Swine Flu Showing The Best – And Worst – Of Social Media In A Crisis

I’ve written and presented in the past on potential uses of social media in crisis communications. In the past, it’s been about the potential uses. In the last few days, though, we’ve seen some of the best – and worst – potential uses of online tools (social and otherwise) to communicate with the public in an emergency.

While hardly scientific, here are three of the best ways you can use online tools to stay on top of the latest developments in the swine flu outbreak:

Track it in the news

Google Alerts are somewhat  of an obvious tool, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. Set up an alert with “swine flu” to track developments in general, or an alert with “swine flu” and your town’s name to keep an eye on local stories.

Track it geographically

Plenty of online maps are available to help you get a sense of how swine flu has spread. Two of the best have been created by Henry Niman, founder of Recombinomics (hat tip to Om Malik), RSOE Emergency and Disaster Information Service (which I wrote about previously here) and Google’s HealthMap


View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map
 

Track it in real-time

For breaking news, there are few places better to look nowadays than Twitter. Organizations like the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (also here), the Red Cross,  the folks behind HealthMap and the World Health Organization are using Twitter to distribute their latest updates in real-time.

Track it via RSS

Many of the organizations officially dealing with the outbreak have stepped-up and provided RSS-enabled updates on their sites. Check out updates from the CDC and World Health Organization, and plug them into your RSS reader.

Be careful

Meanwhile, we’ve also seen the risks of relying on the wisdom (and hysteria) of the crowd, with an overwhelming level of conversation around swine flu and information of dubious validity being posted. Make sure you double-check anything you see before assuming it is correct.

Other ways?

What are the best examples you’ve seen of online tools being used to communicate through this outbreak?

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  • Kt D

    Well, Twitter is obviously a great way to keep updated on everything–whether completely accurate or not. But then, it is quite easy to switch to a trusted news source or blogger’s twitter page and see their reportage of the development. One site that provides good summary videos of recent changes in this swine flu–or rather, “H1N1” virus–is newsy.com (newsydotcom on Twitter). They provide a summation of multiple sources in attempts to remain unbiased, and their videos are short/interesting to watch. Here’s the link to their most recent flu video over the recent name change debates:

    http://www.newsy.com/videos/swine_flu_gets_a_makeover/

  • You haven’t mentionned Wikipedia and how fast the information about Swine flu can be reported. Think Youtube as well.

    I was talking about it with my roommate and just 5 years ago, it would not have been possible to get such detailed information, such as medical information about the virus, how it spreads, the history etc so quickly. Now with Wikipedia, the information can be received withing hours if not minutes. Truly incredible.

  • Dave, in a case like the swine flu outbreak, can you please explain what the benefit of using Twitter is? Why would a reader go to Twitter to find out the WHO’s latest news on the swine flu when s/he could easily go on the WHO’s website? It seems to be that Twitter is an unnecessary middle-man to getting the information. Can you please address this? THanks.

  • Jewel – there are a few reasons why Twitter is a good addition (not replacement) in this kind of situation.

    #1: Real-time – I’m not going to go to the WHO site every few minutes to see if there’s an update. Social media tools like Twitter (and RSS feeds too) help people to receive new updates as they happen.

    #2: Distribution: Twitter now pushes out to both Bell and Rogers mobiles so you don’t need to even be at your computer (not essential in this situation but consider a wildfire or other rapidly evolving situation).

    #3: Interactivity: They’re not using it in this way at this time, but using conversational tools can permit organizations to correct misinformation, which is critical in emergencies.

    There are other ways that this kind of tool can be useful. Remember, it’s an additional tool, not a replacement for prompt, clear and timely updates to the main website.

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