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When Viral Meets Viral

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 29, 2009 9:09 AM


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After SARS hysteria swept through the media in 2003, David Rothkopf, writing in The Washington Post, called it an "information epidemic"--or "infodemic." He defined "infodemic" as thus:

A few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economies, politics and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities. It is a phenomenon we have seen with greater frequency in recent years -- not only in our reaction to SARS, for example, but also in our response to terrorism and even to relatively minor occurrences such as shark sightings.

Now, writing in his blog for Foreign Policy magazine, Rothkopf sizes up the latest "infodemic" spawned by the Swine Flu outbreak. "It is critical," he writes, "that the media offer information about symptoms, precautions, and the spread of potential epidemics." That's his set-up pitch. Then he throws this slider:

But whereas health officials practice how to manage these crises, not only do the vast majority of media never think such matters through, newer "viral" media are all emotion all the time.

Rothkopf seems to be taking aim at two things here: the breathless and endless cable tv news covarge, and the fast mutating variant of a story being tweeted, digged and stumbled upon. Is there any way around this? Probably not. But he thinks such media contagion can be better managed.

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