Add misinformation to the list of public health crises

By Dennis Archambault

Recently, I spoke with a colleague about the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’ advisory on the ill-effects of misinformation “Confronting Health Misinformation.” Since when is misinformation a health issue, eh? Well, they said the same thing about violence 40 years ago, and the AMA recently argued that it’s not only a problem, it’s a public health crisis.

Misinformation was a social media problem for some time until it permeated the 2020 political debate and infested the communication surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. It was the latter that prompted U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy to write, “I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.

The Surgeon General’s report was issued last summer with almost no publicity, as influencers and political leaders spread doubt and fear about the COVID vaccine. Sadly, my colleague said, “Who listens to the Surgeon General?”

The position of Surgeon General has been part of American government for well over 150 years. It became an influential, arguably controversial position in 1964 when Surgeon General Luther Terry released “Smoking and Health,” a report which linked cigarette smoking to lung disease. Since then, there were Surgeon General reports on various health topics. Misinformation is one of the more unusual, but no less significant. In fact, misinformation is insidious in the way it further erodes confidence in the medical and scientific authorities trying to manage a public health crisis.

Unusually, Americans seem to be in line with the Surgeon General’s warning. A recent poll indicates that most Americans are concerned about misinformation. So, we not only have to fight an invisible virus, but we also must fight invisible misstatements created and perpetuated by shadow figures in the social media realm.

The Surgeon General’s report details actions that can be taken in all sectors of society. Communicators, especially health communicators, should accept this as a call to action. Certainly, society needs to “confront” this virus as it has struggled to contain and eradicate COVID-19. As the report concludes, it’s “all hands on deck:”

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, health misinformation has sowed confusion, reduced trust in public health measures, and hindered efforts to get Americans vaccinated. And misinformation hasn’t just harmed our physical health—it has also divided our families, friends, and communities.

“While health misinformation has always been a problem, today it spreads at unprecedented speed and scale. We are all still learning how to navigate this new information environment. But we know enough to be sure that misinformation is an urgent threat, and that we can and must confront it together.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.