WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is stepping up efforts to combat “vaccine and health misinformation” and have social media platforms regulate and restrict speech and content related to the coronavirus and vaccinations.
The U.S. Surgeon General and Biden administration announced the effort to combat misinformation on July 15. It calls for health education campaigns and training for school kids and journalists.
"Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic," said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. "As Surgeon General, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk. From the tech and social media companies who must do more to address the spread on their platforms, to all of us identifying and avoiding sharing misinformation, tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation."
The U.S. government recommendations include encouraging more regulations of speech and content by social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube . The government also wants more accounts and channels to be restricted or banned if they violate “platform policies.”
“Platforms should increase staffing of multilingual content moderation teams and improve the effectiveness of machine learning algorithms in languages other than English since non English-language misinformation continues to proliferate,” the government report said. “Platforms should also address misinformation in live streams, which are more difficult to moderate due to their temporary nature and use of audio and video. Prioritize early detection of misinformation "super-spreaders" and repeat offenders. Impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies.”
The effort raises concerns about free speech and erosion of dissent and differing points of view. “They're censoring to protect us and keep us safe because they love us. They read Orwell as a how-to manual,” said Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and author, who is critical of government and social media restrictions on speech and pushbacks against dissent.
The U.S. government effort aims to take on vaccine hesitancy and resistance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports 59.2% of the U.S. population — or 160.4 million people — are fully vaccinated.
Still, there are those who are skeptical or opposed to getting COVID vaccines stemming historical or contemporary distrust of the government as well as those who don’t want to get shot because of health, spiritual and religious reasons. Those range from African Americans and Hispanics with historical distrust of the government to Trump voters and libertarians with contemporary concerns.
The federal report calls for “health literacy programs” starting in elementary schools as well as training for journalists and the news media.
“Media, science, digital, data, and health literacy programs should be implemented across all educational settings, including elementary, secondary, post-secondary and community settings,” the report reads.
The government wants the effort to “train journalists, editors, and others to recognize, correct, and avoid amplifying misinformation. Media organizations should develop in-house training programs and partner with journalism schools, nonprofits, technology platforms, and others to democratize access to high-quality training for all media outlets.”
Skeptics point out that social media platforms have already been restricting anti-vaccine content and there are plenty of promotions of vaccines via public relations campaigns, celebrities and friendly media coverage.
“They have a massive public messaging program! Partners at every major media organization! The largest PR budget on earth! Literally no one hasn't heard the official stance on vaccines over and over. You really think it's necessary, on top of that, to censor Facebook posts,” said Matt Taibbi, an author and writer, via Twitter.
He also pointed to media coverage and establishment wisdom in the run up to the Iraq War. “So the government is the arbiter of what's a lie or not? How'd that work out with WMDs," he said.