Twitter goes Viral: Swine Flu Outbreak – Twitter a Dangerous Hype?

30 04 2009

twitter-network-and-virusTwitter 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.

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Apart from following specific tweople one can also search for certain words or (hash)tags via Twitter Search or #hashtags.

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.swine-flu-totThis is a serious allegation. Evgeny Morozov‘s main critiques:

  1. 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”.

  2. Unlike a simple Google search Twitter gives too much noise (irrelevant or wrong information).

  3. Messages from trustworthy sources have as much weight as those from uninformed people.

  4. There is very little context you can fit into 140 characters, even less so if all you are doing is watching a stream.

  5. 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 :

laikas: RT @AJCann Totally irresponsible #swineflu journalism in the Dail Mail http://tinyurl.com/cms3km (expand) >>and they say twitter evokes global panic!
Is there really no reason to be worried?
Let’s face it. We don’t know an awful lot about this new virus strain. While it is true that the common flue has killed 13,000 people in the US since in a rather unnoticed way, and while there are relatively few swine flu casualties yet, one never knows how this new H1N1 epidemic will evolve. It might just fade away or it could kill millions of people. We just don’t know. It is a new, deadly virus. Not for nothing (as I learn from Twitter), the WHO has just raised the current level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5. But this is only meant to be prepared and to inform, not to cause panic.
who-message
AJCann (on twitter)Ben, a doctor writing for the Guardian, excelling in critically informing the public about science (and quack) and a real valibrity, was invited all over by the media to be a naysayer on the “aporkalypse”.
How to deal with Twitter Noise?
Suppose you would listen to all radio channels at once: that would be an unbearable noise. Usually you choose a channel, your favorite one, and just listen what comes next. But you may switch to another channel anytime. And for news you might just go to a specific channel that you know is the most informative.
It is exactly the same with Twitter. I don’t follow everyone. Since I use Twitter mostly for my work (medicine, library, science, web 2.0) and not primarily for a chat or wit, I choose the tweople I follow carefully. If they produce too much noise I might unfollow them. They are my human filter to the news.

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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.

laikas: RT @BreakingNews: BULLETIN — WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION CALLS EMERGENCY MEETING TO DISCUSS DEADLY SWINE FLU OUTBREAKS IN MEXICO AND THE U.S.

laikas: RT @health WHO, CDC concerned about possible epidemic following reports of 60+ people killed by new flu strain in Mexico http://bit.ly/d3JsO
laikas: RT @TEDchris: Swine flu outbreak. This is how it was SUPPOSED to have been contained. http://is.gd/us6r Worrying. >> WHO protocol
laikas: RT @BreakingNews: Reports of flu outbreak in New Zealand. 22 students may have been infected after a trip to Mexico. BNO trying to confirm. 3:25 AM Apr 26th from TweetDeck

laikas: RT @dreamingspires: RT @AllergyNotes Map of H1N1 Swine Flu of 2009 http://bit.ly/P2mcc (expand) 4:41 AM Apr 26th from TweetDeck

laikas: Map of H1N1 Swine Flu of 2009 http://bit.ly/P2mcc _ New Zealand added to the map. 4:42 AM Apr 26th from TweetDeck


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)

laikas: Reading @sciencebase Swine Flu http://bit.ly/y5Xqz 7:47 AM Apr 26th from web

laikas: RT @sanjayguptaCNN: I’ll answer your swine flu Q’s LIVE on CNN at 7:30a ET. call 1-800-807-2620. thanks 4he gr8 tweet Q so far.

laikas: RT @consultdoc: Great swine flu summary via @ubiquity http://bit.ly/DK0xV (expand) Thanks Greg.1:18 PM Apr 26th from TweetDeck

laikas: RT @BreakingNews: The WHO is holding a news conference on swine flu. Michael van Poppel is covering it live @mpoppel.
laikas: RT @stejules: RT @mashable HOW TO: Track Swine Flu Online http://tinyurl.com/dh68n8 (expand) (via @tweetmeme) (

At that point I became saturated with all information. I just follow the main news and read some good overviews

end-tweet-flu
Conclusion
For me, Twitter was the first and most accurate news source to get informed and updated on the swine flu pandemics. It was reliable, because “my friends” filtered the news for me and because I follow some trustworthy sources and news sites. Indirectly other tweople also pointed me at good and actual information.
And in my turn I kept my followers informed. The news has alarmed me, but I’m not in panic or frightened. I just feel informed and at the moment I can do nothing more than “wait and see”.

It has often been said: Twitter is what you make of it.
But keep in mind the golden rule:

Information on Swine Flu

News and Blogs

Photo Credits:

* wonderful those different names.

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