Much as his predecessors warned Americans against tobacco and opioid abuse, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a formal advisory last Thursday that misinformation—such as the widespread propaganda now sowing doubts about coronavirus vaccines on social media—is “an urgent threat to public health.” It is, but the discussion soured quickly. After President Joe Biden said social-media platforms that turn users against vaccines are “killing people,” an anonymous Facebook official told CNN that “the White House is looking for scapegoats for missing their vaccine goals.” When Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the White House is “flagging problematic posts for Facebook,” conservatives and Twitter contrarians inferred that the government was telling the company to censor people. The journalist Glenn Greenwald described the effort as “fascism.”
Greenwald and Facebook are minimizing a genuine problem: An “infodemic”—involving the viral spread of misinformation, as well as the mingling of facts with half-truths and falsehoods in a fractured media environment—has compounded the COVID-19 pandemic. But critics of Murthy’s initiative and Biden’s comments are right about one thing: The official health establishment has made the infodemic worse through its own inability to cope with conflicting scientific views. In the early days of the pandemic, experts at the World Health Organization, CDC Director Robert Redfield, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, and then–Surgeon General Jerome Adams discouraged mask wearing and only belatedly reversed course; some of the same voices later pooh-poohed the notion that the coronavirus first began spreading after escaping from a Chinese research lab—a possibility now being taken far more seriously.