(Nexstar/AP/KXAN) — President Joe Biden said Facebook and other platforms are “killing people” by allowing misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to spread.
“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that’s — they’re killing people,” Biden said Friday on the south lawn of the White House.
During a press briefing on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki referred to it as “a life or death issue.”
“We’re dealing with a life or death issue here and so everybody has a role to play in making sure there’s accurate information,” Psaki said. “They’re a private sector company. They’re gonna make decisions about additional steps they can take. It’s clear there are more that can be taken.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Thursday called for a national effort to fight misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, urging tech companies, health care workers, journalists and everyday Americans to do more to address an “urgent threat” to public health.
In a 22-page advisory, his first as Biden’s surgeon general, Murthy wrote that bogus claims have led people to reject vaccines and public health advice on masks and social distancing, undermining efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic and putting lives at risk.
The warning comes as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations has slowed throughout the U.S., in part because of vaccine opposition fueled by unsubstantiated claims about the safety of immunizations and despite the U.S. death toll recently passing 600,000.
Murthy, who also served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, noted that surgeon general advisories have typically focused on physical threats to health, such as tobacco. Misinformation about COVID-19, deemed an “infodemic” by the World Health Organization, can be just as deadly, he said.
“Misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” Murthy said during remarks to reporters Thursday at the White House. “We must confront misinformation as a nation. Lives are depending on it.”
Given the role the internet plays in spreading health misinformation, Murthy said technology companies and social media platforms must make meaningful changes to their products and software to reduce the spread of misinformation while increasing access to authoritative, fact-based sources.
Too often, he said, the platforms are built to encourage, not counter, the spread of misinformation.
“We are asking them to step up,” Murthy said. “We can’t wait longer for them to take aggressive action.”
The criticism is not new, and Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms have defended their work to stem the tide of misinformation. In a response to Murthy, Twitter noted that it has removed more than 40,000 pieces of content that violated its COVID-19 misinformation rules.
“We agree with the surgeon general,” Twitter said in a statement. “Tackling health misinformation takes a whole-of-society approach.”
Murthy’s recommendations went beyond tech firms. Teachers, he said, should expand lessons on media literacy and critical thinking. Journalists, he suggested, should work to responsibly debunk health misinformation without inadvertently spreading it further. And public health professionals, he added, should do a better job answering questions and explaining why public health guidelines sometimes change based on new information.
As for everyday Americans, Murthy urged them to verify questionable health information with trusted sources like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to exercise critical thinking when exposed to unverified claims. If people have loved ones or friends who believe or spread misinformation, he said, it’s best to engage by listening and asking questions rather than by confronting them.
While some groups that push health misinformation do so for profit or other motives, many Americans may be spreading false information without realizing it, according to the advisory.
“Misinformation hasn’t just harmed our physical health — it has also divided our families, friends, and communities,” Murthy wrote in the advisory. “The only way to address health misinformation is to recognize that all of us, in every sector of society, have a responsibility to act.”
Facebook says it’s already doing a lot to block misinformation spread right now.
“We’ve removed more than 18 million pieces of Covid misinformation [and] removed accounts that repeatedly break these rules,” Facebook said in a Friday statement, according to BBC. But many online say it’s too little and too late: citing previous, seeming hypocritical methods when choosing which posts to show or not show.
Facebook has long been criticized for often-confusing censorship policies. A 2017 research presentation by the company itself indicated that its algorithm was recommending extremist groups to users. Research showed Facebook recommendations were responsible for 64% of joins to these groups.
Aside from data showing Facebook algorithms highlighted conservative-leaning content during the 2016 Presidential Election, information from the 2020 Presidential Election showed same such pages accounted for 45% of all interactions on the site.
Paul M. Barrett and J. Grant Sims, authors of NYU study “False Accusation: The Unfounded Claim that Social Media Companies Censor Conservatives,” metric data from monitoring site CrowdTangle shows that from September 3 to November 3, 2020 (Election Day), former President Donald Trump dominated in social reach among all politicians.
On Facebook alone, Trump received 87% of total interactions on campaign posts — compared to now-President Biden’s 13%.
CrowdTangle data also showed that from January 1 to Election Day 2020, the top engagement-getting news accounts were conservative Fox News in first place (with 448 million total interactions) and far-right media outlet Breitbart in second (294 million). The third was another conservative-leaning source, The Daily Caller.
Despite this, many top conservatives — including still-banned former President Donald Trump — claim they have been hushed on social media.
Another study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in collaboration with Politico, “Disinformation Briefing: Narratives around Black Lives Matter and voter fraud,” found conservative posts spreading inaccuracies about the two topics were amplified. Among these posts that proliferated were still unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud resulted in a stolen election.
On Friday and Saturday, #DeleteFacebook trended across Twitter worldwide, where users flocked to knock the social media juggernaut — and call for others to ditch it for good.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.