Fighting misinformation is now a focus of the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, with Dr. Vivek Murthy releasing an advisory last week hoping to “raise the bar for sharing health information by checking sources before sharing.”
“I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort,” he said.
Murthy’s call to action also implored social media sites to do more to help quell harmful information, is a welcome move, according to experts, but could be too little too late.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told Yahoo Finance the advisory is too basic for a complex problem that has been festering for years.
“The failing of the document is it does not acknowledge the depth and breadth of the misinformation empire which has been enabled in part by the silence of the (U.S. health) agencies over the past few years,” Hotez said.
“This is now an empire that dominates not only social media but the internet, video platforms, cable news networks, really all forms of human interaction,” he added.
Hotez says he has for years been sounding the alarm, only to be told by government agencies that addressing the movement would “give them a platform and oxygen.”
Murthy, at a press conference with Press Secretary Jen Psaki, said the spread of misinformation throughout the pandemic has cost unnecessary loss of life and infections.
“Today we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health. And while it often appears innocuous on social media apps, and retail sites for search engines. The truth is misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions,” Murthy said.
Dr. Arthur Caplan, one of the nation’s top bioethicists and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine, told Yahoo Finance the industry has experienced a breakdown in the way science is communicated, and it is also lagging in its willingness to engage with newer platforms.
“Social media has overwhelmed the old way of getting information out … Science has to do better in terms of getting its voice heard…and we have to call out false information. Most of what I see on Fox (News) opinion is just wrong,” Caplan said.
Caplan told Yahoo Finance that the traditional routes of scientists speaking at a press conference or in interviews to reporters who specialize in science and health coverage used to be the proper way to get accurate information out.
“If people were to be asked today who their scientist experts are, I think they might start talking about Fox News, or a celebrity, or someone who is prominent in the anti-vaccine (anti-vax) movement, because they see them a lot on social media,” Caplan said.
Beyond looking for sources that help cast doubt about vaccines and science, anti-vaxxers also look for information that makes it easy to create mistrust. In particular, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who sits on Pfizer’s (PFE) board, has been an easy target.
“All anti-vaxxers are on the lookout for anything that can compromise the credibility of people who speak for science. Their biggest target is pharma, their second biggest target is biotech. They’re suggesting all the time that they’re buying influence to promote vaccines,” Caplan said.
But the data speaks for itself, especially for vaccines, removing any need to buy an advocate, Caplan said.
“You just have to look at the morgue, and you have to look … in the ICU’s, and then see what happens when you vaccinate,” he said.
In addition, any spokesperson or representative of any company is always required to be transparent and disclose their connections – especially in public settings – as a conflict of interest. In some cases, though, it may be better for them not to opine on certain topics – like whether or not Americans will need a booster, since Pfizer has a clear stake in that question,” Caplan said.
“Generally speaking, you can’t open yourself up to attack as someone who’s conflicted or someone who’s got a financial stake in the game. That’s just an anti-vax trope that they love to hit again and again,” he added.
Despite far-right support of some of the conspiracy theories and misinformation, some Republicans have stepped up to express support of vaccines and science, and recent reports have identified a dozen key sources of false information and avenues for spreading them.
But, Hotez said, the attention will do little to douse the forest fire of misinformation.
“This is an international, globalized, anti-vaccine, anti-science empire that has gone beyond the confines of the U.S., even though it started in the U.S.,” he said.
As a result, he said, the U.S. government is failing to realize that even if social media blocked the sources tomorrow, “the empire would not go away.”
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