Twitter-spread rumors fueled the misperception that swine flu was spread by pork, according to USAToday.
If you've recently visited Twitter, the Post-it note of social websites, you might have caught people tweeting that the H1N1 flu outbreak was really germ warfare, or that eating pork would give you the flu.
Viral misinformation like that raised the specter of social network pandemic. Down went the price of pork. Rumor and speculation once uttered around the water cooler was going global in a nanosecond.
The pork industry fought back, issuing statements and granting media interviews stressing that the flu was passed by human-to-human contact, and challenging the name "swine flu." Thereafter, government officials went out of their way to refer to it by its H1N1 label. The government fought back, too.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee Wednesday that she lunched on ham-and-cheese sandwiches for a week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got serious about tweeting. By Thursday, the number of people following "CDCemergency" on Twitter had surpassed 110,000. CDCemergency frequently tweeted links to advisories and Q&As, and wrote "micro-blogs" like, "Stop the spread of germs. Cover your nose & mouth w/a tissue when you cough or sneeze."
Mark Senak, who specializes in health crisis communications at PR firm Fleishman-Hillard, "said he was 'surprised not only by the level of misinformation' on Twitter, but was 'astonished at the sheer volume of people who were talking about whether or not they should eat pork.'"
Government agencies and other communicators must shift focus from broadcasting to "nichecasting," Senak said.
The USAToday article is a week old. I resisted linking to it for several reasons. The main one is that it just doesn't match my perception of social media during crises, especially Twitter. I've always found Twitter to be a good source of information about breaking news, including links to more lengthy articles and blogs on the Web. (Sometimes too good -- when my favorite TV shows are airing big episodes, I've learned to stay away from Twitter in the evening, because my Twitter pals on the East Coast watch the shows several hours earlier, and sometimes post spoilers.)
However, it's possible that my Twitter friends are an elite bunch, and that the vast majority of Twitterers are out there spreading bogus rumors.
Also, even if Twitter and other social media haven't been a source of misinformation and panic this time, it's likely they will be used that way sometime soon. The swine flu epidemic seems to have fizzled, but there's always next year. And if the swine flu doesn't get us, there's a variety of other bacterial and viral infections that could attack, along with other threats natural and man-made, including but not limited to attacks by terrorists or enemy nations, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, paralyzing blizzards, nuclear attacks, tsunamis, robots and computers rising up to enslave us, asteroid strikes, alien invasions, and supernovas of the Sun or other nearby stars. It's a dangerous world we live in, and many of those dangers are sudden, move fast, strike at a significant number of the general population, and scare the pants off the rest.
In a free society, government finds itself in a weird role during public emergencies. Most of the time, we expect government to act at the wishes of citizens. But during an emergency, the citizen's role is to obey. And for that to happen, in a free society, the government must first earn the trust of its citizenry before the emergency, and act to keep that trust during an emergency. How cooperative do you think the citizens of New Orleans will be toward the federal government if they have another disaster in the next couple of years? How cooperative would you be in that situation?
Government health services haven't been tested to the maximum during the swine flu outbreak -- thank goodness. Still, they did a good job getting information out, in part by leveraging social media, notably with the @CDCemergency account on Twitter. Government agencies need to be prepared to step up their use of social media for the future, bigger emergencies that will inevitably come.
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