Tweeting the Pandemic
The very word “pandemic” can sow panic, activating dystopian nightmares of mob rule and societal breakdown keyed to cultural memories of movies like Outbreak and 28 Days. As the swine flu epidemic kills scores of people in Mexico and leaps borders and oceans in this modern transcontinental age with alarming ease, it’s tempting to bite down hard on the urge for news and an emotional response short of mass hysteria.
And while Twitter and social networks can satisfy the hunger for information with amazing speed, it’ll be interesting to see what role they play in either feeding or tamping down societal panic. In other words, will Twitter and Facebook and all the other forms of sharing links (and fear) assist our global society in dealing with a kind of virality none of us wants to see expanded.
In the early stages of what threatens to be a major worldwide health challenge, the flow of information from my “follows” at Twitter beats any other amalgamation tool. The death toll postings, news of new outbreaks, and government warnings and policies hit my own Twitter stream faster than they do my email inbox, and from a much wider variety of sources. The #swineflu hashtag is a seriously central spigot for information – it took my, for instance, to a Google map created by “niman,” described as a biomedical researcher from Pittsburgh, which seems to be the most complete, up-to-date graphical tracker of the outbreak I can find.
But the #swineflu hashtag is also a virtual spinal tap into the core of societal fear over the kind of pandemic we’ve always been warned about – the one without a cure that jumps species and borders and threatens civil society. Spend some time the hashtag on the pandemic (of course it’s number one) and you’ll peer into that fearful “group soul” – or rather, the fearful group soul of early adopters and techno geeks. Some try to undersell the danger, with playful (hopeful?) references to “hangnails” and government over-reaction and having a good excuse to skip work. But I also sense in some of the joking a rather wishful urge for gallows humor, as if a few good tweets can make it all go away. “More people are currently sick from eating bad alfalfa sprouts than from the #swineflu,” is one such tweet. And yet the WHO and the White House and the EU aren’t freaked out about alfalfa sprouts.
Yet others are far more serious, and the near-instant access to statistics and information about the epidemic clearly forces what is already a well-informed crowd to pay attention to seriously dark news. Here’s one such tweet: “up to 149 deaths in mexico city from #swineflu. That’s .09% fatality. But geez. Its going up so fast! Last nite was .05% fatality.”
One aspect of this pandemic-related information flow is crystal clear – in times of crisis, people turn to their governments for guidance and assistance. The US government’s PandemicFlu site is cited in hundreds of Twitter posts, blog posts, and Facebook feeds and clearly, some wired civil servants are working overtime to keep the official view as up to date as possible.
Clearly, we don’t yet know how bad this pandemic will be – and pandemic it is, with news of cases in Scotland and Spain to go along with Mexico, the U.S and Canada – but I for one find some comfort in a personalized flow of information that didn’t exist a few years ago. After the disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the San Diego wildfires (among others) it became clear that online networks would carry more of the societal weight during times of crisis, that they hold the potential for drawing citizens together to help. This is a new kind of crisis an along with the health warnings and news, we’ll be following the performance of social media in providing information … and in calming fear.
UPDATE: Via Andy Carvin, here’s Wikia’s flu wiki, by Jimmy Wales.
UPDATE II: The Google map has real accuracy problems, and wasn’t created by the Google team. I posted on it @techPresident.