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Swine flu's tweet tweet causes online flutter

Leslie D'Monte  |  New Delhi 

The swine flu outbreak has not only reached beyond Mexican borders and into the US but also invaded cyberspace. General websites including wikipedia, social networking sites and blogs have put up useful data on the risks, symptoms, and other updates.

In some cases, though, misinformation is said to have caused online panic too. A simple real-time search on Swine Flu or #swineflu on twitter.com will reveal results such as: 'time for people to stop eating pigs!’; and ‘This pigflu thing seems quite bad, you might even call it a hamdemic'.

Unofficial swine flu information on Twitter may lead people to unwise decisions, opines Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute and a blogger on ForeignPolicy.com.

Mahesh Murthy, founder of Pinstorm, a digital advertising firm, and an avid user of twitter himself (he has over 1,000 followers), counters that the problem on twitter arose from a single site @breakingnews "which kept sending a tweet every 10 minutes on swine flu. I got around 100 updates -- many of them clearly based on rumours. The problem is that @breakingnews is an automated site. I personally had to 'unfollow' the site and instead go to @CNN for authentic information."

He explains that twitter is just like SMS which can also spread rumours. However, unlike an SMS (where you do not know the other recipients), you can alert other twitters on twitter.com and dispel such rumours, says Murthy.

Kiruba Shankar, CEO, Business Blogging -- an active twitter himself -- concurs: "Twitter is a powerful tool and even corporates are getting aware of its power to inform. Such incidents do not take away from the power of Twitter."

The increased conversations around swine flu on Twitter, where swine flu found its way into nearly 2 per cent of all tweets, are indicative of the spike in conversations around the web, states Nielsen Online. Even the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has its presence on twitter.com/cdcemergency.

Also known as the 'SMS of the internet', Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service which enables users to send and read other users' updates (known as tweets) which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters. The tweets are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other users (via mobiles too) who have subscribed to them (known as followers).

Since its creation in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Twitter has gained extensive popularity. It has an estimated 500,000 users in India and around 20 million worldwide. Veteran (in internet time) sites like Facebook and Orkut have 6.7 million users in India and 14.5 million users in India respectively.

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First Published: Wed, April 29 2009. 16:03 IST
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