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:

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…

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.

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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