A Pandemic of Bad News

The Swine Flu is big news… and for good reason.  This potentially deadly strain – a mix of pig, bird, and human viruses – is spreading across the globe.  More cases are being reported every hour it seems.  Health experts don’t seem to have much to offer in terms of definite information.  Fear and uncertainty are growing.  What happens next is anyone’s guess.

What do we know for sure?  The media is doing a terrible job telling the story.  All we see on television are pictures of people in masks and so called ‘experts’ talking about the potential for hundreds of millions of people to die if/when this explodes.  What little helpful information they do have, like suggestions to wash your hands or symptoms that you should look out for, are offered as secondary information — often pushed to the web (which doesn’t make sense since we are already watching TV at that point).  Note to media: there are better ways to cover this story and more valuable information you can provide.

How are people getting their information instead?  Mostly the same way we get the rest of our information today – from out social networks.  The Daily Show, not surprisingly, captured this well in a clip from last night’s show:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
The Last 100 Days
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis First 100 Days

You see, we talk all the time about the benefits of ‘social filtering’ – the idea that people will get most/all of their information from their friends or people they are connected to in some way.  But the assumption is that the information being shared is good, or useful.  As the Daily Show clip demonstrates, the concept of hearing ‘stuff from some guy’ is powerful – and potentially very dangerous.  Bad information spreads just as quickly as good information, possibly faster.  Note to self: consider the source.

Who could be doing more?  Government has an opportunity to bypass the media and talk directly to the people — to push helpful information out that people can use, and share.  But even they don’t seem able to offer much in terms of detailed information, choosing instead to spend most of their time trying to re-assure and calm the public.  The White House provides access to a CDC widget on its blog (but the top story right now is Senator Specter changing parties — which is telling about what the President’s priorities are right now), the CDC has a page set up to provide updates, and other federal agencies are providing information.  But in reality, it takes far too many clicks and far too much reading to find out what I am supposed to do.  Note to government: The idea of transparency should be extended to everything, and as the head of our government, you should be using all your resources to make sure information about this health crisis is being received.

The Swing Flu is a real threat, not only from a health standpoint, but potentially in terms of global economics, politics, and foreign policy as well.  You might know that from the information that is available through the media, from the government, or that filtered down from friends.  But, its not clear you would know what – if anything – to do with that information.  With all the tools and connections we have today, and considering the gravity of the situation, I would like to think that our media and government could do a better job than they are doing.  I would like to think that we, in the audience, could be more careful than to listen to people without knowledge or pass along questionable information .  I guess I am not surprised that we aren’t doing better.

Yes, technology and the internet have truly changed our society.  Yes, we have wonderful technologies available, which allow us to do extraordinary things.  But as this potential pandemic demonstrates, we have a long way to go before we figure out how to use these tools to communicate better, learn differently, engage more fully, and activate more appropriate, especially around serious issues.

You may also like