Twitter and the Swine Flu: Filter First, Then Follow

Last night I suffered from a crippling stomach ache and the first thought that popped into my mind was, "maybe I have Swine Flu." Of course I didn't really believe I had Swine Flu enough to look up symptoms and evaluate my condition (I chalked this stomach ache up to bad take-out), but the fact that the idea came to mind immediately shows just how quickly nationwide panic can affect rational thinking.  Further, if I had wanted to look up symptoms, how could I go about separating the facts from the clutter when thousands of people worldwide are creating a swirl of conflicting information on the Internet, my main source of information? 

A recent CNN.com article calls out this issue by reporting that some see Twitter as "a hotbed of unnecessary hype and misinformation about the outbreak."  While some doubt Twitter as a credible source, the article goes on to point out that the CDC set up a Twitter account (@CDCEmergency) to issue accurate information on the Swine Flu.  In my opinion, just because misleading information exists on Twitter doesn't mean it can't be a source of accurate information.  To tell the most accurate story and lay out the facts, the source just needs to enter the conversation, which is exactly what the CDC did (good job CDC!).  If a credible source offers a public statement to identify their Twitter account, can't we then trust the information they provide? Similarly, if a company or brand sets up a Twitter account to respond to customer concerns, we should be able to consider that account as an accurate source of information on the company, like an informal extension of their Web site.

So is Twitter a credible source of Swine Flu information and can it be considered a reliable source for any kind of information?  Yes. You just have to know who to follow.  That's right, you have to do a little research and find out who the credible sources are, just like with any kind of research.  Loose Wire Blog argues that Twitter can't yet be considered a "victory for social media" because it's hard to tell who the authoritative voices are amidst all the hubbub, but how is that different from discerning authoritative voices in our conversations in daily lives? Just like with anything, you have to start by figuring out who the credible source is, and then find their voice (their Twitter name, their blog, etc.).  A little filtering can do a lot in the way of credibility and accuracy, even for Twitter.  As a general rule of thumb, I say "filter first, then follow."

Contributed by Susan Wise.  Follow her @swise (warning, filter first)