Working on Swine Flu this week has been especially interesting because it makes me reflect on how much things have changed in the information landscape since I worked on SARS in 2003 and Bird Flu in 2004-05. In those outbreaks, the main source of information was lists of links found in Google. How much that has changed now, with Twitter! People use Twitter in different ways — For me the most valuable part of it is the links in tweets. In former outbreaks, when Google was the “king of links,” it was especially hard to keep up with current news stories. Now links to breaking news stories appear within minutes in Twitter.
Evgeny Morozov, in his article, Swine flu: Twitter’s power to misinform complains about the chaotic nature of Swine Flu information in Twitter:
There are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter’s role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu. … [Twitter users] armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic. … Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process … The “swine flu” Twitter-scare has … proved the importance of context — The problem with Twitter is that there is very little context you can fit into 140 characters.
Anyone who’s used Twitter knows that there’s much truth here. Especially for a new user, it’s hard to separate the Twitter wheat from the Twitter chaff. But it can be done. To show the shallow, mindless nature of Twitterers, Morozov quotes text from tweets about Swine Flu. And he’s right, they’re pretty valueless. But, clicking to look at the writers’ profile pages shows that most of them are fairly inexperienced, with relatively few updates and followers, so it’s not surprising that their tweets are bad. Which goes to show, just as with online sources in general, in Twitter it’s important to check the source! Find out who’s behind the information.
So, while I agree with Morozov that Twitter has some negatives, I think we need to appreciate the positive value it has added to our ability to exchange information rapidly, that will certainly make us better able to deal with a real pandemic if it occurs. In composing this article, I came across a good conversation in Twitter that speaks to my ideas:
@PhilHarrison: Twitter is relatively new & we’re all learning about its power to inform & misinform as well. (bold added)
@charlesyeo: During SARS, some people in Asia blamed media for not exposing cases earlier so the sick can get help!
Note that the second tweet, by charlesyeo, comes back to the point I made in the first paragraph, that lack of information was a serious problem in the SARS epidemic. Twitter has clearly improved that.
Another valuable of Twitter in the Swine Flu epidemic has been the vibrancy of its international participation — Before Swine Flu, I had learned to value the prolific and multi-lingual tweeting of Jose Afonso Furtado (@jafurtado), a librarian in Portugal who tweets mostly on library/publishing subjects. When the Swine Flu epidemic broke out seriously in Mexico, he tweeted on that, and through his tweets I was able to connect on Twitter with people in Europe and Latin America who were following the situation in Mexico.
Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey