Is Twitter Spreading Swine Flu Fever?

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Social media such as Twitter are doing more harm than good by stoking fears of a swine flu pandemic, while other sites are finding ways to help, says Darryl Taft

The enhanced social interaction allowed by Twitter, is spreading the word about the possible siwine flu pandemic, but is simply creating more panic according to some.

The Swine Flu outbreak so far is responsible for at least 86 deaths in Mexico and cases have been cited in the US, Canada, France, Israel and New Zealand. The UK has been told to expect cases, and arrivals from Mexico are being handled carefully; the US has declared a public emergency to deal, where at least 20 cases have been confirmed.

However, some say services like Twitter are spreading more panic than is necessary, where others say the ability to immediately interact and share information could be key to preventing the spread of the virus.

In a blog post on ForeignPolicy.com, Evgeny Morozov, makes the case that with the swine flu situation, Twitter has the power to misinform.

Said Morozov:

“First of all, I should point out from the very outset that anyone trying to make sense of how Twitter’s ‘global brain’ has reacted to the prospect of the swine flu pandemic is likely to get disappointed. The ‘swine flu’ meme has so far that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

“Thus, unlike basic internet search – which has been already been nicely used by Google to track emerging flu epidemics – Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process: as opposed to search requests which are generally motivated only by a desire to learn more about a given subject, 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.”

Morozov said lack of context is a problem in much of the Twitter traffic regarding the swine flu outbreak. He said, “The ‘swine flu’ Twitter-scare has once again proved the importance of context – and how badly most Twitter conversations are hurt by the lack of it. The problem with Twitter is that there is very little context you can fit into 140 characters…”

Yet, Morozov also noted that lack of context is probably not a problem in 99 percent of discussions happening on Twitter. However, “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.”

Meanwhile, Google provides more pointed information and has mapped the flu trend. Tim Finin, a blogger at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), wrote:

“Google has had a special ‘flu trends’ site up for many months that provides ‘up-to-date estimates of flu activity in the United States based on aggregated search queries.’

“They have found that how many people search for flu-related topics is a leading indicator for reports on how many people actually have flu symptoms. They believe that this metric ‘may indicate flu activity up to two weeks ahead of traditional flu surveillance systems.'”

And the Google Maps Mania blog points out a map an organistion has made that shows the spread of Swine Flu in Mexico and “is a collaborative, social sharing attempt to map the epidemic, which requires user input.” The blog also sites other relevant maps created with the Google Maps technology.

Broadstuff.com chimes in with a tongue-in-cheek view of how to avoid the pandemic on Twitter:

(i) Do not associate with people who transmit the Pandemic meme – wash your hands of them and unsub until they are seen to be uninfected

(ii) If you find you are infected by the Twitter Pandemic meme, disconnect immediately from the net, take 2 doctors and call us in the morning.

(iii) If you feel sweaty, and have flu like symptoms, there is a 90% chance you have a cold, a 9% chance you have Man-Flu, a 0.9% chance the heating is turned up too high, a 0.09% chance its all in the mind and 0.009% chance of too much spice in your Tandoori

(iv) Disconnect from this post immediately

Yet, levity aside, this flu outbreak is for real and is scary. Having confirmed cases in France is a wee bit of a concern for me, as I am currently in Nice. On the trip over I happened to be sitting on the same row as a research scientist on the way to attend a virus conference in Cannes. Said scientist, who specializes in Avian and Pandemic Influenza, was headed to The Third International Conference on Influenza Vaccines for the World, where Swine Flu is expected to dominate the conversation.

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