US Surgeon General warns that health misinformation is an 'urgent threat'

And social companies need to do more to stop it.

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US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has issued an advisory warning of the dangers posed by health misinformation, calling it an “urgent threat” that social media companies and technology platforms need to do more to address.

As The New York Times points out, it’s a rather unusual step for the office of the Surgeon General, which typically issues advisories centered around specific health concerns like the opioid epidemic. In a press release, the Surgeon General said that “health misinformation has already caused significant harm” and undermined vaccination efforts.

The advisory includes a 22-page report on steps that individuals, health organizations, researchers and journalists can take to help mitigate the spread of misinformation. Notably, it also calls out social media companies, though it stops short of calling any of the platforms out by name. But the report echoes much of the criticism that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have faced during the pandemic.

“Product features built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation, the report states. “For example, social media platforms incentivize people to share content to get likes, comments, and other positive signals of engagement. These features help connect and inform people but reward engagement rather than accuracy, allowing emotionally charged misinformation to spread more easily than emotionally neutral content.”

The report also highlights the problem of algorithmic amplification, which can make it difficult for companies like Facebook to prevent misinformation from going viral.

“Algorithms that determine what users see online often prioritize content based on its popularity or similarity to previously seen content,” the report says. “As a result, a user exposed to misinformation once could see more and more of it over time, further reinforcing one’s misunderstanding. Some websites also combine different kinds of information, such as news, ads, and posts from users, into a single feed, which can leave consumers confused about the underlying source of any given piece of content.”

The report also recommends that companies “prioritize early detection of misinformation ‘super-spreaders’ and repeat offenders.” A widely cited report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found more than half of anti-vaccine misinformation online can be linked to just 12 individuals. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also referenced that same report, noting that many of these “super-spreaders” remain active on Facebook.