It has become something of a mantra over the last few months: as soon as a major event happens somewhere (or everywhere) in the world, bloggers and then journalists are quick to point to the speed at which news of the event spread on Twitter. For many people (including myself), the so-called microblogging tool has turned from being a slightly self-conscious way of publishing one’s current status, into a vital means of communication and a first contact point for interesting links, breaking news and the birth of memes.
But this week seems to have seen almost totally enthusiastic coverage of the tool (except from people who didn’t understand it), turn into a qualified criticism and the warning that though useful, Twitter can also be dangerous.
The reason behind these warning is simple: swine flu and the multiple rumours about it that have been disseminated through Twitter. Evgeny Morozov at Foreign Policy wrote:
Despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform’s unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter’s role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu.
Now, it’s this last bit that interests me. Perhaps I’m not the power-tweeter that I could be but I know where I first learned about the threat of a swine flu pandemic. Not on Twitter, but on the BBC news, and the Catalan TV news here in Barcelona, and the BBC website, and the Guardian’s website, and then CNN, the Spanish news, and more on the BBC again. A few hours later, I was updating Twitter and saw the first message from a contact referring to the outbreak. A former colleague who lives in Mexico City was relating the steps he and his fiancée were taking to stay safe amid the growing concern in that city.
In other words, any feeling of panic and fear that I was encouraged to feel came not from Twitter but from the traditional media, doing what they do best: jumping on a story before all the facts were out – and making people feel scared. Twitter was actually a relief because it connected me with a friend who could not only shed some real light on the situation, but also reassure me that he was OK.
Now, Morozov goes on to list some really silly things that people were posting to Twitter. Stuff like: eating Mexican pork will kill you, eating any pork will infect you, everyone’s going to die… and other choice fillets of loony tosh. But the truth is, these rumors and bits of silly nonsense were mostly not even sourced on Twitter. It seems to me that a lot of the worst untruths were propagated by the usual suspects – conspiracy theory forums and ‘news’ websites where credulous people hang about like goldfish eating up any flake of made up ‘information’ that floats their way.
And this, to my mind, is the only real problem with Twitter: some people will believe anything. But this isn’t really a problem with Twitter so much as people and a lack of reliable information. Indeed, if you look at the almost total failure of traditional media or state agencies to provide useful information that answers people’s concerns, then I reckon you’re getting far closer to the true source of mass hysteria.
In short: panic shouldn’t be blamed on the means of communication: it’s the lack of information, coupled with the same credulity there’s always been that gets people scared.
[The image I picked to illustrate this post is a screenshot of one of the web’s biggest blogs, posing six ‘unthinkable’ questions, and probably scaring loads of people into the deal]