Swine flu! World Health Organization at alert level 4! Markets rocked by sell-offs! Howie Mandel was right! Never shake hands! Bathe in Purell! See if you can borrow a face mask from Michael Jackson! Or hold your breath whenever you are near a ham sandwich! Armies of pigs in uniform marching on Washington! Orwell was right: the animals have turned on us, become more dangerous than us! Four legs bad, two legs good! Head for the hills!
Once again, the media is reacting to a potential threat with its usual calm, responsibly recognizing that sensational coverage of diseases can have far worse consequences than the diseases themselves. Or not.
Remember SARS? Fewer people died of SARS than choked to death in the United States on small objects that year. But estimates of global economic losses exceeded $40 billion. Back then, I wrote an article called "The Buzz Bites Back" for the Washington Post about this phenomenon dubbing it an "infodemic." And it was clear at the time that the progress of the information revolution was amplifying the impact of these information epidemics and accelerating their spread. Yet, still hysteria reigns again.
This is not to say that the WHO response has not been appropriate. It has. It is not to say that there isn't a vital public health role to be played by the media. It is critical that the media offer information about symptoms, precautions, and the spread of potential epidemics. But whereas health officials practice how to manage these crises, not only do the vast majority of media never think such matters through, newer "viral" media are all emotion all the time.
One particularly fascinating element of the infodemic phenomenon is that the spread of rumors or news throughout society looks exactly like the spread of diseases; they are communicated in the same ways and patterns. (You'll note that in both the SARS case and the current instance, it was the infection of Americans that kicked mainstream media into gear and elevated the story into a code-one frenzy.)
The nature of the spread of such infodemics also, by the way, offers useful tools to epidemiologists trying to use modern media to identify potential medical risks and contain them. I know this was discussed in the Net Effects blog here at FP the other day and I would just like to offer one anecdotal insight that suggests to me that perhaps the skepticism about the value of using such tools expressed in the post has been overtaken by events. Back in the months before the SARS outbreak became public, I ran a company called Intellibridge which tracked "open source" intelligence for a variety of clients. In other words, we looked at what was available on the Net in many languages to see what it might offer government or business clients in the way of insights.
One of our analysts spotted a small item in a newspaper in Guangdong province stating roughly that people should not panic due to rumors of an outbreak of a disease. When the Chinese government says do not panic, our analysts were trained to be skeptical and indeed, when we dug into the issue we found that word was spreading throughout southern China, largely by means of cell phone messaging, concerning this new outbreak of disease. In fact, we became so concerned that we called the Center for Disease Control...who proceeded to brush us off saying that they did not accept information of this source from the public. Ten weeks or so later the World Health Organization acknowledged the outbreak of the disease.
The punch line: modern information technologies offer important tools for both containing and amplifying threats such as those posed by the global spread of epidemics. Considerable work remains to be done however, in understanding how to use these tools and to limit their abuse...and new media like Twitter and social networking sites do not make this task any easier. (Although figuring out how to manage this in the context of a free society is an especially important challenge for governments worldwide, arguably much more important than popular media-policy intersections like "public diplomacy.")
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images