Swine flu news infects social media

There’s no doubt about it: Talk about the swine flu — dare we say it? — has gone viral.

Jessica Mintz, a technology writer for the Associated Press, reports that a company called Veratect is using a combination of computer algorithms and human experts to comb the Web and other sources for signs of possible outbreaks around the world.

“The idea fueling Veratect and similar companies is that blogs, online chat rooms, Twitter feeds and news media and government Web sites are full of data that public health agencies could use to respond faster to problems like outbreaks of swine flu,” Mintz writes.

The company provides full reports to government agencies and private corporations that are concerned about the health and economic risks that such threats pose around the world.

Veratect also posts information on a public Twitter feed. It is worth noting that neither the company nor Twitter were around during the original health scares about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and H5N1 avian influenza.

During the past decade, federal health officials have developed a number of Internet-based systems for gathering and correlating information from hospitals, health clinics and local health officials, making it possible to get early indications of potential outbreaks.

But social networking has added a whole new component to response efforts, particularly when it comes to getting the word out to the public.

The Washington Post’s Jose Antonio Vargas reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health and Human Services Department have turned to Twitter, YouTube and other sites to disseminate information about H1N1. The heads of CDC, HHS and the Homeland Security Department also staged a virtual town hall on CDC and HHS Web sites, inviting the public to submit questions via e-mail.

The catch, of course, is that the viral nature of social media also means that misinformation can spread far and wide before health officials can counter it.

That is what concerns Evgeny Morozov, who is currently writing a book about the impact of the Internet on global politics.

Twitter is helping to facilitate “an unnecessary global panic about swine flu,” Morozov writes in a post on Foreign Policy’s net.effect blog. Rather than inform people, Twitter has provided “misinformed and panicking people…with a platform to broadcast their fears,” resulting in “only more fear, misinformation and panic.”

This pathological pattern also complicates the work of people monitoring Twitter with hopes of identifying meaningful patterns in all the chatter. The conversation ultimately feeds on itself, creating far more noise than content. As a result, "tracking the frequency of Twitter mentions of swine flu as a means of predicting anything thus becomes useless,” he writes.

As might be expected, all of the buzz about the swine flu has not eluded the notice of spammers. Security experts say spammers are sending out messages with subject lines such as “US swine flu fears” in hopes of luring recipients to click on links to malware sites or open malicious attachments, InformationWeek reports.

Cisco Systems' IronPort anti-spam service said swine-flu spam has accounted for as much as 4 percent of global spam recently, the magazine reported.

The virtues of a home office

Telework proponents, meanwhile, say organizations should be prepared to have employees work from home, Network World reports. Telework could help organizations contain the spread of the flu in their offices or keep operating in the event that health officials announce building closures, said Chuck Wilsker, president and chief executive officer of the Telework Coalition in Washington, D.C.

According to a recent report by the Office of Personnel Management, 60 percent of federal agencies include telework in their plans for emergency operations, but only about 7 percent of federal employees telework on a regular basis, InformationWeek reports.

Finally, ComputerWorld blogger Scott McPherson wonders if cloud-computing technology is up to the task of helping organizations continue operating in the event of a severe pandemic.

For example, he asks: “Should we consider moving all e-mail operations to the cloud, and leave it to Google or Yahoo or whomever to manage our volume? Should we engage them only when we fall down?”

"In the case of peak demand, will voice over IP, videoconferencing and other Internet-based technologies “be effective — or even operational — in the face of a pandemic?”

Watch this space for status updates.

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