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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But, he acknowledges, "Emotion moves faster than thought." And that can often lead to absurd tweets, or posts.Skip to next paragraph
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One Twitter user posted, "How long before the Swine Flu hysteria crashes the pork market?"
But, in an example of how interactive online media can also self-correct quickly, another Twitterer soon piped up to counter: "People! Swine flu has nothing to do with eating pork!"
The CDC has also stepped in to correct the record. After some users speculated about the possible danger in eating pork, it had this tweet: "CDC reminds you that you can NOT get swine flu from eating pork."
The CDC has had its own Twitter account since January, when it was using it to update users on an outbreak of salmonella. Since then it has used Twitter to provide basic information about everything from seasonal illnesses to how to say warm during the winter.
"CDC has to be where people are. And people are increasingly in the social media forums," said Janice Nall, director of eHealth Marketing for the CDC, at a healthcare marketing event last year. "And if they are talking about HIV and how to prevent it on MySpace, we need to be there with credible, accurate information."
But now that the CDC has established itself in the Web 2.0 world of social networks, Mr. Morozov wrote on his blog, it should do more to make itself heard above the online chatter.
"In an ideal world, they would have established ownership of most online conversations from the very beginning, posting updates as often as they can. Instead, they are now faced with the prospect of thousands of really fearful citizens, all armed with their own mini-platforms to broadcast their fears – which may cost it dearly in the long term," he wrote.
The CDC and other government agencies face a dilemma when it comes to interacting with the fast pace of online conversation, says Mr. Shirky. "There are a bunch of pressures not to overreact to these things. But change in the communication infrastructure means that the CDC has to be clearer with the public than it has before."
More people seek information online
More than ever, the public is going online to find the latest information about public-health concerns – and find new tools to track the swine flu outbreak.
Nielsen reported Tuesday that 4 percent of the blogs and news discussion forums that it regularly tracks were related to swine flu. Conversations about the outbreak were 10 times more than that of the salmonella scare earlier this year.
How all of this fast-moving and free-flowing information will eventually impact a public-health emergency is still unclear. But there has been at least one example where putting a mass communication tool in the hands of the masses made a big positive difference.
After the Sichuan earthquake last year in China, says Shirky, Twitter was one way to receive and spread news about the quake's impact – and to get out information about where donations were needed most desperately.