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Mobile: Katrin Verclas on Twitter and swine flu in Mexico City

If you believe everything you read on Twitter, the swine flu outbreak has already decimated the Mexican population and the U.S. is directly in the path of an angry, destructive wave of misery. A state of emergency has been declared for all 50 states and the National Guard is patrolling Times Square to prevent further spread of the infection. Fortunately, just because someone tweets a rumor doesn’t make it true.

“Any medium can be used to spread rumors, it’s not new to Twitter,” said Katrin Verclas, founder and director of MobileActive.org.  MobileActive, a global network of non-profits and practicioners that use mobile phones for social impact.

Verclas was in Mexico City meeting with the country’s health ministry when the swine flu outbreak became an international health emergency. We met in Union Square in New York on Sunday and Verclas told me a lot of the hype is overblown even though more than 100 people have already died in Mexico. “People still have to weed out good information from false information,” said Verclas.

In Mexico, Verclas monitored people’s reactions to the flu outbreak on Twitter. She said in the beginning, people were using the site to circulate links to reliable news sources such as the Associated Press and articles that had appeared in the mainstream press. People were also using the site to make the best of a bad situation, suggesting that before the Mexican parliament got itself vaccinated on Monday (though no proven vaccine exists), citizens had the weekend to cough germs onto their elected officials.

In the U.S. is likely to be much worse, largely due to Twitter, Verclas said. On his net.effect blog, Evgeny Mozorov wrote about Twitter’s remarkable power to misinform. According to Mozorov,

In the context of a global pandemic – where media networks are doing their best to spice up an already serious threat – having millions of people wrap up all their fears into 140 characters and blurt them out in the public might have some dangerous consequences, networked panic being one of them.

Verclas said that Americans are used to stability and anything that upsets the status quo is bound to cause a stir, especially when misinformation spreads at the speed of Twitter. Verclas pointed out that Twitter users in Mexico represent a very elite contingent of total Internet users, however, she argued that social media should still has in important role to play in public health notification and disaster response.

While the mainstream media is the best method for conveying detailed information, such as tsunami evacuation routes, SMS, and peer-to-peer digital communication is a vital component of a robust public response system.  Verclas said, people may not read the newspaper or watch television on a daily basis, but they almost always check text messages and keep their phone in their pocket, or nearby at the very least.