Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reports on Twitter Fueling H1N1/Swine Flu Fear and Misinformation Are Vastly Overstated

Is Twitter fueling panic and misinformation? (Image Source: Posible caso de influenza, (C) Hello32020, licensed under CC-by license)

Recent media reports (e.g. on CNN and USA Today) suggest that microblogging sites such as Twitter are fueling an epidemic of misinformation, disseminating rumor and speculation about the H1N1 (Swine Flu) outbreak.
As infodemiology scholar these media reports struck me as largely anecdotal, not based on systematic evidence.
Using the infovigil system (which allows archiving and analysis of tweets and other sources on the Internet) we decided to address this issue more systematically.

Number of Tweets collected by the Infovigil system between May 1st and May 18th, 2009, containing the keywords or hashtags H1N1, swineflu, or Swine Flu (Image Source: Gunther Eysenbach, University of Toronto, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution license V2.0 CC-by)

My student Cynthia Chew and I just finished a preliminary content analysis of 400 randomly selected tweets (sent during the first weeks of the outbreak), and found that her data do not support the notion of twitter spreading misinformation. As she wrote in her abstract submitted to the Medicine 2.0'09 conference in September in Toronto, she found only 7/400 (1.75%) cases of misinformation in tweets.
News posts were the most common type of information shared (46%) followed by public health education (19.18%) and H1N1-related humour (18.25%). 36.75% of all posts quoted news articles verbatim and provided URLs to the source.
Take that, CNN and USA Today!

Gunther Eysenbach MD MPH
Senior Scientist, Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, Director, Consumer Health Informatics, Public Health Intelligence & Infoveillance Group

1 comment:

Sean said...

Great work! I was hoping that you would address this issue. I wrote about the hysteria over the possibility of Twitter-induced hysteria a few weeks ago and made reference to your work ( I'll look forward to seeing your final paper.