Top doctor pushes back against COVID misinformation, urges accountability in public advisory

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

On Thursday, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy pushed back against misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic in a White House press conference, where he also announced the release of a 22-page advisory on the topic. The doctor was adamant that the spread of medical misinformation ultimately serves as a risk to the lives of everyday citizens.

“Every week, I talk to doctors and nurses across our country who are burning out as they care for more and more patients with COVID-19 who never got vaccinated — all too often because they were misled by misinformation,” Murthy said. “We must confront misinformation as a nation. Every one of us has the power and the responsibility to make a difference in this fight. Lives are depending on it.”

Medical misinformation specific to the COVID-19 pandemic has swept through the United States in large troves ever since the first cases hit. False information continues to run amok and nationwide vaccination rates are dropping as the newly-discovered delta variant becomes more pervasive.

Some popular false theories spread about the virus include scientifically discredited allegations of microchipping in vaccines, COVID being a concocted ruse to encourage mass vaccinations, and even a President-backed proposition suggesting the injection of disinfectant and use of ultraviolet light to knock out the viral infection — a practice that can be fatal.

While Murthy didn’t name Trump or any political figure, he acknowledged in his advisory that individuals holding public office have big shoes to fill when it comes to platforming safe and reliable information.

“Misinformation tends to flourish in environments of significant societal division, animosity, and distrust,” the advisory said. “Distrust of the health care system due to experiences with racism and other inequities may make it easier for misinformation to spread in some communities. Growing polarization, including in the political sphere, may also contribute to the spread of misinformation.”

In Murthy’s advisory, he outlined action steps various parties can take to help join the fight against misinformation, publishing separate chapters aimed towards families, journalists, and schools, just to name a few.

The Surgeon General, who has lost 10 family members due to COVID-19, said individuals, families, and communities can identify and avoid sharing misinformation by opening up empathetic dialogue with one another.

“If someone you care about has a misperception, you might be able to make inroads with them by first seeking to understand instead of passing judgment,” Murthy wrote. “Try new ways of engaging: Listen with empathy, establish common ground, ask questions, provide alternative explanations and sources of information, stay calm, and don’t expect success from one conversation.”

Alongside Murthy at the White House press conference, press secretary Jen Psaki pressed tech companies, such as Facebook and Instagram, to get more aggressive in their pursuit of cleansing their platforms of misinformation.

“We’ve increased disinformation research and tracking within the Surgeon General’s office. We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation. We’re working with doctors and medical professionals to connect medical experts with popular — with popular — who are popular with their audiences with accurate information and boost trusted content,” Psaki said. “So we’re helping get trusted content out there.”

Facebook and Instagram as platforms have proven over the past year that they, when unchecked, can become breeding grounds for dangerous, untrue, and sometimes violent rhetoric made in bad faith. Various top influencers on the right side of the aisle have floated false information about the coronavirus. Pundit Candace Owens has used Instagram to denounce COVID-19 as an “election ploy” to help depress the economy in an effort to get President Biden elected.

While some figures knowingly spread false information, Surgeon General Murthy said, the majority of those are genuine Americans wishing to help who simply fall down dangerous rabbit holes.

“Yes, there is disinformation that is coming from bad actors. But what is also important to point out is that much of the misinformation that is circulating online is often coming from individuals who don’t have bad intentions, but who are unintentionally sharing information that they think might be helpful,” Murthy said.