"Flu is a highly political issue, to put it mildly," Terry Jones wrote this morning, and that's what I'm going to talk about -- not the science of it. Because science is only part of what we'll be facing in the coming days.
Whether or not history records April 2009 as the genesis of a global pandemic, there are some things we can expect with near certainty: Rumors, reports, controversy, credibility gaps and fear. So please bear these things in mind and, if you agree with these ideas, help spread them. Because fear is a deadly virus, too, and just as networked media can help spread it, network media can also serve as an immune system response to fear IF WE KEEP OUR HEADS AND WORK TOGETHER.
A CRISIS IN A NETWORKED WORLD
Public health officials have long feared that airline travel and global economics would turbocharge any pandemic disease. What would 1918-19 have been like with O'Hare and JFK efficiently routing Spanish influenza around the world? So too will today's government and media institutions worry about "managing" rumors and panics in networked media -- blogs, emails, Twitter, Facebook, etc. The 20th century mass media system was an ocean liner compared to the airliner that is 21st century networked media.
So here's what we must remember: Those of us who are comfortable with evaluating information and experienced in the use of these tools have a special responsibility today to help communicate some basic ideas to the new arrivals, or the people who've never used networked, social media for much beyond entertainment.
Government leaders will fear these tools, because they cannot control them. But if my time in the military taught me anything, it's that environments that LACK information are the best breeding grounds for rumors and anxieties. Yes, rumors will spread globally with mind-boggling speed, but if we also use these tools to cooperate, communicate accurate information and act in responsible ways, then we can have unprecedented group power to stave off panic. Panic is not just fear, but the sense that one is isolated and vulnerable.
The best antidote to panic is a cohesive community. Let's be that.
IT'S EVERYONE'S TURN TO USE NEWS JUDGMENT
Mass media journalism operates via the amorphous concept of "news judgment," which I've criticized as flawed after years of practicing it. Yet for all its imperfections, the basic ideas of good news judgment are now a civic responsibility.
- THINK ABOUT THE SOURCE. What do you know about the source? Is it reliable? Does the source have direct access to the information it's providing, or is the information second-hand? Has the source been trustworthy in the past? Does the original source have the expertise necessary to judge the situation competently? Who endorses the source? What pressure is the source under? What biases does the source have? What is the source's personal interest?
- HAS THE INFORMATION BEEN CONFIRMED INDEPENDENTLY? Two independent sources with direct knowledge of the information are better than one. And so on. But don't confuse multiple mentions of an item as being some form of independent sourcing. To independently confirm an existing source, a confirming source must have first-hand knowledge, expertise and a known identity.
- THE MORE UNUSUAL THE STATEMENT, THE MORE CAUTIOUS YOU SHOULD BE: It's a mistake to ignore the unusual, or the story that comes from a surprising place. But the more unusual it is, the higher your standard of confirmation should be. News companies do this to keep from being embarrassed, but in a crisis situation, you should do this to avoid contributing to a misinformation campaign.
- THE BIGGER THE STORY, THE MORE LIKELY THE HOAXES: This is why it's so important in the age of Twitter Search to ask: Who is the person who said this? How can I judge this person's credibility? Bad rumors are generally easy to spot, but a true hoax will look more like the real thing on second glance than it did on the first. There will be flu hoaxes, and let's be blunt: The best defense against them isn't the mass media, but thousands of us working together to expose the hoaxers.
- WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK: You don't have to take the information you receive as you receive it. If you want clarification, ask for it.
- IF YOU HAVE INFORMATION TO REPORT, DO IT RESPONSIBLY: Tell us who, when, what, where and why. Tell us how. Cite your sources. Use your real name. And remember the boy who cried wolf. Ultimately, we have to decide whether we believe YOU. If you want to be trusted when it counts, tend your reputation carefully.
- WORK TOGETHER: A group of people working together will learn more. It will also gain credibility far more quickly. Community and cooperation are humanity's original technologies. Use them. Share what you know, speculate transparently, creatively and constructively, and calm anyone who is struggling. You'll all be better for it.
- IMPROVE THE CREDIBILITY OF YOUR INFORMATION OVER TIME: If you've got something that looks legitimate and you report or re-Tweet it, be sure to continue to look for information that would confirm, reject or expand it. Don't be afraid to say you were wrong, and confirm accurate information without blowing your own horn.
Even if this flu never becomes a pandemic, our natural fear of infection is likely to disrupt our global systems to some degree. We'll think twice about going out in crowds, or traveling. We may notice masks and other changes that seem odd. We'll be susceptible to anxieties and we will naturally retreat to our homes where we feel safe ... and isolated.
Avoiding infection is good. Isolation is bad. And so I propose we use these online community tools to stick together and cooperate, even if only through the Web.
If this flu situation expands, we'll be facing a perfect storm of circumstances: A public health crisis, a global recession, a declining mass media system at a moment of networked media proliferation. And let's not forget: Twitter's still experiencing The Oprah Effect this week, with enormous swaths of newbies who will turn to networked media for news and guidance for the first time.
We didn't have these networked tools and communities in 2004-05, when H5N1 and SARS scared the pants off us. Let's do better this time. Even if it's just a trial run, let's use this as an opportunity to show what we can do by cooperating and acting like responsible adults. The world will be watching.
SUGGESTED HASHTAG: #SWINEFLU