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Government Looks Online To Spread Word On Flu

References to swine flu in the blogosphere are far surpassing the actual spread of the virus itself. As the government tries to get in front of the rapid spread of information, it's learning some important lessons about how social media is used in crisis situations.

Within a few days of news of the flu outbreak, the term "swine flu" quickly became 10 times more popular on blogs and Twitter than references to the peanut butter-related salmonella problems earlier this year, according to Nielsen Online, which tracks online traffic. It's already three times more popular than references to Britain's instant TV singing sensation, Susan Boyle, whose YouTube clips have been viewed by many tens of millions of viewers.

"And it hasn't ended. If anything I think the buzz levels are going up," says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president for Nielsen Online's digital strategic services. "Twitter has really incubated this real-time culture," he says, particularly because followers of that social network can post short messages either from their computer or their cell phone. That kind of constant access promotes the faster spread of news, he says.

And that's a kind of rapid outreach the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, are trying to harness. The CDC, for example, had a few thousand Twitter "followers" to its emergency-alert service. By Wednesday morning, it reached 40,000 subscribers.

"Not only are we trying to get information out using these tools, but we're also trying to establish relationships," says Andrew Wilson, who heads a new HHS effort to think about uses of technology for outreach. By establishing online relationships with bloggers, journalists and public health officials, agencies are able to combat misinformation and broadcast warnings much quicker.

It's too early to know what other lessons might be learned from the use of social media during this swine flu outbreak, Wilson says. But there's already an interagency council that's thinking of ways to expand the federal government's use of the technology.

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