September 16, 2021
By Dvorah Richman & Naomi Lopez
As our knowledge about the COVID-19 virus has grown and shifted, so too has the guidance about what to do to stop its spread. That’s why the Biden administration’s new guidelines to halt the sharing of so-called misinformation are troubling: Not only do they pose a clear and growing threat to our free speech rights, they ignore the fact that what we know about public health is constantly evolving, and that being able to communicate freely about these changes and about medical innovations can make a life-or-death difference — for this virus and for many other diseases.
In a 22-page Advisory issued in July by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the White House characterizes misinformation as a “serious threat to public health” that has hindered vaccination efforts, encouraged opposition to masking, and led to the harassment of public health workers. To combat these problems, the Advisory, among many other troubling directives, instructs technology companies to “redesign recommendation algorithms to avoid amplifying misinformation,” strengthen “monitoring of misinformation,” impose “clear consequences” on those who communicate disfavored messages, and to “amplify communications from trusted messengers and subject matter experts.”
Nobody wants misinformation, of course. But we’re still learning about COVID — about its transmission, its effects on the body, and its long-term impacts. Medical experts’ understanding of COVID has changed significantly over the past 18 months, and so has their guidance regarding how to control its spread. Recommendations that seemed unconventional at one point in the pandemic became widely accepted months later. Even the Surgeon General’s Advisory acknowledges that that it’s “important to be careful and avoid conflating controversial or unorthodox claims with misinformation,” but it relegates that statement to a footnote. And indeed, it appears to be nothing more than lip service, given that the entire document aims to shut down opinions that don’t mesh with what the White House declares to be the “best available evidence.”
Dvorah Richman is a medical device regulatory attorney who has worked for various medical device companies. Naomi Lopez is the Director of Healthcare Policy at the Goldwater Institute.