Social Media And Its Role In The Panic-demic

As former member of the fourth estate, I feel quite elegiac about the sound of the presses slowing towards an inevitable stop. Ever since I saw His Girl Friday as a very small child, I wanted to be a reporter. [And who wouldn’t – Roz Russell was gorgeous, bantered beautifully with even more beautiful Cary Grant and got to do good through the power of the word!]

Today, however, I find myself in the surprising  and uncomfortable position of being more than a little miffed at my paper- and broadcast-based journalistic brethren. Their eagerness to point the finger at social media as panic-mongers of DOOM as the Swine Flu crisis develops.


An example of the digi-pointing can be found in a blog by Milo Yiannopolous of the UK’s Telegraph who notes:

Twitterers are saturating the Twitterverse with scaremongering and nonsense about swine flu via the #swineflu hashtag. Let us be clear: swine flu aint some hot internet meme. It’s not a lolcat or a great flash game. It is a serious disease.

The speed with which idle chatter about swine flu is propagating, at the hands of those (it seems almost wilfully) ignorant of the facts, is terrifying and may cost lives. It has now become impossible to separate hysteria from vital news. For perhaps the first time, Twitter has become a hindrance and not a help to newsgathering and to the public seeking information.

And closer to home, the usually level-headed and excellent news source NPR has also chimed in, with  Evgeny Morozov noting that

despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform’s unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter’s role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu.

You’ll forgive me if I state that this sounds a bit like sour grapes. True, one of the justifiable concerns about social media is that there is a dearth of fact-checking. And yes, there are idiots out there who will play the Web 2.0 version of the game of telephone, terror edition.  But has there never been a panic caused by a broadcast network or a newspaper? Truly? Rumours never have flown because of a hyperbolic headline or an over-emphatic piece on a 24 hour news network?


No one is downplaying the fact that this is a potentially deadly illness and that people have been tested positive for it on several continents. The threat is real and frightening.

However, it is also true that almost nobody has looked at the positive ways social media has been used in the course of this porcine pandemic.

Just to offer a few examples:

The Centre for Disease Control has been offering updates on Twitter such as

“20 confirmed cases of swine flu in U.S. 1 hospitalized. All have fully recovered. #swineflu”

And over on FriendFeed, one of its users has created a Swine Flu room which aggregates “various real-time information streams on swine flu from across the web,” making it a reliable and timely source of information.

The CDC has also used YouTube to present a video by Dr. Joe Bresee of its Influenza Division dealing with the signs, symptoms, transmission and treatment of Swine Flu.

So, in fact, social media has been a means for calming the public and providing it with a stream of accurate and useful information – which is not a story you are likely to see in your local paper, if in fact you still have one.


2 comments so far

  1. Ironic on

    I live in a state where they have mascots for this…AND we have a representative (Crazy Michele Bachmann) saying that it is “interesting” that this happens with Obama…just like it did with Carter…. SIgh.
    Bring on the fourth horseman!

  2. abbymartin on

    Ah- but do you have a Senator yet? [Appeals rolling into June or July, yes?]

    Point out to your Representative that the previous Swine Flu broke out under Ford, it just fell to Carter to clean up.

    Thanks for the comment. And watch out for horsemen- I agree that there may be the sound of hooves in the distance….


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