As the swine flu media frenzy reaches front and center in the world news circus, many are looking to Twitter for information, just as they have in recent times for live coverage. During the Mumbai attacks last November, it was Twitter that had the most up-to-date information, not CNN or Fox News. There were several citizen reporters tweeting live from the scene to tell the world what was really happening, as it was happening.
Twitter has provided a platform for internet users to chat about TV shows as they air, to follow famous celebrities’ every move (even more than usual), and to show the first pictures of events such as the “Miracle on the Hudson” and this year’s plane crash in Buffalo, New York. It is also making a difference – Ashton Kutcher donated 20,000 bed nets to Malaria No More after winning a race with CNN to become the first Twitter user with one million followers.
Misinformation Spreads on Twitter
But in the last few days, users have seen the bad side of Twitter. With the swine flu becoming the number one tweeted topic continuously since the first case was reported, misinformation has spread like wildfire. The panic that media organizations helped ignite by reminding viewers that 40 million people perished during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic was only worsened by hearsay making the rounds on the social networking site.
David Coursey at PC World pointed out in an article discussing misinformation on Twitter (which can be found here) that the real problem is “the 140-character limitation and the reasonable tendency to use services that shorten long URLs mean the same information could be presented over and over without anybody noticing the redundancy until they click on the links.” This is indeed the most frustrating aspect of Twitter, by far. But, thankfully, harmless.
Twitter Does More Good Than Harm
It is true that Twitter is helping aid some of the panic. A look at the hashtag #swineflu shows countless users claiming the virus has achieved global pandemic status and that the U.S.-Mexico border has been shut down to check for the disease.
Fortunately, Twitter seems to do more good than harm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both have Twitters that they are continuously updating to spread official, and helpful, information. It appears to be the media that is spreading the most alarming information and causing panic, and the ability to reach the WHO with a click of a mouse is helping spread the right kind of information among Twitter users.
As long as language has been used, misinformation and gossip have been spread, and Twitter is in no way immune from this. But, the silly statements about the swine flu made by some users are hardly being taken seriously, and the use of respected organizations on the social networking site shows that Twitter is, quite possibly, the best avenue for news today.