Swine Flu Frenzy Demonstrates Twitter's Achilles Heel
The Swine Flu emergency is demonstrating a lot of what is wrong about Twitter, but also some things that are right about it, too.
The bad: Anybody can post and sometimes what they post is flat-out wrong or worse. Couple this with an almost unprecedented sense of immediacy, and you've got a recipe for instant global misinformation.
The good: Most of what's there isn't wrong so much as it isn't especially helpful, lacks context, and wastes time.
People who feared nothing good could come from unleashing Twitter on a subject like Swine Flu are probably a bit disappointed right now. The misinformation that appeared on Twitter early in the outbreak has largely been replaced by inanity interspersed with honest attempts by people to inform their followers.
That could change as the flu situation itself changes, but in an hour of searching posts using "swine flu" and the Twitter tag "#swineflu" I didn't find any of the "don't eat pork" or "is this germ warfare?" posts that Evgeny Morozov mentioned in his post to a Foreign Policy magazine blog.
That does not mean Twitter is a trusted source for Swine Flu information, although you can use it to subscribe to updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which is responding to the outbreak. (CDC tweets as CDCemergency; they also offer RSS and e-mail versions of the same information).
Sadly, Twitter itself hampers honest attempts to share useful information. 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.
That lack of useful context is what makes using Twitter search so frustrating. It may work when a company is looking for unhappy customers, but with something as widely mentioned as Swine Flu, it is hard to separate the useful posts from the useless.
Another problem with Twitter is the incredible speed at which it spreads information. Sometimes this is good, but nothing spreads these days as quickly as a juicy rumor on Twitter. That has the potential, in some circumstances, of doing considerable damage if people believe and act upon Twitter misinformation. If there hasn't been an SEC lawsuit alleging stock manipulation via Twitter, it can't be long in coming.
Ultimately, this may keep Twitter from doing real damage by spreading misinformation--searching produces so much information that sane people will quickly head for information in an easier-to-digest (and more reliable) form.
Twitter, of course, is not meant as newswire service, but as a means for people to subscribe to one another's tidbits of life. Among people who know one another or with trusted sources, like CDC, Twitter can be a useful way to alert people to new information.
Sadly, the service is so limited that until your followers click on the link, they will have little real idea of what you are telling them, or why it matters.
For that reason, I am sharing my own Swine Flu finds with friends using Facebook, where they can see much more information before they click.