Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University Medical Center, remembers the last flu pandemic, which occurred in 1968.
“It’s a great contrast [with today], because back then you had to wait weeks for information, and the only way you got it was through newspapers and scientific journals, and now of course we have instant dissemination of everything,” Racaniello said. “I’m amazed at the difference because now you’re getting the information in real time.”
Racaniello runs the Virology Blog, which aims “to teach you about viruses and viral disease.” Though the site is ostensibly focused on all virus news, Racaniello said he’s reacted to the growing demand for flu news and is constantly posting about H1N1. He’s one of many H1N1-focused bloggers that are providing up-to-date information and analysis, and trying to process the mass of news reports emanating out of the U.S. and other countries about flu infections and vaccines.
A casual glance through flu news trends reveals a wide range of subjects being addressed, from people reporting on new outbreaks and deaths, to anti-vaccine activists trying to warn people that the H1N1 vaccine will cause pregnant women to have a miscarriage. This smorgasbord of headlines, obviously, wasn’t available in 1968.
“[Today] you have official government agencies releasing information, and then you have all the journals releasing their papers way ahead of when they would ever appear in papers in the old days — weeks and weeks ahead of when they’d normally post them,” Racaniello said. “And then you have bloggers and podcasters putting their two cents in. It’s like an echo chamber; one blogger picks something up, and others repeat it.”
Misinformation Spreading Freely
This means misinformation can spread rapidly. Recent surveys show that a large percentage of people in Britain and the U.S. are not seeking out the H1N1 vaccine. Many people believe the vaccine is dangerous, or that the pandemic isn’t really that serious. (For the record, I haven’t received the vaccine, though that’s more a result of apathy than anything else.)
This, Racaniello argued, is the double-edged sword of such instant dissemination and easy access: The Internet has given voice to a wide range of less qualified yet loudly vocal outlets. Take, for instance, the articles and blog posts based entirely on anecdotal message board posts claiming that women are miscarrying after receiving the vaccine, a story that has spread far and wide on blogs.
“It’s great because you can get information really quickly,” Racaniello said. “You can get it from many sources, like a lot of academics and research types online, but the bad part is that you don’t know who’s good and who’s not in terms of information. You don’t know who to believe. So I’m trying to tell people, ‘I’ve been working on viruses all these years, and I’m trying to tell you what I think is right.’ It’s an incredible contrast between 1968 and 2009, but there are negative aspects of this rapid communication, and not everyone knows how to deal with it.”
Impact of Flu Bloggers
It can be difficult to determine the effects of the web on the dissemination of flu pandemic news, but nearly all the flu bloggers I spoke to reported a drastic increase in their readership in recent months. It is often in the wake of a crisis or major news event that bloggers within a related niche gain traction. We saw it happen with economics bloggers during the financial crisis, for example, and with the real estate bubble bloggers before that.
The question is whether these flu bloggers are reaching the public at large and are having an impact on the discussion. One can perhaps determine this based on those who visit, comment, or send in emails to the sites. Racaniello told me he’s regularly visited by high school and college students conducting research, but he and others also note that their servers were logging hits from hospitals and other research facilities.
“I get a lot of correspondence myself from a lot of different countries,” he said. “At the beginning of the pandemic I was getting a lot of emails from Mexico…I got emails from Egypt when they decided to kill pigs some time ago, and now there are some rumors about them wanting to kill cats because cats have gotten influenza. I’ve got a number of requests from Ukraine, asking me to help sort out what’s going on there. So it’s global, it’s not just the U.S., and it’s nice to see that people have access all over the place, although I’ve heard virtually nothing from Africa…so not everyone is online.”
Mike Coston, who runs the Avian Flu Diary, said he receives between 1,000 and 2,000 visitors a day. Coston said his visitors are “mostly government agencies and hospitals and research centers. And I think people are using my blog as a one-stop shopping place for headlines in the news, as far as the flu is concerned.”
Though Coston recognized that he and others are fighting a vocal pseudo-scientific minority, he doesn’t blame the platform (i.e. the Internet).
“I don’t think I can demonize the Internet here,” he said. “It’s like demonizing telephones just because telemarketers use it. If you add up the pluses and minuses, obviously the Internet is a plus. I certainly could not do what I’m doing now [without it]. I couldn’t talk to other bloggers, journalists, doctors, and scientists. I have access to people around the world because of the Internet.”
Blogging Helps Flu Experts
Unlike some flu bloggers, Crawford Kilian does not have a degree, or claim any particular expertise with flu or viruses. Yet his H5N1 blog is a popular destination for pandemic-related news. He said he started the blog mainly as an educational resource for himself, though it’s also for the benefit of his audience.
In fact, even the blogging flu experts said their online work forces them to stay abreast of new research in the field. Racaniello said that blogging led him to consult primary literature he otherwise might not bother with. He also said that keeping attuned to flu news has helped his grant writing, teaching, and the creation of an updated edition of the textbook he wrote.
Killian said he does his best to seek out the most accurate information.
“All I would be wished to be judged by is the quality of people I link to,” said Kilian. “I’m trying to find the most reliable, scientifically minded people that I can, possibly the most reliable journalists who also understand what the heck is going on, and present at least the highlights of what these people are turning up.”
Like many bloggers, he closely monitors where his readers originate, and is disappointed that many of them only come from North America. He recognizes that his blog might not be very accessible to non-English speaking countries, but that still leaves a wide swath of potential readers.
“I would be happy if I were getting more visitors from some of the hot zones,” Kilian explained. “China sometimes erratically shuts down access to TypePad blogs, so I get essentially low visits from China, despite the keen interest in the subject, unless they’re coming in from some kind of anonymizer and they’re sneaking in through the Great Firewall. I also realize that there aren’t many people who read fluent English and have computer access in places like Vietnam or Ecuador, so I don’t always expect them to be checking in.”
On the subject of the pseudo-science that spreads quickly on the web, Kilian said he often ignores it. But sometimes a news meme is persistent enough to require attention.
“Every once in a while, I’ll run up against something that is so silly, but maybe so plausible that it might be harmful,” he said, “and I’ll run a series called ‘Annals of Viral Paranoia,’ where I drag out samples from some of these folks and try to point out why they are wrong, and I even ask myself, ‘what if they’re right?’”
Unfortunately, discerning truth from fiction can be hard in countries like Ukraine, where flu pandemic information has been clouded by confusing and outlandish news reports, such as claims of a “super flu,” or some kind of black plague. The anti-vaccination crowd has been using every suspicious death following a vaccination as a smoking gun, feeding on the power of the anecdote in the absence of actual scientific evidence.
“People who are anti-vaccine are very vocal,” said Racaniello. “They’re online, they’re blogging, they’re communicating, and then your average person reads one of these blogs and gets scared, because they don’t know how to interpret the situation. A lot of people put up false information, non-scientific stuff, but people who read them don’t know. I get tons of emails saying, ‘I heard this guy say this vaccine has stuff in it that’s going to do bad things.’ Thirty years ago they wouldn’t know any of this, all the false stuff would not be out there, and so in this regard I think in some ways we’re going backwards.”