As the world watches the rising death toll from the Mexican outbreak of swine influenza, and wonders what's going to happen next, it looks like new media darling Twitter has caught a bad case of H1N1 itself. The social networking tool is being used as a fast-track for sharing information on the development of the disease that's outstripping conventional news channels.
When it comes to Twitter's power to spread information, consider this: I didn't hear about the outbreak through the TV, radio, or even reading a news Web site—which I do every minute as part of my job. Instead I read a tweet from BoingBoingTV's Xeni Jardin, commenting on her surprise at the events. She immediately followed up with more information, and has been commenting on the developments periodically for several days now: as befits her travel-intensive and news-writing job.
But Xeni is just one of the many, many people tweeting about the news. Searching Twitter reveals the top three "trending topics" on the site are "swineflu", "#swineflu" and "Mexico." The results pages then reveal the hundreds and hundreds of tweets on the topic. Some are simply discussing the disease, voicing opinions or fears, but some are up-to-the minute news snippets, like @meowludo's "1st confirmed case of swine flu in Sydney Australia" or @christopherhire's re-tweet of @nikitasamuelle's "Wow, there are actually people here in Atlanta airport with face masks #swineflu (fears I assume)."
That last tweet is evidence of a public demonstration of the level of worry in the U.S., and you probably won't find it reflected in a "conventional" news report for a while. Twitter's strength as a citizen journalism news-casting tool has been demonstrated before, in the Hudson river plane crash for example, but it really seems like it's finding vital use as a live news channel on this new medical problem. Of course that points to another set of issues—there's no moderation on Twitter, obviously, so there's as much a potential for the spread of misinformation as there is for vital or interesting news.
This secondary issue even had one of Twitter's most influential members, comedian Stephen Fry, tweeting this morning with a hugely sensible request: "We must do our best to be sensible about this panic and not let Twitter earn a bad reputation, don't we think?" It's not Twitter's fault—it's a symptom of the newness of its "one to many" broadcasting abilities that beats even public access TV for giving people a voice, thanks to its (ironically) viral message-forwarding nature. And panic about an important medical issue like this, be it in person or via a virtual data source like Twitter is never sensible: All it does is complicate matters.
Following swine flu related news, and tweeting about it yourself, on Twitter calls for a bit of level-headed thinking, which we'll highlight here.
- Don't believe sensationalist claims.
- Don't let someone else's fears worry you.
- Check up medical facts with a reputable source.
- Pay attention to the CDC's own Twitter feed about the problem.