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Diagnosing the Swine Flu Infodemic

The Impacts of Information - And Misdiagnosis of Social Media - Surrounding The Swine Flu Outbreak

By Adam Elkus | April 30, 2009

No matter the product involved, the hype cycle is always the same. First comes excessive adulation and praise, then mass buy-in, and finally critical backlash. Just like a once-hip New York indie rock band, Twitter is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Mainstream media critics, alarmed by the online panic over the swine flu, are attacking Twitter as a breeding ground for irrational hysteria.

Foreign Policy's techblogger Evgeny Morozov has written the most trenchant Twitter critique, pointing to a horror show of tweets ranging from conspiracist speculations about germ warfare to fallacious "simple cures" for swine flu sufferers.

Don't believe the hype. Mass panics are as old as human civilization and Twitter is neither a cauldron of hysterical ignorance nor a completely neutral technology. Twitter and other social media tools are only one part of a complex and imperfect information ecosystem that nevertheless possesses the potential for positive collaboration.

Facilitated by either stagecoach messenger or Friendfeed, communication can amplify popular fear into mass hysteria. And with every panic comes the same hyperbolic criticism of communication technology, employing imagery of mindless crowds driven into a frenzy by mass media's siren song. Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno famously proclaimed that popular media constituted a "culture industry" that stresses uncritical obedience, Situationist activist Guy Debord saw media as a tool of mass consumer culture behind the "society of the spectacle," and media critic Neil Postman went as far as to claim that media is slowly "amusing us to death." Countless other critics have derided various forms of the "idiot box" in substantially less articulate language.

No matter the time, place, or ideology, the criticism of media and mass man boils down to the fear that the irrational mob will destroy civilization. It's the same narrative of the barbarians at the gates, except this time the invading Huns have Bluetooth-equipped iPhones instead of battleaxes. But the mass culture critique ignores social media's strengths and misdiagnoses its weaknesses.

Twitter neither originated the swine flu hysteria nor substantially amplified it. Instead, sensationalist reporting by mainstream media outlets stimulates popular hysteria by saturating the public with wave after wave of distorted information. Swine flu undeniably poses a major threat that requires urgent and comprehensive response, but media reports lack any sense of perspective, caution, or restraint. The common cold kills 36,000 Americans a year, averaging out to about 150 deaths per day during the eight months of the flu season. So far, the only casualty of the current crisis outside of Mexico has been a young Mexican boy visiting Texas. But you'd never know this from the tenor of MSM coverage, always on the verge of declaring that a snout-faced horseman of the apocalypse has descended to cleanse the unbelievers. Since blogs and microblogs are parasitic mediums, the MSM tsunami of fear and terror inevitably creates ripples in the social media ecosystem.

But while Twitter isn't the hotbed of hysteria commonly portrayed in the media, it also isn't an entirely neutral medium. If the rise of a globalized world has facilitated the rapid spread of diseases and viruses, viral mediums like Twitter help spread "infodemics." As Carnegie Endowment fellow David Rothkopf argues, these panics are fueled by the complex interaction between differing forms of media:

"An infodemic is not the rapid spread of simple news via the media, nor is it simply the rumor mill on steroids. ...[I]t is a complex phenomenon caused by the interaction of mainstream media, specialist media and internet sites; and "informal" media, which is to say wireless phones, text messaging, pagers, faxes and e-mail, all transmitting some combination of fact, rumor, interpretation and propaganda. It can be rendered more difficult to understand by multiple languages, cultures and attitudes toward the free and open flow of information. It involves consumers of information ranging from officials to private citizens who have varying abilities to see the whole information picture, varying degrees of sophistication about what to do with the information they have, little opportunity to authenticate data before acting on it, and little if any training in understanding or controlling the rapidly changing information picture."

Twitter is merely one element of a media infosphere that emergently constructs infodemics, and infodemics give form to what UCLA Professor Douglas Kellner calls the "media spectacle"--a massive drama that puts societal values, fantasies, and fears on public display. The swine flu plays into the disaster-movie narratives of inescapable contagion, infection, and apocalypse that have been present in global media discourse for decades. Like terrorism, pandemics are cast as annihilating events that demonstrate the inherent fragility of the ordering systems that govern everyday life. The shattering of these protective linkages exposes us to the threat of chaos, predation, and extinction.

Twitter plays a special role in the media spectacle because it is fundamentally a performative medium. Like other social media forms such as Facebook or LiveJournal, Twitter places a high premium on performance and role-play as a means of both individual self-expression and group socialization. The downside is that Twitter also gives fearful individuals the means to both act out individual nightmares on a grand stage and find comfort and community in the mass panic of the crowd. Hashtag groupings are instrumental means for users to share in and co-produce common experiences, a phenomenon first observed in the famously crowdsourced coverage of the Mumbai attacks.

Unfortunately, government action isn't likely to stop infodemics. The global infosphere is too vast and dispersed for the kind of message management that public relations firms excel at. Similarly, President Obama is unlikely to quell the panic by channeling his charisma and popularity into Web 2.0 rehashes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous "fireside chats." The best governmental institutions can do is provide correct information and an appearance of competence, using new media forms to try to shape the narrative and respond to public concerns. As Shlok Vaidya blogs, government has largely impeded effective response by placing its own biodefense visualization tools behind a "secrecy wall."

The cure for the infodemic is likely to come from developers and social media users. Crowdsourcing applications and websites can help make sense of raw data and facilitate positive collaboration between general users, subject-matter experts, and social media developers. These information aggregation, visualization, and collaboration tools can help reduce entropy within the information ecosystem by acting as controlling mechanisms that organize and govern the flow of information. But as Vaidya argues, we need a tool to aggregate productivity as well as help families and communities deal with the crisis by distributing data.

Even without such a system, the current swine flu crisis is an opportunity for users and developers to evolve existing capabilities through trial and experimentation. Let the Twitter haters hate. The most important thing is that we all keep the hand sanitizers at the ready.