InÂ an interesting article on ForeignPolicy.com, “Swine Flu: Twitter’s Power To Misinform”,Â Evgeny Morozov argues that “despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform’s unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter’s role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu.”
In the context of a global pandemic — where media networks are doing their best to spice up an already serious threat — having millions of people wrap up all their fears into 140 characters and blurt them out in the public might have some dangerous consequences, networked panic being one of them. If you think that my concerns about context are overblown, here are just a few status updates from random Twitter users that would barely make you calmer (or more informed) about what’s going on. [A couple examples:Â "I'm concerned about the swine flu outbreak in us and mexico could it be germ warfare?"/"Swine flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people....beef and chicken have always been meats of choice."]
For the past few days, I have been closely following the unfolding H1N1 situation on Twitter through organizations and people whose Twitter feeds I “follow” and have been distributing my blog posts throughÂ my own Twitter feed. I agree with Morozov that there is a potential for Twitter to spread misinformation and fear. However, Â I would argue that thus far the platform has been largely self correcting and both the government and individual feeds have been good at directing users to reliable sources of information.Â Yes, it is true that if you searchÂ #swineflu on TwitterÂ you get a melange of tweets that are not hugely helpful to someone looking for solid information or advice.Â But to me those are just innocuous messages which most Twitterers will read and ignore. And just as likely, they will find aÂ tweet referring users to reliable government sources of info and guidance or a new headline.Â Morosov is also concerned that there is not enough solid information being distributed through Twitter:Â
Here is a tough question to communication experts out there: how do we reach the digital natives out there, especially those who are only accessible via Facebook and Twitter feeds? The problem is that while thousands of concerned and misinformed individuals took to Twitter to ventilate their fears, government and its agencies were still painfully missing from the social media space; the Twitter account of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was posting updates once in a few hours — and that was probably the only really trustworthy source people could turn to online.
Right now, I think there is enough information out there (see below). But to me a bigger concern is whether the current governmental social media capability — nationally and particularly locally — is robust enough to handle a major decentralized crisis such as if Swine Flu turns into a major pandemic here. To date, the important information for the public (H1N1 numbers, general instructions) has been relatively centralized and limited. But if it the flu spreads widely Americans will be going to social media applications like Twitter looking for more detailed information (as well as offering their own reports). These new methods of distribution offer both a challenge and an opportunity for officials. The question is whether they presently have the capability to deal with it. I expect that authorities at federal, state and local level are now trying to figure out how to use social media during a pandemic. One suggestion would be to engage bloggers to help them in getting information out to the public through their channels.
As far as getting the latest news and advice on the ongoing situation via Twitter, I am following the CDC Emergency Preparedness Twitter feedÂ (which is tied to theÂ CDC’s main Swine Flu/H1N1 site.Â I also follow the U.S. Health & Human Services’ Pandemic Flu feed,Â the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the American Red Cross (and its prolific Portland, Oregon chapter) and the American Public Health Association,Â Veratect (a private company that tracks disease globally) as well as individuals like Greg Dworkin,Â co-founder of the FluWiki and David Stephenson, a social media/disasters/e-government expert. There is another popular Swine Flu information feed H1N1Info.Â You might add a reliable news media resource like CNN. If your local or state government has a feed, I would also subscribe to those (in addition to any text and email alerts they offer). And then you can find trusted internet experts such asÂ MashableÂ which leads you to information on how to filter out noise on Twitter about Â Swine Flu or how to best utilize web tools during the outbreak.Â Also helpful resources are the blog Homeland Security Watch and the daily reports on the Center On Biosecurity. Please tell me if you have other suggestions.