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U.S. Surgeon General calls misinformation public health crisis

Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users

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U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Hallegere Murthy (Screenshot via C-SPAN)

WASHINGTON – Speaking to the White House press corps on Thursday during the daily briefing, U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Hallegere Murthy warned that health misinformation is “a serious threat to public health,” as Biden administration officials grow increasingly concerned about misleading claims about coronavirus vaccines.

Earlier on Thursday in a twenty-two page long advisory memorandum the Surgeon General wrote; “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.”

Indirectly taking aim at social media giant Facebook, Murthy told the reporters in the briefing room, “Now, health misinformation didn’t start with COVID-19. What’s different now though is the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spreading. Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users. They’ve allowed people who intentionally spread misinformation — what we call “disinformation” — to have extraordinary reach,” he said.
 
“They’ve designed product features, such as “Like” buttons, that reward us for sharing emotionally-charged content, not accurate content. And their algorithms tend to give us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation,” he added.

He then outlined the recommended steps being promoted by the Biden Adminstration coronavirus task force;

“First, we include recommendations for individuals and families. We ask people to raise the bar for sharing health information by checking sources before they share, to ensure that information is backed by credible, scientific sources. As we say in the advisory, “If you’re not sure, don’t share.”

Second, we’re asking health organizations to proactively address misinformation with their patients. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics is announcing an educational campaign to help parents navigate online health information. I’m encouraged to see this commitment. And, again, this is just the beginning.

Third, we’re asking educational institutions to help improve health information literacy. We’re asking researchers and foundations as well to help us learn more about how health [mis]information spreads and how to stop it.

Fourth, we’re saying we expect more from our technology companies. We’re asking them to operate with greater transparency and accountability. We’re asking them to monitor misinformation more closely. We’re asking them to consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.
 
Fifth, we’re also asking news organizations to proactively address the public’s questions without inadvertently giving a platform to health misinformation that can harm their audiences.
 
And sixth, we know that government can play an important role too by investing in research, by bringing individuals and organizations together to address misinformation, and by supporting groups that are working on this issue.”

He then added; “On a personal note, it’s painful for me to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented. I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID and who wishes each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
 
I say that also as a concerned father of two young children who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, but I know that our kids are depending on all of us to get vaccinated to shield them from this virus.
 
Every week, I talk to doctors and nurses across our country who are burning out as they care for more and more patients with COVID-19 who never got vaccinated — all too often because they were misled by misinformation.
 
We must confront misinformation as a nation. Every one of us has the power and the responsibility to make a difference in this fight. Lives are depending on it.”

During the questioning period after his statement, one reporter asked, “Surgeon General, is misinformation the number one reason why people are not getting vaccinated?”

He responded saying; “Well, it’s one of several reasons why people are not getting vaccinated, but it’s a very important one because what we know from poll is that two thirds of people who are not vaccinated either believe common myths about the COVID-19 vaccine or think some of those myths might be true. Myths like, “You can get COVID from the vaccine,” which is absolutely not true. So we know that it’s not the only driver that’s leading people not to be vaccinated, but it is a very important one.”

Another reporter asked; “We had an ABC News-Washington Post poll that showed that 93 percent of Democrats say they’re vaccinated or will be vaccinated, but only 49 percent of Republicans say the same. So, how do you break through to the people who may be trusting some of these elected leaders that are pushing, maybe, some of this misinformation more than they actually trust members of your administration?”

Murthy replied; “[…] We’ve got to recognize that sometimes the most trusted voices are not the ones that had the most followers on social media or are the ones that have the most, you know, name recognition. Sometimes the most trusted sources are a mother or father or a faith leader or a local doctor or a nurse, and that’s why, to reach people with accurate information, what we have to do is partner with those local trusted voices.
 
That’s why, in this advisory, one of the things that we point out an important role for government is to support local organizations, including healthcare professionals, so that they can get out there and speak directly to people and share that information.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Suspended prosecutor files suit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

“What’s happening here is, he’s trying to throw out a free and fair election,” Warren said on CNN early Wednesday

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (L) Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren (R) (Screenshot/YouTube WFTX-TV, Fox 4 News Cape Coral)

FORT MYERS, Fl. – Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, an elected Florida prosecutor removed from office by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis for signing a national pledge to not prosecute women and doctors for violating Florida abortion statues or families seeking treatments for transgender minors, filed suit Wednesday in United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Governor DeSantis’ office issued a statement two weeks ago saying: “We are suspending Soros-backed 13th circuit state attorney Andrew Warren for neglecting his duties as he pledges not to uphold the laws of the state.”

DeSantis’s move, per a clause in the state’s constitution, would have the effect of removing Warren from office. 

“DeSantis’s Order does not identify any actual conduct by Warren related to his official duties involving alleged criminal activity for seeking gender-affirming healthcare or abortion,” the lawsuit said. “DeSantis’s Order does not identify any other conduct by Warren or other reason sufficient to justify a suspension.”

“What’s happening here is, he’s trying to throw out a free and fair election,” Warren said on CNN early Wednesday. “Even my 8-year-old understands this.”

Warren described the pledge circulated by prosecutors around the country as “a value statement,” not a definitive decision on how he might handle any particular case. He also noted that Florida’s new ban on abortions after 15 weeks of gestation has been ruled unconstitutional and that the state doesn’t even have a law against hormone treatments for transgender minors.

“The First Amendment protects the right of elected officials to speak out on matters of public controversy, and in fact, it does so because it’s so important that the voters who choose these elected officials know where they stand on these issues,” Jean-Jacques Cabou, a lawyer for Warren, said in a phone interview with Fox affiliate WFTX-TV, Fox 4 News Cape Coral.

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Utah

Prosecutors announce hate crime charges in attack on gay teenage couple

A 17-year-old was charged with assault, the 19-year-old was charged with criminal mischief & both youths with hate crime enhancements

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Christian Peacock (L) and Jacob Metcalf (Screenshot via KUTV 2 CBS Salt Lake City

SANDY, Ut. – Christian Peacock and his boyfriend Jacob Metcalf were standing at the end of Peacock’s driveway in this suburban Salt Lake City town hugging and quietly chatting in “a long goodbye for the night,” two weeks ago when a Nissan-Infinity sedan with five young male occupants rolled by slowing down and one of them yelled “Fuck you, faggots.”

Minutes later the Infinity returned and one of the young males got out and continued act aggressively using homophobic epithets and then when Christian Peacock stepped in to protect his boyfriend, he was punched sending him to hospital that left him with a mild concussion and brain swelling.

Earlier this week the Salt Lake City Tribune reported that a 17-year-old boy has been charged with allegedly punching Peacock sending him to hospital.

Sgt. Greg Moffitt with the Sandy Police Department told media outlets that the 17-year-old suspect’s friend, Hayden Perry Stowell, 19, also faces charges, after he went back and allegedly vandalized the LGBTQ Pride flags displayed in front of the Peacock home in retaliation for his friend’s arrest.

Prosecutors have added hate crime enhancements added to both of their other court charges.

The Tribune reported that the 17-year-old was charged in juvenile court with assault, a third-degree felony; and initiating a riot, a second-degree felony.

Stowell has been charged in 3rd District Court with retaliation against a witness, a third-degree felony; and criminal mischief, a class A misdemeanor.

The charging documents for the 17-year-old say he told police he approached the couple and “clearly targeted” them due to their sexual orientation, the Tribune reported.

He allegedly also told officers that he didn’t like that Peacock and Metcalf were displaying physical affection openly in their driveway. The 17-year-old refused to identify anyone who was in the car with him at the time of the attack, the charges state.

A witness later identified Stowell as also one of the occupants of the car during the attack on Peacock.

Peacock’s boyfriend had recorded portions of the incident which was later posted to social media. According to the Tribune, Jocelynn, 19, Peacock’s sister grabbed her phone and started taking pictures of the alleged assailant and the others in the car. She also chased the car down the street and captured the license plate number. She then shared both on her Instagram and Snapchat pages.

One of her friends recognized the car and knew the person who drove it and gave Jocelynn the kid’s address. Jocelynn went there and spoke to the mother of that boy.

“Do you know what your son has done?” she asked, according to Peacock and Metcalf, who went with her.

The Salt Lake Tribune and other media outlets in the Salt Lake region generally do not identify minors who have been charged with crimes, unless they have been charged and bound over for trial in adult court.

The case could become a test of the state’s new hate crime law, which hasn’t been used extensively since it was put in place in 2019 after a Latino father and son were attacked at their tire shop, the Tribune noted.

A community group had put up Pride flags to show support for Peacock and his boyfriend Metcalf in their neighborhood but surveillance footage taken two weeks after the attack — shows Stowell, the suspected vandal, outside the victim’s home, according to the Sandy Police Department.

Stowell allegedly pulled out the flags, which were found “strewn about” the front yard and the street, police said, and at least one flagpole was broken, the Tribune reported adding that Stowell allegedly “ripped down the pride flags” 12 hours after his 17-year-old friend was booked into juvenile detention in connection with the July 30 assault, charging documents state, noting that the suspected vandal’s “only clear purpose” was to “further intimidate and harass” the victim’s family.

Both the teenage victim and his sister have been “struggling with anxiety and fear since the assault on July 30, 2022,” charging documents note, “and with the continued intimidation they felt by the damage to their flags.”

An attorney for the Peacock and Metcalf families sent KUTV 2News a statement Tuesday afternoon:

“There can be no place in Utah for hate crimes. We appreciate the swift and continuing efforts of the Sandy Police Department, Sim Gill, and the District Attorney’s Office to investigate and prosecute the hate crimes that targeted our family. We also thank our friends and neighbors in Sandy, including Mayor Monica Zoltanski, for standing by us and making clear that hate crimes will not be tolerated in Sandy.”

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Massachusetts

Boston Children’s Hospital targeted by anti-LGBTQ+ violent threats

Anti-LGBTQ LibsofTikTok, which has often promoted the “groomer” label attacking the LGBTQ community, spread the lies about Children’s 

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Screenshot/YouTube WBZ CBS 4 Boston

BOSTON – Anti-LGBTQ+ far right extremists are targeting Boston Children’s Hospital threatening its employees and medical staff after falsehoods and disinformation spread online recently about the healthcare facility’s treatment of transgender youth.

In a statement posted online, a spokesperson for Boston Children’s wrote: “In response to commentary last week critical of our Gender Multispeciality Service (GeMS) Program, Boston Children’s Hospital has been the target of a large volume of hostile internet activity, phone calls, and harassing emails including threats of violence on our clinicians and staff fueled by misinformation and a lack of understanding and respect for our transgender community.”

The statement notes that the false information, with special attention being cast on the lies that Boston Children’s was performing hysterectomies (transgender gender care related) on minors. The age of consent for that gender-affirming procedure is 18.

“We condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms, and we reject the false narratives upon which they are based,” the hospital continued. “We are working with law enforcement to protect our clinicians, staff, patients, families, and the broader Boston Children’s Hospital community and hold the offenders accountable. We will continue to take all appropriate measures to protect our people.”

Journalist Martha Bebinger with WBUR,  Boston’s NPR news station, noted the campaign started last week with criticism of a video posted on the hospital’s website about hysterectomies. Several conservative social media accounts shared posts about the video on Twitter. The hospital performs hysterectomies on patients 18 and older, but not on children as some of the posts claimed.

The social media account LibsofTikTok, which has often promoted “groomer” discourse that falsely linked LGBTQ teachers and parents to pedophilia, began to make a variety of false claims. One allegation included the lie about Children’s offering gender-affirming hysterectomies to children under 18 years old.

Surgeons at Boston Children’s have said they would consider performing other procedures, including phalloplasty, or penis construction, on 17-year-old male transgender patients. But hospital staff say that hasn’t happened because no 17-year-old has met required legal and other criteria.

Conservative journalist and anti-LGBTQ+ activist Christopher Rufo, who has helped incite white Christian nationalist right-wing uproar over the critical race theory being taught in the nations’ secondary schools and also fabricated a story that queer theory was also being taught to kindergarteners up through high school, took aim at Boston Children’s in a tweet Wednesday.

Then adding to the far-right extremist pile-on, Media Matters for America reported Wednesday that anti-Trans pundit Matt Walsh also attacked the hospital.

Christina Buttons, a Nashville-based radical anti-LGBTQ far-right journalist for the Canadian anti-LGBTQ conservative publication, the Post Millennial, which features other transphobic writers, attacked NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny on Twitter over her reporting on Boston Children’s.

A spokesperson for Twitter told the Blade Wednesday afternoon that the company support team was looking into the reports of harassment.

NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny reported: Anti-trans activists also targeted the individual doctors who appeared in the YouTube videos from Boston Children’s Hospital, leaving vulgar and harassing comments on their social media accounts and flooding their online pages with negative reviews. Some hospital staff have since made their social media profiles private.

This isn’t the first time that far-right activists have targeted doctors and medical institutions — or even Boston Children’s Hospital.

Lee Leveille, co-director of Health Liberation Now, a trans rights advocacy group that investigates the effects of policy on trans health, said the hospital was also a target in May 2021 for providing gender-affirming care amid a similar wave of targeted harassment on medical facilities.

“The original organized network that jump started the clinic protests has been slowing down a bit and is more decentralized,” Leveille said over email. “Local pockets will still operate here and there, but they’re less connected to a central organized push than the original ones. Now we’re seeing new faces rallying the cause — including the likes of Matt Walsh and Libs of TikTok.”

A spokesperson for the Boston Police said the department is aware of the threats and is working with Boston Children’s staff.

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