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Is Twitter Playing A Positive Or Negative Role During Swine Flu Outbreak? I Say Positive But Am Concerned About Governmental Social Media Capability During A Pandemic

April 29th, 2009 · 3 Comments

In an interesting article on, “Swine Flu: Twitter’s Power To Misinform”, 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: "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 through my own Twitter feed. I agree with Morozov that there is a potential for Twitter to spread misinformation and fear. However,  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. Yes, it is true that if you search #swineflu on Twitter you get a melange of tweets that are not hugely helpful to someone looking for solid information or advice. But to me those are just innocuous messages which most Twitterers will read and ignore. And just as likely, they will find a tweet referring users to reliable government sources of info and guidance or a new headline. Morosov is also concerned that there is not enough solid information being distributed through Twitter: 

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 feed (which is tied to the CDC’s main Swine Flu/H1N1 site. I also follow the U.S. Health & Human Services’ Pandemic Flu feed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the American Red Cross (and its prolific Portland, Oregon chapter) and the American Public Health Association, Veratect (a private company that tracks disease globally) as well as individuals like Greg Dworkin, co-founder of the FluWiki and David Stephenson, a social media/disasters/e-government expert. There is another popular Swine Flu information feed H1N1Info. 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 as Mashable which leads you to information on how to filter out noise on Twitter about  Swine Flu or how to best utilize web tools during the outbreak. 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.

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Tags: Pandemic Flu · Preparedness 2.0 · Public Health Preparedness · Red Cross · Risk Communications

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Robin Parker // May 1, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Been meaning to add my two cents on here since you posted it…

    I think you’re right that twitter is pretty self-correcting. I do think, though, that the CDC (and other official info sources) could be doing a better job with their tweets. They’ve been posting links to PDFs, but many people can’t click the links if they’re reading twitter from they’re mobile devices (or even some computers).

    If the CDC were to pull out the main points from those PDFs and tweet them it would be much more useful (and then people could easily retweet the info to correct misconceptions). I’d also like to see them offering more concrete tips. (Like my favorites: “sing a full round of happy birthday while washing your hands to make sure you’ve washed long enough” or “try sneezing into your elbow, not your hand if you don’t have a tissue handy”) … Little things, yes. But they make it easier for a worried public to take action and feel like they’re making a difference.

  • 2 admin // May 2, 2009 at 8:53 am

    You make a very fair point. In fact, in his weekly radio/video address this morning, President Obama specifically said the White House was expanding its social media effort to help broaden the communications outreach on H1N1. Yet, as you point out, the government’s social media effort on the flu outbreak has been much too limited. And it’s unlikely — due to the lack of current capability — that it will improve significantly during this situation. Luckily, it has been augmented by non-governmental resources such as the Oregon Trail Chapter of the Red Cross on Twitter and other applications. Still, I agree with you that there is a need going forward to expand the frequency, breadth and creativity of the government’s (federal, state and local) social media communications.

  • 3 H1N1 Flu Response Shows Government Needs To Improve Social Media Public Communications For Future Emergencies // May 4, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    [...] I wrote on the blog this past week that the communications from governmental officials during the H1N1 situation had been very good so far, but I was concerned about the ability of federal, state and local authorities to inform the public if the flu became more serious, particularly in the area of social media. I also suggested that while there was a lot of uninformed ‘noise’ on Twitter and other social media, users by and large could find reliable information on the situation relatively easily. However, Robin Parker, from the Oregon Trail Red Cross chapter’s Cross Blog which has one of the most useful and creative web operations on emergency preparedness, commented on my post Friday with some suggestions for governmental entities: [...]

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