First, I'd like to allay the fears of all those in Cringeville. You cannot catch swine flu by using Twitter -- even if you're one of Porky's followers. But you wouldn't know it by looking at the swirl of misinformation and panic that has flooded everybody's favorite microblog.
Net.effect's Evgeny Morozov says the swine flu has turned the Twitterati into the jitterati:
There are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter's role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu... 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.
What could happen? People shun bacon and ham, sending the pork bellies market into freefall. People cancel their travel plans, especially to Latin America, and walk around wearing surgical masks. People with head colds decide they're really dying from a porcine-borne bug and flood emergency rooms. That in turn could cause shortages of the Tamiflu vaccine for those who actually need it.
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And did you know that swine flu isn't really a flu at all but an attack of Advanced Biological Warfare aimed at reconfiguring our DNA? Hey I read it on the Interwebs, so it must be true.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its own Twitter feed, which as I write this boasts 14,139 followers, or only 1,439,680 less than Ashton Kutcher. Its latest tweet:
20 confirmed cases of swine flu in U.S. 1 hospitalized. All have fully recovered. http://bit.ly/uycgL #swineflu
See, not so much to worry about. The problem is that, unlike most Twitter users, the CDC only tweets when it actually has something to say. That little info-snippet went out 14 hours ago. Meanwhile, a glance at Twitter search shows tweets with the tag #swineflu coming in at the rate of around 20 per minute. That's a rumor/panic/speculation-to-information ratio of more than 16,000 to 1.
Google Flu Trends, which tracks the incidence of people searching for terms related to "flu," puts the current swine flu threat as almost minimal. Google says its search data tracks very closely to actual flu treatments recorded by the CDC.
But what happens to Google Flu when panic causes a surge in searches, bumping the search trend into the red? Flu Trends then becomes part of the endless cycle of hysteria.
There are plenty of credible sources for information about swine flu on the Web; Mashable's Ben Parr offers a guide to some here; Time magazine offers up five things you need to know; and of course, the CDC Web site.
The bigger problem, as Morozov points out, is how unrestrained social media could be manipulated toward far worse ends:
I think it's only a matter of time before the next generation of cyber-terrorists – those who are smart about social media, are familiar with modern information flows, and are knowledgeable about human networks – take advantage of the escalating fears over the next epidemic and pollute the networked public sphere with scares that would essentially paralyze the global economy. Often, such tactics would bring much more destruction than the much-feared cyberwar and attacks on physical – rather than human – networks.
The real problem isn't Twitter (or Facebook, et al.), the problem is a) stupid people, and b) people who prey on stupid people. Included in that last group are the 24/7 cable news networks, who will do anything to whip viewers into a frenzy to boost their ratings, and the blogs who'll do the same to pump up their page views.
So I make this vow: This blog will sell no swine flu before its time.
Also: Don't believe everything you read on Twitter. Even if Ashton is your BFF.
Are you sick of swine flu hysteria, or is it Twitter that's making you twitchy? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me direct: firstname.lastname@example.org. But please, wash your hands before you type -- you can't be too careful.