I’ve written previously about the increasing use of social media monitoring to track and prevent the spread of disease. Such initiatives are not limited to social media monitoring of course, with Google using search keywords to track flu via it’s Flu Trends service. That they got things wrong with the winter flu outbreak should not detract from the interesting nature of the projects.
As the saying goes however, you have to be in it to win it, so news that China is censoring mentions of flu via the Weibo social network is quite sad to hear. It follows the outbreak of a new strain of bird flu, called H7N9. The strain has infected several people in Shanghai, with two deaths reported already.
The Chinese state are limiting what the state-controlled press can print about the outbreak but are also attempting to restrict conversations on social networks such as Weibo. I wrote a few weeks ago about the impressive methods used by the state to track and delete what they regard as dubious ‘tweets’, but in this instance it seems that they are unable to halt the spread of information via the site.
After news broke of the flu outbreak in the national press on April 1st, Weibo users started speculating as to the course of the outbreak, which prompted official state responses to the allegations. Later that day a healthcare worker leaked news of an apparent live case of the virus in a patient back on March 30th. Whilst the post was quickly deleted by censors, it wasn’t deleted fast enough to stop the news getting out, and the next day the state newswire effectively confirmed the story.
All of which would be bad enough, but the Chinese have form in responding slowly to disease epidemics. In 2002 they were slow to respond when SARS first struck, with a number of bizarre stunts pulled to hide the news from officials.
Whilst many health agencies around the world are using social media to help them combat the spread of disease, it seems that the Chinese are still in the fearful stage, where social media should be suppressed rather than embraced.