'Spreading like wildfire': Fauci, surgeon general take aim at COVID misinformation online

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WASHINGTON – Biden administration public health officials took aim Sunday at social media platforms like Facebook for perceived inaction on stopping misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. It comes two days after the president himself said falsehoods online are "killing people."

Alarmed by rising coronavirus infections across the country and frustrated by persistent conspiracy theories about the pandemic, public health officials are more forcefully criticizing media and tech platforms they argue are endangering the public.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the federal government's top public health adviser, said Sunday that "misinformation is still spreading like wildfire in our country aided and abetted by technology platforms."

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He said he has been in conversation with major technology platforms and expressed his concerns about public health misinformation online. Murthy added that current efforts from Big Tech are "not enough" and that public health officials are still "seeing a significant spread of misinformation."

"When we talk to people who believe some of these myths about the COVID-19 vaccine about COVID itself and ask them where to get that information, many of them point to their social media platforms," Murthy said in an interview with "Fox News Sunday."

He added that an "all-of-society approach," was necessary to combating misinformation, which would include greater interventions from private actors, including tech platforms, to boost vaccination rates and curb distrust of public health guidelines.

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Fauci: Lack of 'pushback' allowed polio, smallpox eradication

In a CNN interview Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said past vaccination campaigns wouldn't have been nearly as effective had they also been hampered by misinformation.

“If we had had the pushback for vaccines the way we're seeing on certain media, I don't think it would've been possible at all to not only eradicate smallpox, we probably would still have smallpox,” Fauci said, further speculating that "we probably would still have polio in this country if we had the kind of false information that's being spread now.”

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The comments from the nation's top health advisers come after two weeks of rising case numbers nationally. A more contagious strain of the virus, known as the delta variant, has taken hold across the country. Missouri and Arkansas, which have low vaccination rates, are among the hardest hit.

Biden accuses Facebook of spreading misinformation

President Joe Biden, who urged Americans to celebrate an "Independence Day" from the coronavirus on July 4, targeted social media platforms for inaction on falsehoods that he says has deadly consequences.

“They’re killing people,” Biden said when asked Friday what his message is to platforms like Facebook on COVID-19 misinformation. “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

Facebook was quick to push back on the president's claim.

"We will not be distracted by accusations which aren't supported by the facts," Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever told ABC News. "The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet."

Lever also noted that 3 million Americans have used Facebook platforms to set up vaccination appointments.

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Facebook has not disclosed the number of people who may have seen pandemic- or vaccine-related misinformation on its platform.

"We know that 99.5% of people who are in the hospital are people who are unvaccinated and people who are dying of COVID are unvaccinated. As Dr. Walensky said earlier today, this is really becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a press briefing Friday.

When asked whether Biden thought Facebook was doing enough to combat the spread of misinformation, Psaki's answer was simple: "Clearly not, because we're talking about additional steps that should be taken."

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fauci, surgeon general criticize spread of COVID misinformation online

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