The U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been stunted in part due to the ease and speed with which misinformation spreads via the internet and social media —creating an additional barrier for government officials and experts to ensure the general public remains well-informed.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy places the blame on key technology companies — but also believes that everyone in the country can play a role in halting the spread of misinformation.
"You don't have to have a medical degree to be a powerful messenger when it comes to helping people protect themselves against COVID-19," Murthy said at Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit. To "truly tackle misinformation requires everybody," he said.
The reason for such an all-hands-on-deck approach is in large part because the information sharing landscape has changed in recent years.
"You know ... when my predecessor, C. Everett Koop was surgeon general, he did an extraordinary job talking about tobacco and HIV. But back in that day, you could actually speak to the majority of the country through a few newspapers and a few news channels. That has changed entirely," Murthy said.
There are now a plethora of avenues for information to pass through.
"We're a big, diverse country. Not everyone trusts the same people or the same institutions. So people need to hear the message from different messengers, through different channels," Murthy said.
It's why the COVID-19 Community Corps was created, which includes more than 16,000 individuals across the country including those in churches, rural areas, community organizations, urban areas, and more that partner with the government to help spread factual information.
And the blueprint is being used to stand up a new effort aimed at providing information to parents.
"We're also building a special Parent Leadership Corps of parents out there who can talk to fellow parents and help them get the facts and make a decision that will help protect their child," Murthy said.
He noted that having so many grassroots partners helps get the best information to a larger group of people.
"It requires individuals to be more thoughtful about what we are sharing, and to raise our bar, so that if we're not sure something is coming from a credible scientific source, don't share it," Murthy said.
But government also has a role to play, as well as the technology platforms, such as social media, that have until recently not interfered with who is sharing what on the site unless it is flagged as offensive.
Murthy did not address the greater role government could play — especially in light of its absence on some of the platforms used to disseminate disinformation. But he pointed to the technology companies and their leaders' roles in fighting back.
"Look, I don't think that the people who run most of these technology platforms are bad people who are trying to cause harm. But what is not OK is for the companies to allow the continued proliferation of this misinformation while taking only half-measures to address it. This is costing us lives. It's costing people their health in the middle of the worst pandemic we've seen in our lifetimes. And I think companies have a moral responsibility to step up, to do the right thing, and to protect people from the terrible harms of misinformation," Murthy said.
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