Vivek H. Murthy
Statement and Q&A on the Dangers of Health Misinformation
delivered 15 July 2021, White House, Washington, D.C.
Hello, everyone. How are you? It’s nice to see you all today. And thank you, Jen, for that very kind introduction.
As all of you know, we’ve come a long way in our fight against COVID-19, and we’ve come a long way thanks to the efforts of many, many people across communities in the United States.
Right now, we are seeing COVID deaths markedly down from their peak in January. We have 160 million people who have been fully vaccinated. And hundreds of thousands of people each day are choosing to get vaccinated. That is all good news.
But we are not out of the woods yet. Millions of Americans are still not protected against COVID-19, and we are seeing more infections among those who are unvaccinated. And that’s why I want to talk to you today about one of the biggest obstacles that’s preventing us from ending this pandemic.
Today, I issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of health misinformation. Surgeon General Advisories are reserved for urgent public health threats. 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.
Health misinformation is "false, inaccurate, or misleading information about health, according to the best evidence at the time." And while it often appears innocuous on social media apps and 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.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, health misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks in high-risk settings. It’s led them to turn down proven treatments and to choose not to get vaccinated. This has led to avoidable illnesses and death. Simply put, health [mis]information has cost us lives.
Now, health misinformation didn’t start with COVID-19. What’s different now though is the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spreading. Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users. They’ve allowed people who intentionally spread misinformation -- what we call “disinformation” -- to have extraordinary reach.
They’ve designed product features, such as “Like” buttons, that reward us for sharing emotionally-charged content, not accurate content. And their algorithms tend to give us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation.
Now, we need an all-of-society approach to fight misinformation. And that’s why this advisory that I issued today has recommendations for everyone.
First, we include recommendations for individuals and families. We ask people to raise the bar for sharing health information by checking sources before they share, to ensure that information is backed by credible, scientific sources. As we say in the advisory, “If you’re not sure, don’t share.”
Second, we’re asking health organizations to proactively address misinformation with their patients. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics is announcing an educational campaign to help parents navigate online health information. I’m encouraged to see this commitment. And, again, this is just the beginning.
Third, we’re asking educational institutions to help improve health information literacy.
We’re asking researchers and foundations as well to help us learn more about how health [mis]information spreads and how to stop it.
Today, the Rockefeller Foundation is announcing a $13.5 million commitment to counter health misinformation. The Digital Public Library of America is announcing that they will convene a set of librarians, scholars, journalists, and civic leaders to confront health misinformation together.
Fourth, we’re saying we expect more from our technology companies. We’re asking them to operate with greater transparency and accountability. We’re asking them to monitor misinformation more closely. We’re asking them to consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.
Fifth, we’re also asking news organizations to proactively address the public’s questions without inadvertently giving a platform to health misinformation that can harm their audiences.
And sixth, we know that government can play an important role too by investing in research, by bringing individuals and organizations together to address misinformation, and by supporting groups that are working on this issue.
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 and who wishes each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
I say that also as a concerned father of two young children who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, but I know that our kids are depending on all of us to get vaccinated to shield them from this virus.
Every week, I talk to doctors and nurses across our country who are burning out as they care for more and more patients with COVID-19 who never got vaccinated -- all too often because they were misled by misinformation.
We must confront misinformation as a nation. Every one of us has the power and the responsibility to make a difference in this fight. Lives are depending on it.
You can read the full advisory at:
Thanks so much for your time. And I’ll turn it to Jen.
Ms. Psaki: Andrea.
Question: Andrea Shalal with Reuters. I wanted to ask you whether you see any evidence at all that the misinformation or disinformation that you’re seeing comes from any nefarious sources. Are you seeing some structures behind the scenes that point to who or what might be behind them? We’ve seen Russian disinformation in the past. We’ve seen, kind of, that hybrid warfare. Are you seeing any indication that there could be nation states behind this disinformation?
Surgeon General Murthy: Well, Andrea, thank you for the question. The misinformation that we’re seeing comes from multiple sources. Yes, there is disinformation that is coming from bad actors. But what is also important to point out is that much of the misinformation that is circulating online is often coming from individuals who don’t have bad intentions, but who are unintentionally sharing information that they think might be helpful.
And that’s why, in this advisory, we make it very clear that among the things we’re asking individuals to do is to pause before they share, to check sources. And if they’re not sure if a source is credible, to not share. You know, one of the things we have said, again, is that when it comes to misinformation, not sharing is caring -- unlike what many of our moms taught us earlier in life.
Ms. Psaki: Go ahead, Kaitlan.
Question: Thank you very much. Surgeon General, is misinformation the number one reason why people are not getting vaccinated?
Surgeon General Murthy: Well, Kaitlan, it’s one of several reasons why people are not getting vaccinated, but it’s a very important one because what we know from polls, Kaitlan, is that two thirds of people who are not vaccinated either believe common myths about the COVID-19 vaccine or think some of those myths might be true. Myths like, “You can get COVID from the vaccine,” which is absolutely not true. So we know that it’s not the only driver that’s leading people not to be vaccinated, but it is a very important one.
Question: And do you personally believe that public figures and public companies that are helping spread misinformation about the vaccine should be held accountable?
Surgeon General Murthy: Well, I think in a moment like this when we see misinformation literally costing us our loved ones, costing us lives, all of us have to ask: How we can be more accountable and responsible for the information that we share?
And those of us who may have larger platforms, I think bear a greater responsibility to think about that. But the bottom line is all of us have an important role here to play, and technology companies have a particularly important role.
We know that the dramatic increase in the speed -- speed and scale of spreading misinformation has, in part, been enabled by these platforms. So that’s why in this advisory today, we are asking them to step up. We know they have taken some steps to address misinformation, but much, much more has to be done. And we can’t wait longer for them to take aggressive action because it’s costing people their lives.
Ms. Psaki: Go ahead in the middle, and then Rachel. And then, unfortunately, he has to go. Go ahead.
Question: So, the reality is a lot of the health misinformation you were citing came from this lectern last year. I mean, what do you think the best approach is to counter or deal with misinformation that comes from public officials -- people in position of authority?
Surgeon General Murthy: Well, what I would say is that when it comes to determining what is accurate, in terms of health information, science has to guide us. And the good news is that we have credible science individuals in our country. We have doctors and nurses in communities. We have public health departments and the CDC. We have medical schools, nursing schools, and healthcare institutions.
These should be our sources of credibility when it comes to evaluating whether information is true or not. I think one of the greatest roles that public leaders can play is to point to scientists and to credible sources and have them speak directly to the public.
I’ll note for you that that’s one thing that this administration has done is work hard to put science, scientists, and healthcare professionals in front of cameras to -- having to speak directly to the public. That’s what we have to do more of.
The problem right now is that the voices of these credible health professionals are getting drowned out, and that’s one of the reasons we are asking technology companies to help lift up the voices of credible health authorities. It’s also why they have to do more to reduce the misinformation that’s out there so that the true voices of experts can shine through.
Ms. Psaki: Go ahead, Rachel.
Question: Thank you so much for taking my question. So are there specific elected leaders that you believe are part of the problem with pushing this misinformation?
And we had an ABC News-Washington Post poll that showed that 93 percent of Democrats say they’re vaccinated or will be vaccinated, but only 49 percent of Republicans say the same. So, how do you break through to the people who may be trusting some of these elected leaders that are pushing, maybe, some of this misinformation more than they actually trust members of your administration?
Surgeon General Murthy: Well, thanks, Rachel. You know, I think about this as I -- as I think about doctoring, and as I think about my approach to patients, which is: I recognize that each patient that I was blessed to care for is an individual, you know, regardless of what their political affiliation or their past may be. They’re an individual and I -- my goal was to understand what their needs and desires were, what their values were, and then to help them improve their health.
We have to take a similar approach here when it comes to reaching people with information about COVID-19 and the vaccine. We’ve got to recognize that sometimes the most trusted voices are not the ones that had the most followers on social media or are 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 a local doctor or a nurse, and that’s why, to reach people with accurate information, what we have to do is partner with those local trusted voices.
That’s why, in this advisory, one of the things that we point out an important role for government is to support local organizations, including healthcare professionals, so that they can get out there and speak directly to people and share that information.
These public health efforts move at the speed of trust, and we have to recognize where trust is -- you know, where those relationships are -- invest in them, support them, so that people can ultimately get the information they need to improve their health.
Ms. Psaki: Thank you so much for joining us.
Question: Jen, I have a follow-up for --
Ms. Psaki: Thank you.
Question: -- the Surgeon General on --
Ms. Psaki: I think he has to go, unfortunately. Thank you so much.
Surgeon General Murthy: Thanks so much, Jen. Thanks everyone.
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