One of the things that both impresses and frightens me about the internet is how it can give so many people a voice. Anyone can make or say anything online, which can be great when you see content creators rise to prominence on the back of their talent alone. It can be not so great, and frankly downright dangerous, when it comes to people using their platforms to spread lies and misinformation. Throughout the pandemic, misinformation about the coronavirus has spread rapidly across social media sites, becoming such a problem that the surgeon general issued an advisory declaring it an “urgent threat” to public safety.
According to ABC News, Dr. Vivek Murthy’s first advisory under the Biden administration was focused on the negative effect misinformation and disinformation has had on combating the ongoing pandemic. It cites misinformation as having undermined vaccination efforts, led to people rejecting basic public safety measures such as wearing a mask, and has generally prolonged the pandemic.
“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.”
The advisory goes on to say that both individuals and institutions have a “moral and civic responsibility,” to combat misinformation. While the advisory doesn’t call out Republicans by name, don’t worry, I will. Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen senators, governors, and even the former president himself pushback against mask-wearing, social distancing measures and vaccines. They somehow managed to politicize self-preservation, and for some reason a large portion of the country went along with it.
Murthy also calls on social media sites and tech companies to “take more responsibility to stop online spread of health misinformation.” TikTok, which greatly increased in popularity throughout the pandemic, has become a bastion of COVID misinformation. The surgeon general wrote that social media sites have greatly contributed to the “unprecedented speed and scale” of 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 comes as the delta variant of COVID-19 has become the predominant strain in the country. The variant, which is more transmissible than previous strains, has hit states with low vaccination rates particularly hard.