Saturday, May 02, 2009

Did Twitter misinform people about the Swine Flu?

I read the post by Evgeny Morozov which argues twitter misinformed people about the swine flu. I have a different take on it.

The Internet empowers people with information instantly. This has eroded the power of governments and corporations to control the flow of information to their advantage. If you remember, in 1991 Saudi Arabia did not tell it's citizens that Iraq had invaded Kuwait for almost a week. [Farid Zakaria spoke about this]. They could do it then and get way with it. Today they cannot do that.

In the case of swine flu, people were talking and sharing information, about what they were hearing and reading, on twitter.  We can safetly assume that all those people who read the tweets took precautions, washed their hands more and were careful when they travelled. 

I believe Twitter creates a more informed and intelligent society. None of my colleagues actually cancelled their travel plans because of this. But they did take disinfecting napkins with them to wipe down the plane seats, which is a good idea any day.

The next arguments is that people stopped eating pork. No. The special in our canteen last week was pulled pork sandwich and I saw several people eating it while CNN was going on and on in the big screen about the Swine Flu. Hat's off to Bon Appetit Management Company, our caterer, for keeping a cool head.

Second argument is that hog futures fell and business were affected unnecessarily. This WSJ article covers that. I studied capital markets and I can tell you the the people who buy and sell commodities futures are far more intelligent than that.  While they may use Twitter to assess the sentiment of people, they will consider multiple sources and make very informed decisions.

In any case, effects on the futures market if any will be very limited. According to current estimates it will last for a few weeks and cause about $250 M in damage. I don't think anyone can argue that Russia and China stopped pork imports from the US because of Twitter.  

Third argument is that cyber terrorists will get smart about social media and use the power of social media to plan attacks. That might be true. The same argument holds good for cell phones and conference calling. Governments and corporations embraced mobile technology, reaped the benefits and developed ways to track and monitor the misuse of cell phones by miscreants.

Corporations and goverments need to do the same thing with social media. They need to invest and embrace social media rather than saying Twitter misinforms. Twitter has no power to misinform. Twitter just broadcasts what the people are saying, reading and thinking...instantly.

Let us not blame a new technology that empowers people. 

Corporations are paying the price everyday for lack of transparency in their actions, decisions and plans. So are governments. When in doubt err on the side on transparency of information and decisions. It may have some temporary negative effects. But the positives outweigh the negatives.

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