‘Not Enough’: Surgeon General Says Tech Giants Can Do More To Fight COVID Misinformation

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy speaks during a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on July 15, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
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July 18, 2021 5:33 p.m.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Sunday doubled down on the Biden administration’s criticisms aimed at social media giants over the spread of COVID-19 disinformation, following President Biden’s remarks last week that Facebook is “killing people” by allowing misinformation about vaccines to proliferate on the platform.

Last week, Facebook hit back at Biden’s comments by issuing a statement from an unnamed official, who told NBC News that the White House is “looking for scapegoats” after falling short of meeting their goal of 70 percent of Americans receiving at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines by July 4.

The official reportedly claimed that Murthy has “praised” Facebook’s efforts to combat COVID-19 disinformation as well.

“In private exchanges the Surgeon General has praised our work, including our efforts to inform people about COVID-19. They knew what they were doing. The White House is looking for scapegoats for missing their vaccine goals,” the unnamed Facebook official said, according to NBC News.

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Pressed on the Facebook official’s statement accusing the White House of looking for a “scapegoat” during an interview on CNN, Murthy insisted that he has been “very consistent” in conveying to social media giants that although the platforms have made progress in combatting misinformation on COVID-19, there is room for improvement.

“I’ve been very consistent in what I’ve said to the technology companies, and I’ve spoken with a number of them over the last many months, and my team has as well,” Murthy said. “And what we have effectively said is when we see steps that are good, that are being taken, we should acknowledge those. And there have been some positive steps taken by these technology companies.”

After citing some companies’ decisions to promote “accurate sources” such as the CDC and reducing the prevalence of “false sources” in search results, Murthy then stressed that he has also told social media companies in private and public conversations that their efforts are “not enough.”

“We’re still seeing a proliferation of misinformation online, and we know that health misinformation harms people’s health. It costs them their lives,” Murthy said.

Murthy’s latest remarks double down on his warning last week that misinformation on COVID-19 poses “a serious threat to public health.”

“My concern is that we’re not seeing nearly enough progress here,” Murthy told CNN. “And that’s one of the reasons I issued this advisory. It’s not entirely about the tech companies. I issued this advisory to call the entire country to action. Technology companies have an important role, particularly when it comes to being transparent with the public about how much misinformation is flowing in their sites.”

Asked whether he thinks conservative media such as Fox News is also “killing people” by letting misinformation on COVID-19 run rampant, nodding to Biden’s criticism of Facebook, Murthy stopped short of singling out Fox News, but noted that “all of us” have an obligation to “share the truth” on health matters.

“I think all of us, including the media, including individuals, health professionals, have a responsibility to share the truth about health, as science dictates, as science informs us,” Murthy said. “And unless we do that, unless we are honest about the consequences of our communication with people, unless we are rigorous about ensuring that what we communicate is actually sourced from science, and not from an opinion, on critical issues like the vaccine, then we are going to ultimately put people at risk.”

Murthy, however, made clear that he is troubled by anti-vaccine rhetoric.

“That is my great worry,” Murthy said. “People all across our country, and I hear from folks all the time, who are struggling to make decisions about their health. After this very difficult year we’ve been through, people deserve to have access to accurate information.”

“My worry is that all this misinformation that’s floating around is having a real cost that can be measured in lives lost. And that is just tragic,” Murthy added.

Watch Murthy’s remarks below:

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