Forget Oprah: the biggest star of Twitter at the moment is the Swine Flu, an occasionally fatal illness that has escalated to a public health emergency as it spreads throughout the United States. Though there are only 20 reported cases of the Swine Flu in the U.S., mass hysteria has swept the country, and Twitter is adding fuel to the fire.
Over the past few days, Twitter has exploded with the #swineflu tag. Many tweet about the spread of the illness; others prophesize it ravaging the United States; still more joke about contracting the disease. As of this writing, Swine Flu is the subject of the top two trending topics on Twitter search. The use of Twitter as a forum to discuss a frightening illness has less to do with updating people with news stories and other developments -- it's about spreading gossip, panicking, and potentially misinforming one's followers about a grave concern.
Twitter inched close to becoming nothing more than a popularity contest during the Ashton Kutcher/CNN battle to reach 1 million fans and Oprah's membership. People suddenly desired more followers than their neighbors as a motivating force behind joining Twitter, and saw the best way to attract users as microblogging about the hottest topics. Ergo, many are using the Swine Flu as an excuse to publicize individual accounts with little consideration of the mass effects.
Instead, those concerned about Swine Flu should express caution and assess their sources critically. Remember, it's hard to supply much information or context in 140 characters. Google has provided a useful interactive map charting the course of the Swine Flu. Google also provides constantly updating news feeds from a variety of credible sources via Google News. Also check out Health Map, a global disease-tracking interactive map.