Who knew that swine flu could also infect Twitter? Yet this is what appears to have happened in the last 24 hours, with thousands of Twitter users turning to their favorite service to query each other about this nascent and potentially lethal threat as well as to share news and latest developments from Mexico, Texas, Kansas and New York (you can check most recent Twitter updates on the subject by searching for "swine flu" and "#swineflu"). And 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.
First of all, I should point out from the very outset that anyone trying to make sense of how Twitter's "global brain" has reacted to the prospect of the swine flu pandemic is likely to get disappointed. The "swine flu" meme has so far that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.
Thus, Unlike basic internet search -- which has been already been nicely used by Google to track emerging flu epidemics -- Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process: as opposed to search requests which are generally motivated only by a desire to learn more about a given subject, too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one's friends do (i.e. tweet about it) or simply gain more popularity.
In situations like this, there is some pathological about people wanting to post yet another status update containing the coveted most-searched words – only for the sake of gaining more people to follow them. And yet the bottom line is that tracking the frequency of Twitter mentions of swine flu as a means of predicting anything thus becomes useless (however, there are plenty of other non-Twitter ways to track the epidemic and Mashable does a good job of summing them all up).
That aside, the "swine flu" Twitter-scare has once again proved the importance of context -- and how badly most Twitter conversations are hurt by the lack of it. The problem with Twitter is that there is very little context you can fit into 140 characters, even less so if all you are doing is watching a stream of messages that mention "swine flu." Now, the lack of context is probably not a problem in 99 percent of discussions happening on Twitter -- or, at least, it's not a problem with devastating global consequences.
However, in the context of a global pandemic -- where media networks are doing their best to spice up an already serious threat -- 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. If you think that my concerns about context are overblown, here are just a few status updates from random Twitter users that would barely make you calmer (or more informed) about what's going on:
I'm concerned about the swine flu outbreak in us and mexico could it be germ warfare? (link)
In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town....SWINE FLU = DANGER (link)
Good grief this swine flu thing is getting serious. 8/9 specimens tested were prelim positive in NYC. so that's Tx, Mexico and now Nyc. (link)
Short Ribs! How long before the Swine Flu hysteria crashes the pork market? 2 hours? 3? (link)
be careful of the swine flu!!!! (may lead to global epidemic) Outbreak in Mexico. 62 deaths so far!! Don't eat pork from Mexico!! (link)
Swine flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people....beef and chicken have always been meats of choice (link)
SIMPLE CURE FOR THE NEW BHS (BIRD/HUMAN/SWINE FLU) AS REPORTED ON TV LAST NIGHT IS THE DRUG TAMIFLU....ALREADY A PRESCRIPTION ON THE MARKET (link)
Be careful...Swine Flu is not only in Mexico now. 8 cases in the States. Pig = Don't eat (link)
If my reading list on Twitter was only restricted to the individuals who had produced the posts above, by now I would be extremely scared and probably feeling a great urge to post a scary Twitter update myself. In moments like this, one is tempted to lament the death of broadcasting, for it seems that the information from expert sources -- government, doctors, and the like – should probably be prioritized over everything else and have a higher chance of being seen that the information from the rest of one's Twitter-feed, full of speculation, misinformation, and gossip.
Here is a tough question to communication experts out there: how do we reach the digital natives out there, especially those who are only accessible via Facebook and Twitter feeds? The problem is that while thousands of concerned and misinformed individuals took to Twitter to ventilate their fears, government and its agencies were still painfully missing from the social media space; the Twitter of account of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was posting updates once in a few hours -- and that was probably the only really trustworthy source people could turn to online.
But what about the rest of the US government or international institutions like WHO? In an ideal world, they would have established ownership of most online conversations from the very beginning, posting updates as often as they can. Instead, they are now faced with the prospect of thousands of really fearful citizens, all armed with their own mini-platforms to broadcast their fears -- which may cost it dearly in the long term.
The question of whether we need to somehow alter our global information flows during global pandemics is not a trivial one. A recent New York Times piece highlighted how a growing number of corporations like Starbucks, Dell, and Whole Foods are turning to Twitter to monitor and partially shape conversation about particular brands or products. What the piece failed to mention was that conversations about more serious topics (like pandemics- and their tragic consequences) could be shaped as well.
I think it's only a matter of time before that 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.
Let's just do some thinking about what's possible here. One of the least discussed elements in the cyber-attacks that struck Estonia in 2007 was psychological operations. There was, for example, a whole series of text messages aimed specifically at Estonia's vast Russian-speaking populations urging them to drive their cars at 5km/h at a specific time of they day; quite predictably, this led to a hold-up in traffic (you can watch a TV report in Estonian about this here). Thus, a buy-in from the most conspiracy-driven 1% of the population may be enough to stall traffic in the entire city. We could easily expect even more devastating consequences from the public scares generated by global pandemics. This is the reason why the current wave of Twitter-induced speculation -- and manipulation -- are worth paying attention to...
photo by The Pug Father/Flickr