Surgeon general warns misinformation an 'urgent threat' to public health

A failure to curb health misinformation puts American lives at risk, he said.

July 15, 2021, 1:45 PM

The surgeon general on Thursday warned Americans about what he called the "urgent threat of health misinformation" amid the government's current push to boost stalling vaccination rates.

Dr. Vivek Murthy's advisory -- the first under the Biden administration -- addresses an epidemic of misinformation and disinformation, and its pernicious impact on public health -- specifically threatening the U.S. response to COVID-19. It frames misinformation as having hindered vaccination efforts, sown mistrust, caused people to reject public health measures, use unproven treatments, prolonged the pandemic and put lives at risk.

"Surgeon general advisories are reserved for urgent public health threats," Murthy said, highlighting his message in the White House briefing room Thursday. "And while those threats have often been related to what we eat, drink and smoke, today, we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation's health."

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy speaks during a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2021.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

He continued, "While it often appears innocuous on social media apps on retail sites or search engines -- the truth is that misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones. Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives.”

"On a personal note, it's painful for me to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19, could have been prevented. I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID-19 and who wishes, each and every day, that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated," Murthy added.

With a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that 93% of Democrats say they're vaccinated or will be vaccinated, but only 49% of Republicans saying the same, ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott asked Murthy how the administration will break through to Americans who may be trusting some elected leaders that are pushing misinformation of their own.

Murthy brought his answer back to his own experience as a doctor caring for patients "regardless of what their political affiliation or their past may be."

"We've got to recognize that sometimes the most trusted voices are not the ones that have the most followers on social media or the ones that have the most, you know, name recognition. Sometimes the most trusted sources are a mother or father, or a faith leader, or local doctor or a nurse," he said, detailing an effort in the advisory. "And that's why to reach people with accurate information, what we have to do is partner with those local trusted voices."

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks at a ceremony honoring care workers, July 13, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M.
Cedar Attanasio/AP

The new advisory from the surgeon general says combatting misinformation is a "moral and civic responsibility" on an individual and institutional level.

The decision to elevate this issue in his first official advisory comes as some Republicans have used the government's coronavirus response and vaccine messaging as a political wedge.

While Murthy doesn't call out by name any of the Republican elected officials who have criticized a distorted interpretation of Biden administration's vaccine push, he does suggest in the advisory that accountable "stakeholders" in the fight against misinformation include public officeholders as important public messengers.

"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."

Masked and unmasked people make their way through Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, on June 29, 2021 as the WHO urges fully vaccinated people to continue wearing masks with the rapid spread of the delta variant.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The advisory also digs into social media platforms as having greatly contributed to the "unprecedented speed and scale" of misinformation's spread and Murthy calls on technology and social media companies to "take more responsibility to stop online spread of health misinformation."

"Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, 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."

The advisory lays out how 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 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.
  • Respiratory therapist Robert Blas (left) from Veritas Vaccines administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to people at a mobile clinic in an East Los Angeles neighborhood, which has lower vaccination rates especially among the youth, on July 9, 2021.
    Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

  • Journalists and media organizations can make sure their teams are trained in recognizing, debunking and avoiding 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. In an "immediate" response to the call for a "whole of society" approach, the Rockefeller Foundation announced $13.5 million in new funding to "counter health mis- and disinformation–confusing, inaccurate, and harmful information that spreads at an unprecedented speed and scale and threatens the health and wellbeing of communities around the world."
  • 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.
  • ABC News' Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.