Google has been tracking flu trends to monitor disease outbreaks for some time, but with the most recent outbreak of swine flu, social media has taken on a new role in the monitoring of health in our lives.
Not only did we, here at bioethics.net, decide to create pandemic.bioethics.net on Facebook, to keep people up-to-date about what was happening in the news about the swine flu pandemic, but countless other government agencies and private websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter sites popped up seemingly overnight to alert us about what was going on in the world with the dreaded swine flu.
As the WSJ put it today, “health data proves contagious on social media.”
But what is the goal? Sure, it’s great that the CDC has finally joined the 21st century and now has a Facebook page (months after AJOB created its page, mind you). But what is the purpose of the page? For those interested in public health to chat about public health topics? Or is it the goal of the CDC to disseminate information through the page? At present, it remains unclear.
So what’s next? Will Peggy Hamburg twitter us from the FDA the next time that there is salmonella in pistachios or e.coli in our hamburgers? Such real-time information about our nation’s health could be great–but it could just send us into even more of a panic than having CNN blasting 24/7 in every airport and public space in America.
Is this really how we want our nation’s public health or drug information disseminated? Frankly, I’m doubtful. The viral nature of Twittering itself means that false information can spread out of control rapidly meaning that disinformation or outright lies can spread just as quickly as truth–leading to panic and the worried well just as easily as helpful information about how to contain the spread of pandemics or what contaminated foods are safe or are not safe to eat.
While the democratic nature of Twittering and Facebook may be empowering, it also is dangerous if left completely to its own devices and without any other checks or balances or input from other kinds of media or authoritative sources against which tweets and Facebook posts are checked.
Like with anything, consider the source. Triangulate. But then, twitter away. Post early and often. Contribute to the dialogue. But remember–don’t believe every tweet you read. Unless, of course, it comes from Richard Besser or Peggy Hamburg.
Summer Johnson, PhD