But calling out tech and media companies is tricky business, and the White House has danced around the question of whether it would try to regulate companies like Facebook that have become platforms for health disinformation. tropAsked about this at her Wednesday briefing, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, was noncommittal.
“Obviously, decisions to regulate or hold to account any platform would certainly be a policy decision,” she said. “But in the interim, we’re going to continue to call out disinformation and call out where that information travels.”
Health misinformation about social distancing, mask use, treatments and vaccines has been rampant during the coronavirus pandemic. The report is a sign that the Biden administration, faced with a steep decline in vaccination rates, is moving more forcefully to confront it. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and many top health experts have called for the president to do more to reach people who have yet to get shots.
While virus numbers remain at some of the lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, they are once again slowly rising, fueled by the spread of the more contagious Delta variant; vaccines are effective against the variant. Counties that voted for Mr. Biden average higher vaccination levels than those that voted for Donald Trump. Conservatives tend to decline vaccination far more often than Democrats.
The surgeon general’s report is assiduously apolitical, and does not name any specific purveyors of misinformation. But it comes as some Republican leaders, concerned that the virus is spreading quickly through conservative swaths of the country, are beginning to promote vaccination and speak out against media figures and elected officials who are casting doubt on vaccines.
Health misinformation is not a recent phenomenon — and is not limited to news media. In the 1990s, the report notes, “a poorly designed study” — later retracted — falsely claimed the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine causes autism. “Even after the retraction, the claim gained some traction and contributed to lower immunization rates over the next twenty years,” the report said.
It cites evidence of the spread of misinformation, including a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found, as of late May, that 67 percent of unvaccinated adults had heard at least one Covid-19 vaccine myth and either believed it to be true or were unsure of its truthfulness; and a Science Magazine analysis of millions of social media posts found that false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be shared than true stories.
Another recent study showed that even brief exposure to misinformation made people less likely to want a Covid-19 vaccine, the surgeon general said.