The nation's top doctor, Vivek Murthy, says misinformation will keep sowing mistrust and endangering lives unless all Americans do their part to fight it.



COVID cases are rising again in some parts of the United States, and the U.S. surgeon general is calling for a war against health misinformation. He spoke with NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says misinformation about vaccines and health issues has been a problem for decades. But with the pandemic, it can't be ignored anymore.

VIVEK MURTHY: COVID has really brought into sharp focus the full extent of damage that health misinformation is doing.

BRUMFIEL: Vaccines against the coronavirus are safe and incredibly effective, but many people are hesitant to get one because of what they read online. Dr. Murthy says, according to polling, two-thirds of unvaccinated adults either believe vaccine myths or are unsure about whether they're true.

MURTHY: Every life that is lost to COVID-19 when we have vaccines available is a preventable tragedy.

BRUMFIEL: So today, Murthy is putting out a surgeon general's advisory on the dangers of misinformation. It calls on all Americans to try and do their part to fight it. In some cases, that means simply not sharing something questionable you read online.

MURTHY: If you're not sure, not sharing is actually often the prudent thing to do.

BRUMFIEL: In his advisory, Murthy also calls on Big Tech companies to do more to combat health misinformation. He'd like to see them share more data with researchers and the government.

MURTHY: The tech companies actually have a much better sense of how much misinformation is being transacted on their platforms than we do. And without understanding the full extent of it, it's hard to formulate the most effective strategies.

BRUMFIEL: The new surgeon general's advisory is welcome news to Imran Ahmed. He's chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a group that tracks COVID misinformation online. But he thinks calling on individual Americans to fight misinformation won't be enough. He's identified a dozen major spreaders of vaccine myths, and many continue to operate on social media unchecked.

IMRAN AHMED: It means that they've still got millions of viewers being pumped misinformation and lies on a daily basis, sharing it to other people.

BRUMFIEL: He'd like to see the surgeon general putting even more pressure on social media platforms.

AHMED: On tobacco packets, they say that tobacco kills. On social media, we need a surgeon general's warning - misinformation kills.

BRUMFIEL: Both Murthy and Ahmed agree - social media is no place to seek health advice. Instead, talk to your doctor.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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