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U.S. Surgeon General lambasts social media as urgent health threat

Conservatives and digital rights experts criticize the Biden administration’s recommendations on reforming social media

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy lambasted social media companies for their role in a pandemic fueled by health misinformation. In calling on Americans to come together to fight the behemoth of disinformation in a 22-page report, Murthy assailed not only the tech giants but teachers, doctors, journalists and academics, as well as school children, families and friendship groups, calling on them to do more to fight fake news. But the social media companies came under most scrutiny.

The report immediately touched off well defined political hotwires. Conservative pundits decried freedom of speech infringement, painting a picture of the government dictating to social media companies what content they can allow on their platforms. 

The report was couched in the language of togetherness, making suggestions for what we can all do to fight fake news. To pitch in, the social media giants could, Murthy wrote, consider letting academics see how platforms moderate content, and re-jig their recommendation algorithm to stop prioritizing fake news. 

That won’t happen, said David Robert Grimes, a scientist and vaccine advocate who campaigns against misinformation. “I’ve always said social media platforms do not give a continental damn about the ramifications of what’s on their platforms,” he said. “They care about engagement; they are not really going to shut down communities of hundreds of thousands of very active users unless they are forced to do that by legislation.”

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Countering Digital Hate, whose research was cited in the report, was in agreement. “I’m delighted the White House has acknowledged our research and recognized that the disinformation does pose a public health threat that amounts to a crisis,” he said. “The trouble is that asking people to fix it and relying on voluntary measures by social media companies just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.”

The report also had advice for how to psychologically combat misinformation – Murthy called on people to speak gently to family members about their medical misjudgements, advising them to “stay calm, and don’t expect success from one conversation.” 

Murthy advocated for more research into techniques like “pre-bunking” where falsehoods are pre-emptively quashed before conspiracy theories can gain ground. Psychological studies suggest that priming people to spot fake narratives before they encounter them in the wild is a highly effective way to combat disinformation. “You can immunize people against falsehoods,” Grimes explained. There’s just one problem: “Social media has meant that the falsehoods are already out there. Prebunking is like a very slow vaccine rollout when there’s a raging pandemic that’s highly infectious.” 

Ahmed was also skeptical: “this behavioral change stuff is not enough. We’re not on a level playing field,” he said. “The playing field is tilted toward the bad guys because the algorithm recognizes that conspiracism is highly addictive, so it makes people spend more time on the site and actively serves it up to them.”

The surgeon general also called on the American education system to teach students critical thinking and media and health literacy skills. 

This, Grimes said, would take generations – but will be key to fighting the infodemic once and for all. “We have to treat information as potentially carcinogenic,” he said. “Before you hit share, especially if that information chimes with what you want to be true, you have to question it twice as hard. We’re bad at doing that. And that is why social media is like crack cocaine.”

Erica Hellerstein contributed to reporting.

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