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WASHINGTON — On Thursday, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a new report confirming the health threats of online misinformation, which has led people to refuse COVID-19 vaccines, reject masks and other public-health measures, and use unproven treatments for COVID-19. Data cited in the surgeon general’s report show that even brief exposure to COVID-19 misinformation has made people less likely to seek out a vaccine. Misinformation has also led to increased harassment of frontline workers tasked with communicating public-health measures.

Over the past week, COVID-19 cases have surged in 45 states as the number of new cases has doubled. The surgeon general’s report presents a series of recommendations for curbing misinformation and underscores the role technology companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter play in platforming and promoting misinformation and endangering lives. The report confirms that “product features built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation,” rewarding “engagement rather than accuracy, [and] allowing emotionally charged misinformation to spread more easily than emotionally neutral content.”

The report also notes that the algorithms that determine what users see online often prioritize content based on its popularity over its accuracy and its similarity to previously seen content.  A user who sees misinformation once could see more deceitful posts over time. The amplification of false information about the pandemic and other crucial health issues has had lethal consequences.

Free Press Action Co-CEO Jessica González, the co-founder of Change the Terms, made the following statement:

“Our country’s top medical authority has just used his platform to declare that misinformation about COVID-19 and other health issues is a lethal danger. Past action from the surgeon general’s office sounded the alarm about the dangers of secondhand smoke, forced Big Tobacco and regulators to act, and saved countless lives. We hope today’s announcement has the same effect on the online threats to our lives in the form of mis- and disinformation. Like Big Tobacco companies, Big Tech platforms continually put profits over the health and safety of their users. The government must rein in Big Tech’s targeted spread of lies.

“Lives have been lost because of Big Tech’s ongoing failure to end its exploitative hate-and-lie-for-profit business model. The COVID misinformation raised by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy includes multilingual vaccine disinformation targeted at people of color, including Spanish-speaking communities. This brand of disinformation is nothing new; in fact, the platforms have long spread lies about people of color, which in turn has fomented real-world hate and violence. We won’t curb the deadly effects of Big Tech’s products without new rules that hold companies like Facebook accountable for amplifying lies and hate that impact the health, safety and well-being of our most vulnerable communities.

“Online falsehoods, outright lies and vicious hate don’t just circulate and spread on their own. Tech companies are serving them up to platform users who are most susceptible to accepting these messages and acting on them. The targeted nature of that process is made possible by Big Tech’s unfettered extraction of our demographic and behavioral data. We will continue to pressure companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to change their algorithms, policies and practices. And we implore Congress to step in and pass the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act to disrupt the way that global social-media platforms use our personal data and online behaviors to increase their profits at all costs.”

In May, Sen. Edward Markey (D–Massachusetts) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D–California) introduced the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act, which would combat civil-rights harms from the invasive privacy practices of tech companies by preventing the discriminatory use of personal information. It would also establish an interagency task force on algorithmic processes and set a safety-and-effectiveness standard for algorithms.

As a leader in the Change the Terms coalition, Free Press Action is working with over 60 civil-rights organizations to advance concrete and actionable steps that social-media companies must take immediately to reduce racist disinformation on their platforms. The Ya Basta (Enough Already) Facebook campaign demands that Facebook end its silence on its Spanish-language disinformation crisis and appoint an executive-level manager to oversee U.S. Spanish-language content-moderation policy and enforcement. The initiative also demands that Facebook publicly release the translation process of its content-moderation algorithms and hire human moderators, with specific disclosures on how moderators evaluate Spanish-language content and receive appropriate training support.

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