Online social media networks + swine flu = mass panic and disaster?

May 1, 2009

Twitter allows information to be passed around quickly, whether that information is right or wrong, and currently, #swineflu is the belle of the ball. I recently came across an article that discussed how people were panicking about the swine flu pandemic on Twitter. It seems to have “infected” the social network itself. The article states that the quick transmission and retransmission of information across the Twitterverse can cause an unnecessary panic.

But my question is, does it really make everything worse? Are people panicking more or less than they would without these websites? There would still be television or radio or newspaper if there were no internet, so people would still hear of the pandemic and talk about it frequently. In the past, word of mouth was an effective way of hearing about many things, and it seems like Twitter is just taking these conversations that would have taken place anyways and putting them out on the public sphere, which allows people to see how much and how often people are actually discussing the issue.

But is the article overreacting? Should we be panicking? One child has died in the United States, about 60 people have died in Mexico, and there are confirmed cases in many countries, and even more suspected cases. However, another article I read said that last winter, 36,000 Americans died of the regular flu, and yet another article I read claims that this outbreak of swine flu will not be as deadly as a normal flu outbreak. Many of the people who have been infected have been treated and have recovered without complications. There is always the threat of mutation and spreading to third world countries, but a web 2.0 induced panic will not do anything to stop the spread and/or possible mutation.

Every time the virus spreads somewhere new, people are tweeting and blogging all about it. I actually saw that @huilim tweeted earlier today that several students at Amherst College have tested positive. A White House aide has also tested positive. This information has all spread quickly due to the internet. There was even one tweet that the first article mentioned, it read “In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town….SWINE FLU = DANGER”.

I have come across all of the aforementioned articles on ontd_political, an offshoot of the hugely popular “Oh No They Didn’t” livejournal community. One great thing about livejournal is that it’s such a great platform for discussion, and swine flu has been a popular topic in the past couple days. To me, it seems like most if the members are staying pretty level-headed about the virus, which is a good sign. On livejournal, it was a huge fad to photoshop Aretha Franklin’s memorable hat from the Obama inauguration on one’s icon, and the new trend seems to be putting masks on one’s icon. I think that people aren’t TOO concerned, because they’re lightheartedly joking with the icons.

-Sylvia

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