Twitter has been praised for its actuality and news breaking character. Remember the earthquakes and the two recent airplane crashes (Hudson River, Schiphol). Twitter often was the first to bring the news.
Twitter’s power lies in its simplicity, -the 140 character limit-, its speed and it’s domino-effect. Tweets (twitter messages) can be read by your followers (I have appr. 650). If they find something important, funny or whatever they could “RT” or Retweet (i.e. resend) the message, and their friends could retweet it as well. Via these secondary networks Twitter can go viral (in its replication and spread).
Below a friends of a friend network of a well known twitter personality Robert Scobleizer, as obtained by Twitterfriends. Only the “relevant network” is shown, directed to someone in particular: tweets beginning with @ (followed by the twitter name of your friend). The actual reach of tweets not starting with @ is greater, because they can be read by all followers.
Pushed by celebrities, such as Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey, who recently joined Twitter. Twitter’s traffic was poised to double and the number of tweeting people has steeply increased.
Twitter has been glorified by the stars. They created a real (meaningless) twitter mania.
But what raises high, can drop low.
Several sources dethroned Twitter because of it’s viral role in the recent swine flu outbreak. One of the first and most serious critiques came from a blog (Foreign Policy: Net Effect). It’s title: Twine flu: Twitter’s power to misinform.This is a serious allegation. Evgeny Morozov‘s main critiques:
The “swine flu” meme has led to misinformation, fear and panic. Wrong info includes: fear that it “could be germ warfare” or “that one should not eat pork and certainly not from Mexico”.
Unlike a simple Google search Twitter gives too much noise (irrelevant or wrong information).
Messages from trustworthy sources have as much weight as those from uninformed people.
There is very little context you can fit into 140 characters, even less so if all you are doing is watching a stream.
- Evgeny also worries about a future misuse of Twitter by cyber-terrorists shaping conversations on serious topics. A number of corporations are already monitoring and partially shaping twitter conversations about particular brands or products.
In addition some posts highlight that most of the Tweets belong to the category “witty or not so witty”. (also see this post)
And after these comments many similar comments were to follow: In fact these comments and critiques were going viral as well: take a look at this Google Search for Twitter Swine Flu and note the negative sound of most of the headlines.
The CNN website quotes Brennon Slattery, a writer for PC World,
“This is a good example of why [Twitter is] headed in that wrong direction, because it’s just propagating fear amongst people as opposed to seeking actual solutions or key information (..). The swine flu thing came really at the crux of a media revolution.”
Is Twitter just a hype and useless as an information source? Is it dangerous when a wide number of people would turn to Twitter in search of information during an emergency? Or have people just found a stick to beat the dog?
I will go to several aspects of the twitter flu coverage as I have encountered it.
Number of tweets
Indeed, as brought forward by Mashable, Tweets about “Swine Flu” are *now* at 10,000 per hour!!
Yesterday, 5 out of 10 twitter buzzwords were connected to Swine Flu:
- # · Swine Flu
- # · swineflu
- # · Mexico
- # · H1N1
- # · Pandemic
Searching for information on Twitter
You can imagine that it is hardly useful to keep track of tweets mentioning *swine flu*, nor is searching for these buzzwords or hastags useful, if not combined with other terms or names, like CDC or laikas (just to find what you tweeted yourself).
I keep track of certain words via Tweetdeck in separate columns, accepting a certain “noise”, knowing this will only yield 20-50 tweets per day. It would not come to my mind to just blindly search for swineflu on Twitter.
The official media
It is said that Twitter doesn’t give useful or correct information, and indeed it hasn’t been designed for that (being merely a social Network). In its primitive form it is just online gossip or as The Register (UK) puts it- “it is not a media outlet“. But odd enough, the official media did not behave differently. Cable television programmers went into crisis mode and a look at newspaper front pages and website home pages around the world showed a range of responses, from the almost hysterical to the concerned and more measured (Reuter’s Blog).
Look at this message from AJ Cann, that I retweeted :
By Tuesday, pundit-seekers from the media were suddenly contacting me, a massive nobody, to say that swine flu is all nonsense and hype, like some kind of blind, automated naysaying device. “Will you come and talk about the media overhyping swine flu?” asked Case Notes on Radio 4. No. “We need someone to say it’s all been overhyped,” said BBC Wales.
I assumed they were adhering, robotically, to the “balance” template, but no: he kept at it, even when I protested and explained. “Yeah, but you know, it could be like Sars and bird flu, they didn’t materialise, they were hype.” Simon Jenkins suggested the same thing. It’s not true, I said. They were risks, risks that didn’t materialise, but they were still risks. That’s what a risk is. I’ve never been hit by a car, but it’s not idiotic to think about it. Simon Jenkins won’t be right if nobody dies, he’ll be lucky, like the rest of us. Do people think this flappily in casinos? The terrible truth is yes.
Ben compares it with the story of the boy who cried wolf and he concludes:
(….) because not only have the public lost all faith in the media; not only do so many people assume, now, that they are being misled; but more than that, the media themselves have lost all confidence in their own ability to give us the facts.
Furthermore among the ones I follow are News or Health Sources, like @CNN Health, sanjayguptaCNN, @BBC Health, @BreakingNews, @health and recently (because of retweets of friends): @WHOnews , @CDCemergency, Reuters_FluNews, Fluheadlines.
@BreakingNews and @health mentioning real casualties and the WHO calling an emergency meeting, I realized the seriousness of the problem. I was also pointed to @WHOnews and @CDCemergency, the most trustworthy sources to follow.
I also understood that the swine flu might be difficult to contain.
Direct Link to H1N1 Swine Flu Google Map:
Somewhat later came the informative phase. Long before the official media were giving any useful information, some of my twitterfriends alerted me to their own or other (official) news.
@ajcann already wrote a post on his blog Microbiology Bytes (a blog with the latest news on microbiology) :10 things you should know about swine flu. (April 25th)
But keep in mind the golden rule:
Information on Swine Flu
- WHO – WHOnews on Twitter ; website page dedicated to Swine flu with FAQs (also in PDF)
- CDC – @CDCemergency on Twitter : website with a special page for Swine flu
- RIVM – [Dutch] – Webpage about the “Mexican Flu”*
- Google – Mashup
News and Blogs
- Reuters News: Global coverage of swineflu.
- Ubiquity (2009/04/26) : swine flu facts and information
- Microbiology Bytes (2009/04/25/) 10 Things you should know about swine flu and Influenza also from AJ Cann:
- Science of the invisible (2009/04/) 10 More things you should know about A/H1N1* and
- Science Base: Swine Flu FAQs (2009/04/27)
- An overview of good souces is also given by a fellow librarian Creaky at EBM and Clinical Support Librarians@UCHC: News, Public Health, Global Health: A potential pandemic of influenza (2009/04/27) In which she credits me and others “for posting scientific links and news about swine flu and steering me to several links for this post”. Thanks Creaky!
- In addition there are librarian guides about Swineflu Thanks @davidlrothman
- Red Twitter UK Networks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/porternovelli/3102296497/
- Influenza Virus: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/1411171541/
- FUAF Twitter network): Metaroll (2008/12/26) Visualizing Twitter Networks
- David Armanoon Logic and Emotion (2008/12) The human feed how twitter networks filter signal from noise.
* wonderful those different names.