Swine Flu & Twitter

The past few weeks have seen an explosion of buzz about Twitter. Then, at the height of the new mass-adoption buzz, along came the Swine Flu – and with it, the pessimists. Typical headlines have been like this: “Swine flu: Twitter’s power to misinform.” Twitter and social media in general have taken a beating over this issue – and quite unfairly, as this analysis shows.

This article and several like it have cherry-picked alarmist and incorrect tweets to make their point, but at Nexalogy that kind of anecdotal evidence is never good enough. So I took some Twitter data yesterday to analyze the quality and tenor of the information being spread through Twitter. The answer? Very encouraging.

To produce this analysis, I took data using the keywords “Swine” or “Porcine” (French for swine), in any language, within 15km of Montreal, anytime between April 25 and April 27 inclusive. This strategy resulted in a dataset of about 560 individual tweets which I analyzed semantically after translating key terms from French to English. This Lexical map represents the 100 most important terms or concepts in the whole Twitter discussion.

The story that emerges is crystal clear. Far from being a worthless mix of junk facts, hype, and hysteria, the Twitter dialog in Montreal is serious, non-alarmist, and concentrates on credible links to published information people want to spread among their network.

The key communications vectors are the AP (@breakingnews), Reuters, the CDC (@cdcemergency), Radio-Canada (here represented by ‘radio’), and Montreal radio station CJAD. As well, one of the most important links in the dataset was to the Google Map of the spread of the H1N1 virus, which by all accounts is a credible, serious reference.

The key actors – particularly those who made news in the timeframe of this analysis – are all very credible and prominent in this discussion by any standard. President Obama, the WHO, various health ministers, and of course the CDC were all visible, while there was very little trace of conspiracy theories or anything like that.

There was some joking and sarcasm – bounded in the map by the dashed red line – but ironically perhaps much of this includes the (small) discussion of Twitter’s power to misinform and people dismissing the whole thing as media hype. Plus, of course, the requisite pig and bacon jokes!

All in all, it’s pretty clear based on this relatively small dataset that the nay-sayers and pessimists are wrong on this one. Anything can (and does) appear in Twitter feeds – but to dismiss the service based on a few alarmist or jokey tweets is seriously misguided. Overall, Twitter seems to be an impressive and sober channel for up-to-the-minute information, alerts, and discussion on an important issue like Swine Flu.

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