Schwarzenegger tweets about swine flu. So does everyone else.
Twitter is spreading important information as well
as rumors about the outbreak, raising questions about whether the social networking site is helpful.
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"Just heard 2 in marin recently went to mexico," he posted on Twitter, the social networking and miniblogging site, in reference to news about apparent infections in Marin County. And after he declared a state of emergency over the outbreak, the governor tweeted: "There is no need for alarm."
Swine flu remained the No. 1 topic Wednesday on Twitter, the popular site that allows users to post real-time updates of 140 characters or less. The nonstop stream of comments on the service in the past week have been both accurate and grossly misinformed, leading some critics to question whether such fast-flowing – and increasingly popular – new media tools are helping spread valuable information about the outbreak or simply fanning panic.
"The use of Twitter as a forum to discuss a frightening illness has less to do with updating people with news stories and other developments – it's about spreading gossip, panicking, and potentially misinforming one's followers about a grave concern," wrote Brennon Slattery on his blog at PCWorld.com.
Internet watcher Evgeny Morozov concurs, writing on his net.effect blog for Foreign Policy magazine: "Too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one's friends do (i.e. tweet about it) or simply gain more popularity."
But amid the rants and random comments filling much of the Twitter ether are a growing number of officials, such as Governor Schwarzenegger, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which maintains two Twitter accounts.
The CDC is constantly monitoring Twitter and other social media sites, says spokeswoman Shelly Diaz, and it will move to correct misinformation when necessary. "We realize that the landscape of media has changed a lot, and we want to make sure we are reaching everyone."
You have to consider the net effect of Twitter on the national conversation on swine flu, points out Clay Shirky, adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program. It's unfair to view one or two posts in a vacuum, he says, instead of looking at the arc of the discussion on Twitter and other social networking sites.
"Twitter has done a pretty good job," he says, not only in getting out basic information about what's happening with the outbreak, but also in generating "countervailing points of view" that might mitigate some of the panic.