Misinformation is an urgent threat that prolongs the pandemic and puts people at risk

In June 2021 I posted an article from the WHO on the “infodemic” – the flood of information on the COVID-19 pandemic – and the need to address the spread of misinformation and disinformation in social media. I did so since I am convinced that misinformation is an urgent public health threat – and also a threat to democracy and values of social justice.

Big voices are tackling the issue. U.S. President Joe Biden warned last July that the spread of COVID-19 misinformation on social media is "killing people." He was responding to a question from a reporter about the alleged role of "platforms like Facebook" in spreading falsehoods about vaccines and the pandemic. The White House has been increasing its pressure on social media companies to tackle disinformation. "They're killing people," Biden told reporters at the White House. "The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated." US health officials have warned that the country's current spike in COVID-19 deaths and infections is exclusively hitting unvaccinated communities.

Biden was building on work done by his Surgeon General. In July, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the first Surgeon General's Advisory of this Administration to warn the American public about the urgent threat of health misinformation. The remainder of this article is a segment from the text of the Surgeon General’s Advisory. For ease of reading, I have removed the citations in the text. You can find them by going to the source.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been exposed to a great deal of information: news, public health guidance, fact sheets, infographics, research, opinions, rumors, myths, falsehoods, and more. The World Health Organization and the United Nations have characterized this unprecedented spread of information as an “infodemic.”

While information has helped people stay safe throughout the pandemic, it has at times led to confusion. For example, scientific knowledge about COVID-19 has evolved rapidly over the past year, sometimes leading to changes in public health recommendations. Updating assessments and recommendations based on new evidence is an essential part of the scientific process, and further changes are to be expected as we continue learning more about COVID-19. But without sufficient communication that provides clarity and context, many people have had trouble figuring out what to believe, which sources to trust, and how to keep up with changing knowledge and guidance.

Amid all this information, many people have also been exposed to health misinformation: information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time. Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments. For example, a recent study showed that even brief exposure to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation made people less likely to want a COVID-19 vaccine. Misinformation has also led to harassment of and violence against public health workers, health professionals, airline staff, and other frontline workers tasked with communicating evolving public health measures.

Misinformation can sometimes be spread intentionally to serve a malicious purpose, such as to trick people into believing something for financial gain or political advantage. This is usually called “disinformation.” But many people who share misinformation aren’t trying to misinform. Instead, they may be raising a concern, making sense of conflicting information, or seeking answers to honest questions.

Health misinformation is not a recent phenomenon. In the late 1990s, a poorly designed study, later retracted, falsely claimed that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Even after the retraction, the claim gained some traction and contributed to lower immunization rates over the next twenty years. Just since 2017, we have seen measles outbreaks in Washington State, Minnesota, New York City, and other areas. Health misinformation is also a global problem. In South Africa, for example, “AIDS denialism”—a false belief denying that HIV causes AIDS—was adopted at the highest levels of the national government, reducing access to effective treatment and contributing to more than 330,000 deaths between 2000 and 2005. Health misinformation has also reduced the willingness of people to seek effective treatment for cancer, heart disease, and other conditions.

In recent years, the rapidly changing information environment has made it easier for misinformation to spread at unprecedented speed and scale, especially on social media and online retail sites, as well as via search engines. Misinformation tends to spread quickly on these platforms for several reasons.

First, misinformation is often framed in a sensational and emotional manner that can connect viscerally, distort memory, align with cognitive biases, and heighten psychological responses such as anxiety. People can feel a sense of urgency to react to and share emotionally charged misinformation with others, enabling it to spread quickly and go “viral.”

Second, product features built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation. 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. One study found that false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be shared on social media than true stories.

Third, algorithms that determine what users see online often prioritize content based on its popularity or similarity to previously seen content. 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 growing number of places people go to for information—such as smaller outlets and online forums— has also made misinformation harder to find and correct. And, although media outlets can help inform and educate consumers, they can sometimes inadvertently amplify false or misleading narratives.

Misinformation also thrives in the absence of easily accessible, credible information. When people look for information online and see limited or contradictory search results, they may be left confused or misinformed.

More broadly, misinformation tends to flourish in environments of significant societal division, animosity, and distrust. For example, distrust of the health care system due to experiences with racism and other inequities may make it easier for misinformation to spread in some communities. Growing polarization, including in the political sphere, may also contribute to the spread of misinformation.

Because it pollutes our information environment, misinformation is harmful to individual and public health. Together, we have the power to build a healthier information environment. Just as we have all benefited from efforts to improve air and water quality, we can all benefit from taking steps to improve the quality of health information we consume. Limiting the prevalence and impact of misinformation will help all of us make more informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones and communities.

This advisory lays out how the nation can confront health misinformation by helping individuals, families, and communities better identify and limit its spread, and issues a number of ways institutions in education, media, medicine, research, and government stakeholders can approach this issue. It also underscores the urgent need for technology and social media companies to address the way misinformation and disinformation spread on their platforms, threatening people's health.

[Read the full document that lays out what everyone can do to take action on addressing health misinformation].