Dumenco's Media People

What Twitter Can Do to Avoid the Next Swine-Flu Panic

Q&A, Part 2: Malaria No More's Scott Case

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In part one of my two-part Dumenco's Media People interview with Scott Case, the CEO of Malaria No More, we talked about how his nonprofit organization has used social-media marketing tools to its great benefit. (For instance, as Case noted, "As a result of nearly ubiquitous 'World Malaria Day' tweets, our website had more traffic in the month of April 2009 than in the previous 12 months combined.") But we also talked about the downside of Twittermania in regard to H1N1 influenza -- popularly known as Swine Flu (aka #swineflu and #aporkalypsenow, if you're a Twitter trend watcher).

The H1N1 influenza, better known as swine flu.
The H1N1 influenza, better known as swine flu.
Simon Dumenco: One media lesson we all learned last month is it's rather easy to lose control of the message in the statusphere. According to Trendrr, at one point there were 10,000 posts per hour about swine flu. So while there was the sense that Twitter was being used to inform people, there was also the sense that it was fanning panic. At Malaria No More, where you're using every type of social-media tool, including Twitter, how much do you worry about losing control of the message?

Scott Case: It's hard to imagine a time when we're going be able to control the message, but if we take an honest look at new media when it emerged -- whether you go all the way back to newspapers, hundreds of years ago, or you look at radio or you look at TV or you look at the first phase of the web -- there's always been this wave of, "How do you use this? How are individuals using it?"

Twitter itself isn't doing anything. Twitter is an outlet for the expression of ideas; the same is true with YouTube videos, the same is true with Wikipedia. It will seek its own level as people understand how to use it in the same way that, remember when we used to get e-mails about how Bill Gates was going give everybody $1 if they did something? We all learned that when you get those e-mails you better go check and see which ones are hoaxes. The same is true with Twitter or any other kind of a media environment. So I don't think it's about Twitter; it's about human behavior.

I don't think you control the message. What we all need to do is make sure that the people have the facts. So while we can criticize Twitter, we need to listen carefully to the most credible parties -- in the case of Swine Flu, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization -- and recognize that, yes, there's a lot of noise, but there's also signal in the noise.

Dumenco: You know, I saw a report that said that, at its peak during the swine-flu frenzy, the CDC's Twitter stream was adding many thousands of followers per day, which was great. But at the same time, as various media analysts pointed out, because the CDC is a reserved, sober organization that only really puts out tweets when it has solid information, its minimal Twitter output got sort of lost in the Twitter storm. So given this rising signal-vs.-noise problem, well, if there's so much noise on the line, do organizations that are used to being sober and deliberate and only speaking when they have clear information to disseminate, do they have to get noisier? Do they have to speak much more often because everybody else is collectively speaking much more often?

Scott Case
Scott Case
Case: Or is it the case that the community, now that it's reached sort of a critical mass, that those in the Twittersphere need to take that CDC message and amplify it out to help the community get the right message? In the same way that traditional media outlets' role is to take that CDC message and bring it to the masses because that's part of their obligation as news providers. Is the burden on the CDC to be more communicative, or is the burden on, in this case, Twitter Nation? There's a role for everybody to play, and I guess I would challenge your readers to think through the role of new media in this -- whether it's Twitter or your own blog posts -- to seek out the facts from the experts and amplify them.

Dumenco: This makes me think of how other new-media and social-media operations have tried to take an upper hand in steering traffic and conversation. Like, a while back YouTube tweaked its formula on how it ranks most-viewed videos, and generally it's trying to take more of an editorial hand in guiding people towards things it feels they should be watching. This might be a case where Twitter, which recently revamped everybody's home page so that "trending topics" now appears in the right-hand sidebar, well, maybe when there are global or national emergencies, there's a place for Twitter to add an extra layer. So keep the trending topics, but if there's, for example, a swine-flu situation, well, look, here's the single most useful, official source of information: the Centers for Disease Control Twitter stream. Throw that in there. Because during the peak of the frenzy, when you clicked on #swineflu, it was potluck -- you didn't know what you were going to get informationwise.

Case: That's right. Look at what Google has done in the past, look at what Amazon has done in the past. During Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami, or 9/11, where media in general have used their power to point people in a better direction. You want to be careful to be highlighting things like a CDC stream without censoring other streams. Trying to control anything on the web -- well, the web routes around censorship in such an incredibly powerful way. But I do think highlighting things like the CDC stream are perfect examples of how to use that power for good.

Dumenco: Again, I would not want to see the trending-topics list get tampered with, but given how minimalistic the Twitter interface continues to be, certainly there's a place for the occasional spotlight on the best sources of information when it comes to situations like potential global pandemics.

Case: Maybe it's also about creating a culture on Twitter where those in the top 100 -- CNN, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears and others -- have a collective culture that when certain events are challenging the world, they're going to use their own power of influence.

Dumenco: I love the idea of Ashton, CNN and Britney all working together to keep us calm and informed! But for now I guess I'd just add that the burden is on organizations like the CDC to at least have one person in their organization who identifies the most influential, most dependable Twitterers on their topic -- on swine flu, or whatever -- and open up a line of dialogue with those people. Like, direct message them and say, "Can you help us amplify our message?" It's not a lot of effort to do that. And once you've done it, you have that network in place.

Case: Exactly.

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Miss part one of this interview? Click here. Also, please visit the donation page of Malaria No More and consider making a donation. Ten bucks for a bed net can protect a child and his or her family as they sleep, when most malaria-spreading bites occur.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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