US surgeon general Vivek Murthy calls for efforts against health misinformation during Covid-19 pandemic

The United States’ surgeon general Vivek Murthy on Thursday warned that misinformation during the times of Covid-19 pandemic has led to people declining the vaccines against the disease and also made people reject public health measures , such as face masks and social distancing. Murthy also urged individuals, health professionals, journalists and technology platforms to help in slowing the spread of misinformation.

In his 22-page advisory titled ‘Confronting Health Misinformation,’ his first as surgeon general under US President Joe Biden, Murthy also detailed the efforts that could be taken to curb the spread of health misinformation , which he termed as “serious threat to public health.” He also served as the surgeon general under former President Barack Obama.

“Because it pollutes our information environment, misinformation is harmful to individual and public health. Together , we have the power to build a healthier information environment,” Murthy said, listing the efforts so far by health professionals, researchers and the media in addressing misinformation. However, he said that there is more to be done.

“How do we curb the spread of harmful misinformation while safeguarding user privacy and free expression?” he asked. A whole-of-society effort would be required to address health misinformation, he further said.

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Murthy’s advisory came as the rate of progress of Covid-19 vaccination has slowed across the US, partially due to vaccine hesitancy because of unsubstantiated claims about the safety of the shots, the Associated Press reported on Thursday. The report also noted that the death toll in the US due to Covid-19 recently crossed the 600,000-mark.

Noting that misinformation spreads at “unprecedented speed and scale” in today’s world, Murthy called upon technology platforms to “assess the benefits and harms of products and platforms and take responsibility for addressing the harms” of misinformation. He also said that such platforms should redesign their recommendation algorithms, which suggests content to users , and also make it easier for consumers to report misinformation.

“Impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies,” he further said. He directed the platforms to amplify the communications from subject matter experts and direct the users to such credible sources of true information. He also highlighted the need to protect health professionals, journalists from online harassment.

“Misinformation hasn’t just harmed our physical health—it has also divided our families, friends, and communities,” he said in the report, noting that efforts against the spread of it is a moral and civic imperative for all of society.

(With inputs from the Associated Press)