Google's CEO Eric Schmidt once called Twitter a "poor man's email." While such an aspersion is obviously questionable in nature, it might seem true for once, as the usually successful Twitter has come under fire for the its use during the swine flu outbreak, all while one of Google's newest additions has shined.
With 36,000 people dying of flu-like symptoms in the U.S. alone per year, the possibility of a new flu virus is a serious one indeed, especially for at-risk groups like the immuno-compromised or the elderly. Thus the recent outbreak of swine flu, swine influenza A (H1N1), originating in Mexico, has the world health community greatly alarmed. With 152 suspected deaths in Mexico City and 1,600 suspected cases of the illness and confirmation that the illness is transmissible from human to human, the World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled the illness a pandemic. Multiple cases have also been reported in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
Amid this growing global crisis, blog-blurb site Twitter has come under fire for delivering misinformation. The site has become inundated with doomsday predictions and exaggerated figures that are confusing many in the public. Brennon Slattery of PC World writes, "This is a good example of why [Twitter is] headed in that wrong direction, because it's just propagating fear amongst people as opposed to seeking actual solutions or key information. The swine flu thing came really at the crux of a media revolution."
Some are a little less harsh. Writes CNET's Larry Magid, "[The internet is] a great way to get general information, prevention tips and information on how to handle a known condition, but be cautious when using it to try to diagnose yourself."
Meanwhile, as Twitter's credibility is challenged, Google Flu Trends, a product of Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org is proving its worth. The newly introduced site is being praised by health officials for providing what they consider very accurate information on the outbreak, offering wire reports, flu center shot locations, and accurate figures of the flu threat by state that don't exaggerate numbers. Most notably, Texas and California, two areas considered "at risk" due to heavy traffic to and from Mexico, are still consider "low" risk, according to the site.
The site uses searches for symptoms and other signs to track how many people might be infected. Describes the site, "We've found that there is a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening, and are therefore good indicators of flu activity. Our estimates, based on up-to-date aggregated Google search data, may indicate flu activity up to two weeks ahead of traditional flu surveillance systems."
The site does not track by searches such as "swine flu". Thus, while many people are alarmed, the site still lists the U.S.'s overall risk for flu as "low". Interestingly, another Google site is reflecting the surge in interest -- Google trends. It found that of the most-searched-for terms, "swine flu" came in sixth place, "CDC.gov" in tenth and "swine flu site CDC.gov" in twenty-first.