Swine Flu 2.0 : A Case For How Managing Social Media is a Matter of National Security

The following is a guest post by Michael Dumlao, a member of my team who specializes in creative design,  web development and social media.  He’s also our Crisis 2.0 go-to guy and has spoken at several conferences on the convergence of social media and crisis communications.  Follow him at @michaeldumlao on Twitter.

Jack Holt, Director of New Media at the Department of Defense who oversees DODLive, the DOD’s social media program, recently said with great conviction, that if government is not in the social media space, then government abdicates control to other people who can adopt – with potential malicious intent – a convincing digital masquerade of that agency. Hence his warning that engaging social media is a matter of national security. Specifically, the government needs to lead discussions in social media because it is the government’s job to be there and in doing so, protect the public from misinformation.

This scenario was recently played out with social media’s contentious role in the H1N1 flu outbreak. That social media was criticized for its lack of editorial oversight is not necessarily new. The difference now is the proliferation of social media amongst the public is far greater that when initial concerns about the credibility of social media first came out. Furthermore, with Twitter’s portability on mobile phones, the misinformation that any participatory media can and will create becomes more omnipresent. How then do folks filter through the rumors and (at times, dangerously) erroneous claims without ignoring valid and vital information that could save lives? To this I offer the following thoughts:

THE “RETURN” OF FORMAL MEDIA
Whereas in the case of the Mumbai Terrorist attacks where social media was, for a time, the only source of information (videos, images, first-hand accounts) for the world (and media) to consume, in the case of the current outbreak, there is a multitude of sources of information – both formal and informal. Interestingly, most of the activity on Twitter seemed to be “re-tweets” or posts of media reports from sources like Reuters, CNN or the BBC. Perhaps this demonstrates a phenomenon noted by folks at the University of Colorado when they were analyzing the use of social media in the Southern California fires last year: that when people perceive a dearth of credible information, they will create their own knowledge centers and do whatever it takes to get (or broadcast) that information. In this case, however, there is an abundance of credible information, so no need to investigate unnecessarily.

The problem with this scenario was when what was being rebroadcasted was wrong, as in the tweets and facebook updates claiming that eating pork led to an infection. Tweets such as “H1N1 flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people” and “ pigs are the reason for H1N1 flu, don’t eat pork” circulated, prompting responses from several other Twitter users, the mainstream media and even the pork industry to assert the contrary. For example, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley tweeted his own message on Twitter: “U can’t get H1N1 flu from eating pork. Eatup. Regardless of epidemic.”

That said, it’s certainly difficult to keep pace with the viral nature of social media. According to Yahoo, in the course of a five-minute search on Facebook Monday afternoon, the number of “group” Web pages dedicated to the new flu jumped from 15 to 108. And anyone monitoring the hashtags “#swineflu” or “#influenza” (check out http://tweetchat.com/room/swineflu or http://outbreak.tweetmeme.com) knows how active the discussions are around this.

Consider these thoughts from National Public Radio’s by Evgeny Morozov :

I think it’s only a matter of time before that the next generation of cyber-terrorists — those who are smart about social media, are familiar with modern information flows, and are knowledgeable about human networks — take advantage of the escalating fears over the next epidemic and pollute the networked public sphere with scares that would essentially paralyze the global economy. Often, such tactics would bring much more destruction than the much-feared cyberwar and attacks on physical — rather than human — networks.

Let’s just do some thinking about what’s possible here. One of the least discussed elements in the cyber-attacks that struck Estonia in 2007 was psychological operations. There was, for example, a whole series of text messages aimed specifically at Estonia’s vast Russian-speaking populations urging them to drive their cars at 5km/h at a specific time of they day; quite predictably, this led to a hold-up in traffic (you can watch a TV report in Estonian about this here). Thus, a buy-in from the most conspiracy-driven 1% of the population may be enough to stall traffic in the entire city. We could easily expect even more devastating consequences from the public scares generated by global pandemics. This is the reason why the current wave of Twitter-induced speculation — and manipulation — are worth paying attention to…

A CASE FOR GOVERNMENT LEADERSHIP
So how, then, should government respond? Certainly not by ignoring the chatter – no matter how inane (“Where’s SpiderPig when you need him?”) to the potentially alarming (“Close the borders. Leave it in Mexico.”) – but in fact lead the discussion and make official data social media friendly. The Center of Disease Control has always been on the forefront of media innovation (I’ve personally learned a lot from their viral information widgets about the more “normal” flu), and has indeed a) led the dialogue and b) made their information re-postable. Take for example CDC’s activity on http://twitter.com/cdcemergency or their great YouTube video from CDC featuring Dr. Joe Bresee of the CDC Influenza Division describing H1N1 flu – its signs and symptoms, how it’s transmitted, medicines to treat it, steps people can take to protect themselves from it, and what people should do if they become ill.

However, this was just one government agency Tweeting, it seems, at a rate far less frequent than the stream of blatantly alarmist, erroneous information. According to Morozov, “in an ideal world, they {institutions like the WHO} would have established ownership of most online conversations from the very beginning, posting updates as often as they can. Instead, they were faced (at least for a while) with the prospect of thousands of really fearful citizens, all armed with their own mini-platforms to broadcast their fears — which may cost it dearly in the long term.”

Indeed, it may cost us – both the public and our institutions. Because unless the credible, expert information is able to rise above the noise and lead the conversation in the forums where this misinformation is most potent, then there is a serious threat to public safety. In this media age, authorities cannot rely on television, radio or the dying print industry anymore. In this environment, government must engage the chatter.

USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO TRACK PUBLIC DISCUSSION
Using technologies like “Lexicon” on Facebook or www.sickcity.org (both of which monitor words in status updates like “flu” and graphs their frequency) or http://healthmap.org/swineflu can help authorities track public perception – or more importantly, misperception. For Morozov, “the question of whether we need to somehow alter our global information flows during global pandemics is not a trivial one. A recent New York Times piece highlighted how a growing number of corporations like Starbucks, Dell, and Whole Foods are turning to Twitter to monitor and partially shape conversation about particular brands or products. What the piece failed to mention was that conversations about more serious topics (like pandemics- and their tragic consequences) could be shaped as well.”

What we have here is actually a tremendous opportunity to peer into the minds of our public and begin to measure the efficacy of messaging campaigns. A very casual, quick test shows that misleading tweets about how pork consumption leads to infection died down quickly once official sources and the media (which likely picked up on the misinformation among the public) announced that folks could not, in fact, get infected by eating pork. In other words, use social media to monitor what the public is collectively “thinking”. If there are rumors, address them, then review subsequent posts to make sure the correction “stuck.” Like Starbucks and Dell (as mentioned above), authorities need to shape the discussion; this, however, takes active leadership that will require our clients to tweet, status-update, post articles and upload videos with the speed that social media is accustomed to.

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  • we all know that politicians and government agencies have not always been the most truthful. not just in america but around the world (because social media is universal). in the same say you can say a terrorist cell could use social media to induce confusion and hysteria – so too could the government belie us with false information in order to control the population.

    what’s worse? a few internet ‘moments’ of confusing chatter during an emergency, or lies from the government designed to keep order which lead to (perhaps in a situation involving a dirty bomb, chemical attack, etc.) an increased number of casualties among civilians acting on false information?

    a double-edged sword if you ask me.

    expecting the government of the united state or any other nation to use social media for purposes of good only may be asking a little much.

    also, i personally congratulate the WHO and CDC for not jumping to conclusions and for taking the time to understand the H1N1 virus before releasing information on it via social media channels like twitter, and official channels like the major world news outlets. i congratulate them even if that meant having a day or two of “maybe i shouldn’t have had those pork chops last night” tongue-in-cheek tweets floating around.

  • we all know that politicians and government agencies have not always been the most truthful. not just in america but around the world (because social media is universal). in the same say you can say a terrorist cell could use social media to induce confusion and hysteria – so too could the government belie us with false information in order to control the population.

    what’s worse? a few internet ‘moments’ of confusing chatter during an emergency, or lies from the government designed to keep order which lead to (perhaps in a situation involving a dirty bomb, chemical attack, etc.) an increased number of casualties among civilians acting on false information?

    a double-edged sword if you ask me.

    expecting the government of the united state or any other nation to use social media for purposes of good only may be asking a little much.

    also, i personally congratulate the WHO and CDC for not jumping to conclusions and for taking the time to understand the H1N1 virus before releasing information on it via social media channels like twitter, and official channels like the major world news outlets. i congratulate them even if that meant having a day or two of “maybe i shouldn’t have had those pork chops last night” tongue-in-cheek tweets floating around.

  • we all know that politicians and government agencies have not always been the most truthful. not just in america but around the world (because social media is universal). in the same say you can say a terrorist cell could use social media to induce confusion and hysteria – so too could the government belie us with false information in order to control the population.

    what’s worse? a few internet ‘moments’ of confusing chatter during an emergency, or lies from the government designed to keep order which lead to (perhaps in a situation involving a dirty bomb, chemical attack, etc.) an increased number of casualties among civilians acting on false information?

    a double-edged sword if you ask me.

    expecting the government of the united state or any other nation to use social media for purposes of good only may be asking a little much.

    also, i personally congratulate the WHO and CDC for not jumping to conclusions and for taking the time to understand the H1N1 virus before releasing information on it via social media channels like twitter, and official channels like the major world news outlets. i congratulate them even if that meant having a day or two of “maybe i shouldn’t have had those pork chops last night” tongue-in-cheek tweets floating around.

  • The use of the Internet in this crisis points out the problems that governments at all levels have with information and technology.

    Texas, in the top three of states with novel H1N1 cases, has cut its reporting to twice a week. Florida has ceased reporting it altogether.

    The CDC posts its daily count between 11 and noon. Most states post their counts after noon. WHO posts its count around 6 am GMT. The numbers rarely match.

    Today, for example, the CDC count was nearly 700 cases lower than those as reported on the state websites. The real problem is that it used counts from Texas and California from last Friday. Texas updated its numbers Tuesday. California did not do so until this afternoon.

    The media count of deaths due to the swine flu does not agree with the CDC. How can we know what the correct data is?

    The Department of Defense is now reporting weekly. That matters because nearly 5% of the known cases are military or military related. A Navy ship had to cancel a deployment because over 30 of her sailors got swine flu. The Marine Corps has two sites with significant numbers, recruit training and an air station, both in California. 13 cases have been discovered in Fort Riley, Kansas, in the Army.

    And… the folks who update state and Federal websites don’t work weekends.

    There is no reason that every agency should not have the same data. In an e-mail I can send information around the world in seconds. The failure of the various governmental agencies to use the tools they already have only adds to any confusion on Twitter.

  • The use of the Internet in this crisis points out the problems that governments at all levels have with information and technology.

    Texas, in the top three of states with novel H1N1 cases, has cut its reporting to twice a week. Florida has ceased reporting it altogether.

    The CDC posts its daily count between 11 and noon. Most states post their counts after noon. WHO posts its count around 6 am GMT. The numbers rarely match.

    Today, for example, the CDC count was nearly 700 cases lower than those as reported on the state websites. The real problem is that it used counts from Texas and California from last Friday. Texas updated its numbers Tuesday. California did not do so until this afternoon.

    The media count of deaths due to the swine flu does not agree with the CDC. How can we know what the correct data is?

    The Department of Defense is now reporting weekly. That matters because nearly 5% of the known cases are military or military related. A Navy ship had to cancel a deployment because over 30 of her sailors got swine flu. The Marine Corps has two sites with significant numbers, recruit training and an air station, both in California. 13 cases have been discovered in Fort Riley, Kansas, in the Army.

    And… the folks who update state and Federal websites don’t work weekends.

    There is no reason that every agency should not have the same data. In an e-mail I can send information around the world in seconds. The failure of the various governmental agencies to use the tools they already have only adds to any confusion on Twitter.

  • The use of the Internet in this crisis points out the problems that governments at all levels have with information and technology.

    Texas, in the top three of states with novel H1N1 cases, has cut its reporting to twice a week. Florida has ceased reporting it altogether.

    The CDC posts its daily count between 11 and noon. Most states post their counts after noon. WHO posts its count around 6 am GMT. The numbers rarely match.

    Today, for example, the CDC count was nearly 700 cases lower than those as reported on the state websites. The real problem is that it used counts from Texas and California from last Friday. Texas updated its numbers Tuesday. California did not do so until this afternoon.

    The media count of deaths due to the swine flu does not agree with the CDC. How can we know what the correct data is?

    The Department of Defense is now reporting weekly. That matters because nearly 5% of the known cases are military or military related. A Navy ship had to cancel a deployment because over 30 of her sailors got swine flu. The Marine Corps has two sites with significant numbers, recruit training and an air station, both in California. 13 cases have been discovered in Fort Riley, Kansas, in the Army.

    And… the folks who update state and Federal websites don’t work weekends.

    There is no reason that every agency should not have the same data. In an e-mail I can send information around the world in seconds. The failure of the various governmental agencies to use the tools they already have only adds to any confusion on Twitter.

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  • dumlaoatbooz

    Hi “johnny”, while I mentioned that government needed to respond with the speed of social media, like you I’m also glad that their responses were measured and researched – not alarmist or rushed. The last thing anyone would want is for the government (or any organization) to rush out a response at the expense of public safety.

    Interestingly, though, I base both this and my article on a belief that what makes social media so powerful is that it connects people to people — even when one side of the channel resides in a federal role. So as an experiment, try substituting the word “government” in your post with the word “people” and see what happens.

    That said, if asking government to participate in social media yields suspicion – the “double edged sword” you speak of, then I can’t think of a better blunting instrument than the power of social media to multiply democratic participation. In other words, if someone sees something upsetting, use these mediums to put voice to those concerns.

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Hi “johnny”, while I mentioned that government needed to respond with the speed of social media, like you I’m also glad that their responses were measured and researched – not alarmist or rushed. The last thing anyone would want is for the government (or any organization) to rush out a response at the expense of public safety.

    Interestingly, though, I base both this and my article on a belief that what makes social media so powerful is that it connects people to people — even when one side of the channel resides in a federal role. So as an experiment, try substituting the word “government” in your post with the word “people” and see what happens.

    That said, if asking government to participate in social media yields suspicion – the “double edged sword” you speak of, then I can’t think of a better blunting instrument than the power of social media to multiply democratic participation. In other words, if someone sees something upsetting, use these mediums to put voice to those concerns.

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Hi “johnny”, while I mentioned that government needed to respond with the speed of social media, like you I’m also glad that their responses were measured and researched – not alarmist or rushed. The last thing anyone would want is for the government (or any organization) to rush out a response at the expense of public safety.

    Interestingly, though, I base both this and my article on a belief that what makes social media so powerful is that it connects people to people — even when one side of the channel resides in a federal role. So as an experiment, try substituting the word “government” in your post with the word “people” and see what happens.

    That said, if asking government to participate in social media yields suspicion – the “double edged sword” you speak of, then I can’t think of a better blunting instrument than the power of social media to multiply democratic participation. In other words, if someone sees something upsetting, use these mediums to put voice to those concerns.

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Thanks Chuck. Seems like you’re the definitive voice of authority on this 🙂 And perhaps what we can takeaway here is that at times the authoritative voice doesn’t have to be the government all the time. It can be a few citizens armed with questions and good data.

    A colleague at NPR once said that what he needed to do his job was good data that he could visually communicate to the public. To that, the government started an online Data clearinghouse (http://www.data.gov) to open up datasets for use by the public. But in the case of conflicting data such as in H1N1, perhaps it is the role of the government to provide what data they have, and for an enterprising citizen to make meaning out of the disparate clutter.

    Social media can then give whatever translation comes from this a solid platform to disperse better information.

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Thanks Chuck. Seems like you’re the definitive voice of authority on this 🙂 And perhaps what we can takeaway here is that at times the authoritative voice doesn’t have to be the government all the time. It can be a few citizens armed with questions and good data.

    A colleague at NPR once said that what he needed to do his job was good data that he could visually communicate to the public. To that, the government started an online Data clearinghouse (http://www.data.gov) to open up datasets for use by the public. But in the case of conflicting data such as in H1N1, perhaps it is the role of the government to provide what data they have, and for an enterprising citizen to make meaning out of the disparate clutter.

    Social media can then give whatever translation comes from this a solid platform to disperse better information.

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Thanks Chuck. Seems like you’re the definitive voice of authority on this 🙂 And perhaps what we can takeaway here is that at times the authoritative voice doesn’t have to be the government all the time. It can be a few citizens armed with questions and good data.

    A colleague at NPR once said that what he needed to do his job was good data that he could visually communicate to the public. To that, the government started an online Data clearinghouse (http://www.data.gov) to open up datasets for use by the public. But in the case of conflicting data such as in H1N1, perhaps it is the role of the government to provide what data they have, and for an enterprising citizen to make meaning out of the disparate clutter.

    Social media can then give whatever translation comes from this a solid platform to disperse better information.

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Some interesting resources that folks have brought to our team’s attention since I posted this article:

    1) From Health and Human Services (HHS):
    http://www.facebook.com/H1N1flu
    http://www.PandemicFlu.gov
    http://www.twitter.com/BirdFluGov

    2) A report on hospital use of social media:
    http://www.healthleadersmedia.com/content/232830/topic/WS_HLM2_TEC/Hospitals-Used-New-Communication-Tools-During-Swine-Flu-Scare.html

    3) A CNN report on social media coverage of swine flu:
    http://scitech.blogs.cnn.com/2009/04/29/cdc-backs-social-media-coverage-of-swine-flu/

    4) And a fantastic piece from NPR on what you can do to halt the spread:
    http://www.npr.org/news/graphics/2009/may/gimmefive/?sc=fb&cc=fp

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Some interesting resources that folks have brought to our team’s attention since I posted this article:

    1) From Health and Human Services (HHS):
    http://www.facebook.com/H1N1flu
    http://www.PandemicFlu.gov
    http://www.twitter.com/BirdFluGov

    2) A report on hospital use of social media:
    http://www.healthleadersmedia.com/content/232830/topic/WS_HLM2_TEC/Hospitals-Used-New-Communication-Tools-During-Swine-Flu-Scare.html

    3) A CNN report on social media coverage of swine flu:
    http://scitech.blogs.cnn.com/2009/04/29/cdc-backs-social-media-coverage-of-swine-flu/

    4) And a fantastic piece from NPR on what you can do to halt the spread:
    http://www.npr.org/news/graphics/2009/may/gimmefive/?sc=fb&cc=fp

  • dumlaoatbooz

    Some interesting resources that folks have brought to our team’s attention since I posted this article:

    1) From Health and Human Services (HHS):
    http://www.facebook.com/H1N1flu
    http://www.PandemicFlu.gov
    http://www.twitter.com/BirdFluGov

    2) A report on hospital use of social media:
    http://www.healthleadersmedia.com/content/232830/topic/WS_HLM2_TEC/Hospitals-Used-New-Communication-Tools-During-Swine-Flu-Scare.html

    3) A CNN report on social media coverage of swine flu:
    http://scitech.blogs.cnn.com/2009/04/29/cdc-backs-social-media-coverage-of-swine-flu/

    4) And a fantastic piece from NPR on what you can do to halt the spread:
    http://www.npr.org/news/graphics/2009/may/gimmefive/?sc=fb&cc=fp

  • the spread of AH1N1 or Swine Flu is really scary. It is a good thing that this virus is not very deadly. We are advised to take Vitamin-C and to wear face masks.

  • the spread of AH1N1 or Swine Flu is really scary. It is a good thing that this virus is not very deadly. We are advised to take Vitamin-C and to wear face masks.

  • the spread of AH1N1 or Swine Flu is really scary. It is a good thing that this virus is not very deadly. We are advised to take Vitamin-C and to wear face masks.

  • the use of face masks and boosting your immune system by taking lots of vitamin-C is still an effective way of preventing the spread of the Swine Flu virus.

  • the use of face masks and boosting your immune system by taking lots of vitamin-C is still an effective way of preventing the spread of the Swine Flu virus.

  • the use of face masks and boosting your immune system by taking lots of vitamin-C is still an effective way of preventing the spread of the Swine Flu virus.

  • i always advice my kids to wear face masks when going into crowded areas. swine flu is really scary and i dont want my kids getting infected by it.

  • i always advice my kids to wear face masks when going into crowded areas. swine flu is really scary and i dont want my kids getting infected by it.

  • i always advice my kids to wear face masks when going into crowded areas. swine flu is really scary and i dont want my kids getting infected by it.

  • I have a relative who got the Swine Flu in Mexico. It is a good thing that he already recovered from this disease.

  • I have a relative who got the Swine Flu in Mexico. It is a good thing that he already recovered from this disease.

  • I have a relative who got the Swine Flu in Mexico. It is a good thing that he already recovered from this disease.

  • the H1N1 or Swine Flu Virus is very scary at first but now it is well controlled by vaccines and prevention by avoiding going into places with incidence of swine flu.

  • the H1N1 or Swine Flu Virus is very scary at first but now it is well controlled by vaccines and prevention by avoiding going into places with incidence of swine flu.

  • the H1N1 or Swine Flu Virus is very scary at first but now it is well controlled by vaccines and prevention by avoiding going into places with incidence of swine flu.

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  • | H1N1 or Swine Flu is a bit scary but it a good thing to note that this virus is not that very deadly

  • | H1N1 or Swine Flu is a bit scary but it a good thing to note that this virus is not that very deadly

  • | H1N1 or Swine Flu is a bit scary but it a good thing to note that this virus is not that very deadly

  • swine flu presents like seasonal influenza but it can get worsen and get life threatening so watch out

  • swine flu presents like seasonal influenza but it can get worsen and get life threatening so watch out

  • swine flu presents like seasonal influenza but it can get worsen and get life threatening so watch out

  • vernon getzler

    H1N1 flu is not scary really!!
    because few of my who live in the area which is highly
    affected(pune in india)by swine flu, visted me just one week
    ago., and i found…

    they are allright, they have no sign and symptom of swine flu,
    they told only few percautions need to taken and u can also
    stay away from SWINE FLU or H1N1.

    === VERNON GETZLER ===

  • vernon getzler

    H1N1 flu is not scary really!!
    because few of my who live in the area which is highly
    affected(pune in india)by swine flu, visted me just one week
    ago., and i found…

    they are allright, they have no sign and symptom of swine flu,
    they told only few percautions need to taken and u can also
    stay away from SWINE FLU or H1N1.

    === VERNON GETZLER ===

  • vernon getzler

    H1N1 flu is not scary really!!
    because few of my who live in the area which is highly
    affected(pune in india)by swine flu, visted me just one week
    ago., and i found…

    they are allright, they have no sign and symptom of swine flu,
    they told only few percautions need to taken and u can also
    stay away from SWINE FLU or H1N1.

    === VERNON GETZLER ===

  • Anonymous

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