U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory Thursday urging the public to help limit the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, which he says has led to the slowdown of the U.S. vaccination program.
In Murthy’s advisory, the first he has issued since taking office earlier this year, the surgeon general calls health misinformation “a serious threat to public health” that can “cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts.”
He points to a recent study showing that even brief exposure to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation has made people less likely to want to get vaccinated, at a time when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports about one-third of U.S. adults are still not vaccinated.
The surgeon general said misinformation also has led to harassment and violence against public health workers, and other professions seeking to communicate or enforce public health measures.
Murthy differentiates between misinformation, and disinformation, which is wrong information spread intentionally for financial gain or political advantage, for example. He says people who share misinformation often do so out of confusion or honest efforts to get the facts.
The surgeon general suggests misinformation is often framed in a sensational or provocative manner, which makes it spread more easily on social media platforms that use algorithms rewarding “likes” and comments or reactions to material that is posted.
Murthy called on the public to verify accuracy of information they receive by checking with trustworthy and credible sources. He said, “If you’re not sure, don’t share.”
He also encouraged people to engage with friends and family on the issue.
“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,” he said.
The surgeon general also called on tech companies to “tweak their algorithms” to avoid amplifying misinformation.