Swine Flu Online: Panic and Bad Information

Swine flu generates oceans of noise on the Net. "The chatter about swine flu even dwarfs that of recent viral media star Susan Boyle," notes a Nielsen report.

Swine flu resources
There's a lot being said about swine flu on the Internet -- but as with any hot topic on the Web, there's also a lot of noise.

A Nielsen report earlier this week noted "the chatter about swine flu even dwarfs that of recent viral media star Susan Boyle."

Just try to follow the traffic on Twitter: Posters' comments range from the panicky to the concerned to the jocular. ("Aporkalypse Now?" more than one Twitterer has quipped.)

You'll find someone calling for calm, arguing against the noise, saying that fewer people will die today from swine flu than from traffic accidents.

But you'll also find the ignorant talking about how one can avoid the illness by not eating pork (an unnecessary precaution: unless you eat pork raw, you're safe). Another poster recommended to Twitter users, "Don't freak out, but probably good to have 1-2 weeks food and water on hand."

You'll find no end to the public fretting over the subject: "Standing in line at Chipotle and thinking hmm should I be eating here...?" one Twitter user wrote. Meanwhile, another user posted, "dont eat in public! Swine flu is everywhere... BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY!" Added a third: "Ionno if hittin the club tonight is safe..swine flu and all and cinco de mayo might def be out the question seeing as how thats where it from."

And you'll find jokes in poor taste, such as someone calling it "bacon lung."

Poor taste in humor isn't restricted to tweets alone. Discover Magazine ran a dourly amusing article called The Five Worst Government Responses to Swine Flu. One blogger created an LOLcat joke. Another was offering a bacon-flavored chocolate pig to whoever came up with the best name for a swine flu cake.

Of course, there is useful data on the Internet as well -- even on Twitter. Veratect, which monitors the world for biological hazards, now has 5,570 followers for its Twitter feed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have several Twitter feeds and the one that handles emergencies now has over 63,000 followers.

Traffic to the CDC Web site has increased 123 percent this week, Nielsen Online said in its blog. The average amount of time spent on the site has increased too, up to 6.5 minutes on Sunday from a little over 4 minutes the week before.

Nielsen lauded the CDC's Twitter feed, saying "its no-nonsense fashion ... hopefully will help to quell public fears."

One service allows you to view the chatter in real time. At monitter, a service that streams Twitter feeds, they've devoted most of their home page to the subject and the swine flu stream, which is divided in two feeds around the two common hashtags in use (one for #swineflu, the other for #H1N1). The resulting updates move so quickly that it's nearly impossible to click on any of the links in the tweets.

Some online reactions to the emergency are extremely unpleasant. Earlier this week, InternetNews.com reported that swine flu scammers were quick to take advantage of fear -- encouraging worried Net users to click on e-mails offering "Swine Flu pills" and similar products.

Now there are reports that racists are using the emergency to spread their own message of hate. "This is all very predictable. And counter-productive," wrote health care bloggers at The New Republic.

While malcontents and thieves are taking advantage of the vulnerable, there are also legitimate businesses that have reacted online in a responsible manner to the outbreak. Emergency department information system (EDIS) solutions provider T-System is providing clinicians' charts for the disease in PDF format to help emergency rooms make accurate diagnoses. The charts are provided for free.

"This initiative is our attempt to provide the most current point-of-care information to providers in emergency departments," said Suzette Weir-Thorby, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for T-System, in an e-mail to InternetNews.com. "It is our corporate responsibility."

T-System's traffic has increased dramatically to 10 times the daily average since the emergency began, the company said.

Government health officials are also taking to the Net to assure people that although there's a lot of fear, the government is prepared. During a CDC Web cast yesterday, officials responded to a wide range of fears from the well-informed -- that flu outbreaks often come in waves -- to the less well-informed -- a woman asking whether her husband who works in a manufacturing plant that uses parts from Mexico could catch the disease.

"We are doing everything we can at the government level," said Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, said during the Web cast. "We are moving stockpiles out and we'll continue doing that."

The federal government has 50 million courses of anti-virals, the states have 22 million, and the military has 7 million, she added.

But the private sector is also seizing on the moment to make a case for its products and services. For one thing, telework advocates and businesses are arguing that more people should work from home and that businesses' disaster preparedness plans should allow employees to stay at home.

"Whether the swine flu escalates or not, companies need to investigate telecommuting as part of their comprehensive disaster response plans," said Kyra Cavanaugh, president of Life Meets Work, a consulting firm specializing in enabling telework.

Chuck Wilsker, President and CEO of The Telework Coalition, a non-profit advocate, called telework an insurance policy.

"This type of an 'insurance policy' is one that if properly implemented will not only afford business continuity and risk management benefits, but also will have a surprisingly positive return on the investment made and in many cases will pay for itself," he said in a statement.

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com.

Tags: search, voice, policy, e-Mail, swine flu

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