The gloves are off (and the hand sanitizer, on). While the world searches for the latest facts and figures on the swine flu, some are singling out Twitter for drumming up global panic and spreading misinformation. Have the old media dinosaurs exposed a genetic flaw in the new social media species, or are they bellowing in vain as they sink deeper into the tar pit?
Some of what Evgeny Morozov writes in Foreign Policy is warranted. Yes, Twitter does have too much noise and is, for many, a high school “how many followers can I get?” popularity ploy. Of course, the 140 character max Twitter format demonstrates the vital need for context. And yes, tweets can contain speculation, misinformation and gossip. This just in...so can any form of broadcast or conversation.
But with specific regard to the swine flu, Morozov goes on to say that “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.” He criticizes the CDC, “the only really trustworthy source,” for only tweeting once every few hours. Since when is that poor Twitter form? Isn’t it better for the CDC to tweet only when there is something new and relevant to share than just natter every ten minutes without adding any value? (I’m looking at YOU, Ashton Kutcher.)
Having scolded all “The sky is falling!” fear-mongering, Morozov's finest moment is this calming, zen-like observation:
“I think it’s only a matter of time before 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.”
Awesome. Thanks, buddy. I feel much better about social media knowing that you’re there at your keyboard, doing nothing at all to stir up panic and tell us to RUN FOR OUR LIVES.
As is always the case when receiving or sharing information, it’s about trust. And mainstream media has passed along its fair share of bunk and hysteria. When using social media or microblogging tools such as Twitter, we have unfiltered access to millions of pieces of content. Some is true, some isn’t. But unliketraditional media, Twitter allows fellow Tweeple to challenge and correct misinformation in real time. For every “No one eat pork until the swine flu is taken care of!” tweet, there is a swift “Swine flu does not come from pigs - am amazed do people read or just react on heresay?” response.
And for those who think fear-mongering is somehow worse on Twitter, have I got the PSAs for you. These gems were produced by the U.S. Public Health Service during the swine flu scare of 1976 and distributed through good old-fashioned television.
Between the first spot's drums of death and Dottie’s passing in the second, Tweeple needn't worry they're blazing new ground on the “hype and misinformation” front.