends and family who are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Rather than judging others, Murthy encourages people to listen to their concerns and come prepared with sources of good information to counteract the bad. Research shows that vaccine-hesitant people are more likely to be open and listen to those they know. "These conversations are all driven by trust," he says.
But Murthy also wants to see action on a larger scale.
In his advisory, he puts pressure on big tech companies to play a bigger role in combating health misinformation on their platforms. He wants to see algorithms tweaked to further demote bad information and companies to share more data with outside researchers and the government.
"The tech companies actually have a much better sense of how much misinformation is being transacted on their platforms, and without understanding the full extent of it ... it's hard to formulate the most effective strategies," he says.
The new surgeon general's advisory comes as welcome news to Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a group that tracks COVID-19 misinformation online. But Ahmed also says that asking individual Americans to fight misinformation won't be enough.
His group has identified a dozen major spreaders of vaccine misinformation, and many continue to operate unchecked on social media. "At our last count 30 of 89 social media accounts for those 12 people have been taken down, but that means 59 are still up," he says. "They've still got millions of viewers being pumped misinformation and lies on a daily basis."
Social media companies profiting off clicks are spreading misinformation faster than it can be counteracted, Ahmed says. He'd like to see the surgeon general exert even more pressure on those companies.
"On tobacco packets they say that tobacco kills," he says. "On social media we need a 'Surgeon general's warning: misinformation kills.'"