Government Officials Take to the Web to Address Swine Flu Fears

Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan, right, discusses the swine flu emergency with administration officials Kathleen Sebelius, Rahm Emanuel (back right) and Mark Lippert.
Assistant to the President for Homeland Security John Brennan, right, discusses the swine flu emergency with administration officials Kathleen Sebelius, Rahm Emanuel (back right) and Mark Lippert. (By Pete Souza -- White House Via Associated Press)

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

When it comes to swine flu, the Feds are maintaining full online alert.

As news about the epidemic has burned up all corners of the Web, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services have been using Twitter and YouTube, among other sites, to disseminate information.

Three agency heads -- HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Richard Besser of the CDC and Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security -- will conduct a live question-and-answer online session at 1 p.m. today. The hour-long "town hall" will be streamed on CDC.gov and HHS.gov, and questions can be e-mailed to hhsstudio@hhs.gov. A moderator will choose from the questions submitted; staffers at HHS said they will track such social networking sites as Twitter to monitor public response.

CDC sends news alerts on one of its Twitter accounts, CDCemergency, which lists about 45,000 followers. The most viewed video on CDC's YouTube channel was uploaded Monday. Simply titled "Swine Flu," the closed-captioned, 5 1/2 -minute video has been viewed nearly 170,000 times. At HHS, the most popular audio podcast is about swine flu.

"When something like the swine flu hits, people in their online communities, in whichever Web sites, are consuming and passing around so much information," HHS spokeswoman Jenny Backus said. "It's really important that we are online to get authoritative, fact-based information out."

In a statement released last night, Sebelius said: "Our administration believes in using new methods to engage the American people and ensure they can speak directly to their public officials. This Webcast is an important part of that effort."

From the time that news reports about the illness first hit the Web, confirming cases first in Mexico, then New York and later in Europe, the hottest story online has been everything related to swine flu.

On Monday, Mashable.com, which covers social networking sites, reported that tweets about swine flu grew from a few thousand earlier that day to 10,000 per hour. Wrote Mashable editor Adam Ostrow: "Of course, this is the snowball effect that Twitter can have on a given subject." A few days ago, one of the site's bloggers posted a how-to-guide for tracking swine-flu news online. According to Google's Hot Trends, which provides hourly updates of the fastest rising terms on Google, several of the top-100 most-searched words were about swine flu. As of 6 o'clock last night, after it was announced that six people in Maryland might be infected, "swine flu maryland" was the second-most-searched term on Google.

Facebook groups and pages have been created -- many of them news-oriented. In recent days, more than 6,700 swine flu-oriented videos have been posted on YouTube.

And one of the first sites to chronicle the epidemic was Wikipedia. A Wikipedia article on "2009 swine flu outbreak" -- not to be mistaken for a different article on "swine influenza" -- was created Saturday. It's been edited more than 2,000 times and drawn about 330,000 page views.


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