Surgeon general criticizes Big Tech’s COVID-19 misinformation response

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Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy acknowledged that Big Tech has taken some “positive steps” to combat misinformation about coronavirus vaccines but “not enough” – amid President Biden’s accusation that Facebook is “killing people” by failing to rid its platform of inaccurate information. 

Murthy was asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” about Facebook’s statement in response, saying the White House is looking for a scapegoat to blame for the lag in vaccinations and claiming that administration officials have praised the work of the social media giant. 

“I’ve been very consistent in what I’ve said to the technology companies, and I’ve spoken with a number of them over the last many months, and my team has as well. And what we have effectively said is when we see steps that are good, that are being taken, we should acknowledge those. And there have been some positive steps taken by these technology companies,” he told host Dana Bash, noting that some promoted material from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“But what I’ve also said to them, publicly and privately, is that it’s not enough. That we’re still seeing a proliferation of misinformation online, and we know that health misinformation harms people’s health. It costs them their lives,” Murthy said. 

He said the misinformation being dispersed online confuses people trying to find accurate medical and health information – which can have deadly consequences. 

“I’ve seen that as a doctor over the years as patients have struggled with health misinformation. And here’s the key thing to remember: health misinformation takes away our freedom and our power to make decisions for us and for our families,” he said. 

“And that’s a problem, and these platforms have to recognize they played a major role in the increase in speed and scale with which misinformation is spreading,” Murthy said. 

Biden was asked last Friday about Facebook and other media outlets allowing misinformation to spread amid a decline in vaccination rates and a rise in coronavirus cases.

“They’re killing people. The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people,” ​the president told reporters. ​

His comments came shortly after White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the ​administration is “regularly” working with the social media platforms to block the flow of bad information.

“We are regularly making sure social media platforms are aware of the latest narratives dangerous to public health that we and many other Americans are seeing across all of social and traditional media,” Psaki said​ at the White House briefing.​

“There’s about 12 people who are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” she said.

Facebook issued a statement blasting the president’s comments and lauding itself for informing its users about the pandemic.

“We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

“The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet.”​

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Murthy was asked if the White House’s coordination with the Silicon Valley titans smacks of Big Brother.

Murthy said many Americans are left confused by the competing pieces of information out there – both accurate and inaccurate. 

“They’re not sure what to do to protect their children, to protect their elderly parents, to protect themselves. And what all of us have the right to is accurate information so we can make the right decisions for us and for our families. … That is not the reality for far too many people. But they’re inundated with misinformation,” he said on Fox News.

“And all of us​ – technology companies, individuals, health care professionals, and government​ -have roles that they can play in addressing and slowing the spread of misinformation​,” he said. ​

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