False claims about health topics and COVID-19 misinformation put the public at serious risk, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., wrote in a new advisory this week. The document outlines just how dangerous the spread of this COVID-19 misinformation can be—and offers a plan for all of us to help stop it from spreading.
“I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts,” Dr. Murthy wrote in the advisory.
The warning comes at a precarious time during the COVID-19 pandemic: Only 59% of adults in the country are fully vaccinated while the extra-transmissible coronavirus variant delta continues to spread. Unfortunately, myths about the vaccines that can dissuade people from getting them are spreading as well.
We’ve been exposed to a ton of misinformation during the pandemic, the advisory says. And although this type of bad information has always been around and always had the potential to spread, the internet and social media have made it much easier for false claims to spread widely and quickly. A recent study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that just 12 people are responsible for 65% of vaccine disinformation on social media.
Combatting the spread of misinformation will take actions from local and national government, educational institutions, the media, health organizations, and major tech companies in order to give the public the tools they need to identify false claims. But there are some things individuals can do to avoid unintentionally spreading misinformation about health topics, the advisory says, particularly COVID-19:
- First, verify the accuracy of a post on social media before you share it. You can get a better sense of a claim’s validity by checking the comments to see if anyone has posted evidence that it’s true, searching trusted sites to see if they’ve also shared the claim, or trying to track down the original source of the information, the News Literacy Project says. And if you’re not sure, it’s better to err on the side of caution and just not share it.
- Next, start talking to your friends and family about the problem of misinformation so that everyone in your circle can be on the lookout for false claims. If someone you’re close with believes myths about COVID-19, engage with them respectfully and empathetically. Direct them to respected sources of information and offer yourself as someone they can come to if they have questions.
- Finally, find ways to engage your wider community about the issues of health misinformation. For example, you could invite health experts to talk to your school or another community group about COVID-19 vaccine myths.
“Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort,” Dr. Murthy said in the report. Doing your part to avoid the spread of false information is yet another way to make sure we all stay as safe as possible during the pandemic and beyond.