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Surgeon general calls out platforms over COVID-19 misinformation

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He’s suggesting changes to algorithms

Senate Health Committee Considers Nominees For HHS Appointments Photo by Caroline Brehman-Pool / Getty Images

On Thursday, the surgeon general published a new report calling on social media platforms to make new investments in combating online coronavirus misinformation.

The report calls for an all-of-society push to address vaccine and coronavirus misinformation, including sweeping policy recommendations for companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy specifically calls on companies to redesign their algorithms to “avoid amplifying misinformation.” He also suggests that they build more “friction” into sharing functions that urge users to rethink whether to share a post containing false information.

Murthy also recommends that platforms put out “clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies,” like instituting broader bans and suspensions for sharing misinformation.

Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment. According to Twitter, company officials met with the surgeon general’s office on Monday to discuss its misinformation policies.

“We agree with the Surgeon General — tackling health misinformation takes a whole-of-society approach,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Verge Thursday. “We continue to work in close consultation with global public health authorities, public health experts, and elected officials to help people find authoritative, public health information about COVID-19. We welcome the Surgeon General’s leadership and partnership in this work.”

A YouTube spokesperson told The Verge Thursday that the platform demotes “borderline videos” and surfaces “authoritative content for COVID-19-related search results, recommendations, and context panels.” The spokesperson continued, “We welcome many of the takeaways of this report and will continue working with health organizations, clinicians, and creators to increase access to high-quality health content on our platform and prevent the spread of misinformation.”

Last December, Facebook pledged to remove all COVID-19 vaccine misinformation after heightened criticism of the platform’s role in spreading misinformation. Prior to the move, Facebook only removed related misinformation that could cause “imminent physical harm.” Currently, the vaccine policy extends to all content that has been “debunked by public health experts.”

“While health misinformation has always been a problem, today it spreads at unprecedented speed and scale,” the report says. “We are all still learning how to navigate this new information environment. But we know enough to be sure that misinformation is an urgent threat, and that we can and must confront it together.”

The stern warning comes amid rising case numbers and deaths from COVID-19, falling most heavily among the unvaccinated population. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the US averaging more than 20,000 new cases per day. Deaths linked to COVID-19, typically a trailing indicator, have also begun to tick upward.

Alongside the misinformation effort, the White House has also kicked off a string of events encouraging people to get vaccinated. On Wednesday, popular actress and singer Olivia Rodrigo joined President Joe Biden at the White House to inspire young people to get vaccinated.

“It’s important to have conversations with friends and family members,” Rodrigo said at Wednesday’s press briefing, “and actually get to a vaccination site, which you can do more easily than ever before.”

Updated July 15th, 2021 at 12:33PM ET: Added a statement from Twitter.

Updated July 15th, 2021 at 4:11PM ET: Added a statement from YouTube.