Swine Flu: Can Social Networking Fan a Pandemic?

Some say the current swine flu outbreak is a prime example of where technology and the enhanced social interaction it enables can go awry. For instance, some say Twitter may do more harm than good in the case of spreading the word about the disease.

Some say the current swine flu outbreak is a prime example of where technology and the enhanced social interaction it enables can go awry.

The swine flu outbreak so far is responsible for at least 86 deaths in Mexico, and cases have been cited in the United States, Canada, France, Israel and New Zealand. The Obama administration has declared a public emergency to deal with the swine flu outbreak in the United States, where at least 20 cases have been confirmed.

However, some say services such as Twitter only serve to spread more panic than is necessary, where others say the ability to immediately interact and share information could be key to preventing the spread of the virus.

In a blog post on ForeignPolicy.com, Evgeny Morozov makes the case that with the swine flu situation, Twitter has the power to misinform.

Said Morozov:

""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 [been] 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 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.""

Morozov said lack of context is a problem in much of the Twitter traffic regarding the swine flu outbreak. He said, "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 ..."

Yet, Morozov also noted that lack of context is probably not a problem in 99 percent of discussions happening on Twitter. 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."

Google provides more pointed information and has mapped the flu trend. Tim Finin, a blogger at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), wrote:

""Google has had a special 'flu trends' site up for many months that provides 'up-to-date estimates of flu activity in the United States based on aggregated search queries.'"They have found that how many people search for flu-related topics is a leading indicator for reports on how many people actually have flu symptoms. They believe that this metric 'may indicate flu activity up to two weeks ahead of traditional flu surveillance systems.'""

And the Google Maps Mania blog points out a map an organization has made that shows the spread of swine flu in Mexico and "is a collaborative, social sharing attempt to map the epidemic, which requires user input." The blog also cites other relevant maps created with the Google Maps technology.

Broadstuff.com chimes in with a tongue-in-cheek view of how to avoid the pandemic on Twitter:

"(i) Do not associate with people who transmit the Pandemic meme-wash your hands of them and unsub until they are seen to be uninfected.(ii) If you find you are infected by the Twitter Pandemic meme, disconnect immediately from the net, take 2 doctors and call us in the morning.(iii) If you feel sweaty, and have flulike symptoms, there is a 90% chance you have a cold, a 9% chance you have Man-Flu, a 0.9% chance the heating is turned up too high, a 0.09% chance it's all in the mind and 0.009% chance of too much spice in your Tandoori.(iv) Disconnect from this post immediately."

Yet, levity aside, this flu outbreak is for real and is scary. Having confirmed cases in France is a wee bit of a concern for me, as I am currently in Nice. On the trip over, I happened to be sitting in the same row as a research scientist on the way to attend a virus conference in Cannes. Said scientist, who specializes in avian and pandemic influenza, was headed to The Third International Conference on Influenza Vaccines for the World, where the swine flu is expected to dominate the conversation.