The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Doctors say filter Twitter swine-flu web tips through common sense

  • Print

The tweets about the swine flu outbreak on the popular microblogging site Twitter were spreading faster than the disease Tuesday.

Health officials say common sense must be used when sorting through text messages that range from bad jokes and advice about not eating pork to legitimate medical updates.

Related Items

"I think it's worth noting that news of the flu is moving faster than the flu is," said Dr. Vivek Goel, president and CEO of the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion.

Twitter, with its 140-character limit on posts, has been criticized for spreading misinformation and even panic about the outbreak.

"Twitter is like having your own megaphone," said Montreal emergency ward physician Dr. Clifford Albert of Jean Talon Hospital, who urged Twitter followers to use common sense.

"Everybody has to be discriminating in what they will and won't follow."

The number of confirmed cases in Canada had risen to 13 Tuesday, with Ontario and Nova Scotia each reporting four cases, B.C. with three and Alberta two.

It's the first major international health scare of this type since SARS in 2003 and the availability of information on the Internet, with blogs, websites and social media, has increased tremendously, Goel said Tuesday in Toronto.

And Twitter, a social media site that boasts celebrity users such as Oprah, actor Ashton Kutcher and U.S. President Barack Obama, has become part of the news coverage as people search for information.

Tweets about the outbreak range from posts about swine flu being caused by the government to jokes about Kermit the Frog getting it from Miss Piggy.

But news organizations and public health organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also are using Twitter to post updates.

Researcher Jeannette Sutton studies the use of social media in emergencies and natural disasters and she said it's normal for misinformation and hysteria to sprout on sites like Twitter.

"It's going to give you a pulse on the crowd like nothing we have ever seen," said Sutton of the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Center.

"It tells you something," she said from Boulder, Colo. "They are seeking out information."

Public officials can use Twitter in this instance to put out relevant, factual information to questions that people are asking, Sutton said.

Twitter was used to spread information during the recent earthquake in Italy, last year's Mumbai terrorist attacks and the wildfires that ravaged Southern California in the fall of 2007.

Albert agreed Twitter can provide useful information about the swine flu outbreak.

"It can serve as a great tool for following a disease pattern and knowing, if people are honest about it, who's suffering symptoms where. It's a great information gathering device."

But Dr. David Williams, Ontario's acting chief medical officer of health, said people should seek out reliable sources of information such as government websites.

"We can't control those other ones that are out there in the chat lines, etcetera," Williams said in Toronto. "And that's what the public have to be leery about - of what reliable sources are not.

"Its a changing situation that's taxing some scientists and people who are speaking from unreliable sources or just out of opinion - it may be of interest, but I wouldn't put your emphasis on that at this time."

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Vigil held in support of homeless homicide victims

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A water lily in full bloom is reflected in the pond at the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden Tuesday afternoon. Standup photo. Sept 11,  2012 (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)
  • A group of Horese pose for the camera in the early evening light at Southcreek Stables in Stl Norbert Wednessday. Sept  14, 2011 (RUTH BONNEVILLE) / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google