Surgeon general’s warns against spread of health misinformation

The surgeon general just released an advisory that warns against the U.S.'s epidemic of health misinformation
surgeon general

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN)- Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, has started warning Americans about the “urgent threat of health misinformation” while the government pushes to boost vaccination rates across the nation.

Dr. Murthy’s advisory points out an epidemic of misinformation and the effect it has on public health–specifically in terms of the U.S.’s response to COVID-19.

The advisory says combatting misinformation is a “moral and civic responsibility” for both individuals and institutions.

This comes as Dr. Murthy’s first official advisory under the Biden administration.

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“Misinformation tends to flourish in environments of significant societal division, animosity, and distrust,” the advisory says. “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.”

His advisory also claims that social media platforms have greatly contributed to the “unprecedented speed and scale” of the spread of misinformation. Murthy also calls on social media and technology companies to “take more responsibility to stop the online spread of health misinformation.”

“Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow distrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” Murthy said in a statement. “As Surgeon General, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk … tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation.”

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The advisory made a list of ways to better identify and avoid sharing health misinformation, engage with the community on the issue, and develop local strategies against misinformation.

  • Health professionals and health organizations can proactively engage with patients and the public by listening with empathy and correcting misinformation in personalized ways. The advisory suggests using social media and partnering with community groups to get out accurate information.
  • Governments can prevent and address misinformation by finding “common ground on difficult questions,” increasing investment in research, fact-checking, and engaging in rumor control. Murthy advised partnering with trusted messengers, using proactive messaging and community engagement strategies. Health teams should identify local misinformation patterns and train public health misinformation researchers.
  • Technology platforms can assess the benefits and harms of how their products are built and “take responsibility for addressing the harms;” strengthen their monitoring of misinformation and improve transparency, and proactively address information deficits. The companies could also prioritize early detection of misinformation “super-spreaders” or repeat offenders, and amplify trusted messenger, prioritizing protecting health professionals, journalists, and others from online harassment.
  • Journalists and media organizations can make sure their teams are trained in recognizing, debunking, and avoiding the amplification of misinformation by carefully reviewing materials that have not been peer-reviewed.
  • Educators and schools can shore up evidence-based programs that build a “resilience” to misinformation by teaching people how to be more discerning about it and talk to friends and family who are sharing misinformation.
  • Foundations can provide training and resources for grantees working in communities that are disproportionately affected by misinformation, including areas with lower vaccine confidence, and monitoring health misinformation across multiple languages.
  • Researchers and research institutions can strengthen their monitoring of health questions and concerns, assess the impact that misinformation might be having, and tailor interventions to the needs of specific populations, with an understanding of how people are exposed to and affected by misinformation.

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