STEVE INSKEEP, host:
As rapidly as swine flu may be spreading in the real world, word about the virus is spreading even faster on the Web. Blogs and social media outlets like Twitter have lit up with references to swine flu. The Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies are trying to harness that instant media in an effort to keep one step ahead of the virus itself.
NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI: Pete Blackshaw is an executive vice president of Nielsen Online, a company that tracks what people do on the Web. And earlier this week, he noted something he'd never seen before.
Mr. PETE BLACKSHAW (Executive Vice President, Nielsen Online): Just since 8:00 last night, there's been like another 6,000 followers to the CDC on Twitter, which is really a remarkable number.
NOGUCHI: In other words, tens of thousands of people are subscribing to a government health agency's social network every day. Though there are swine flu pages on Facebook, the primary tool the government is watching during this flu outbreak is Twitter.
Subscribers to Twitter feeds can send or receive updates from computers or cell phones, meaning people are in the loop constantly, and therefore news travels faster than ever before.
Having the CDC on the forefront of new uses of social media is a pretty remarkable departure for technology originally designed for use among friends wanting to update each other on moods and whereabouts.
Blackshaw says since news of the swine flu broke, the CDC's blogosphere popularity has far surpassed previous viral social phenomena. So far, mention of swine flu is three times greater than the year's previous Internet blockbuster…
(Soundbite of song "I Dreamed A Dream")
Ms. SUSAN BOYLE (Contestant, "Britain's Got Talent"): (Singing) I dreamed the dream in time gone by…
(Soundbite of applause)
NOGUCHI: British singing contestant Susan Boyle, whose YouTube video has tens of millions of viewers. And Blackshaw says the administration is starting to learn some big lessons from this success.
Mr. BLACKSHAW: The level of agility and flexibility and rapid response that we're seeing today dwarfs what we saw 12 months ago. And I don't think it's just because of the Obama administration, I think it's just social media has really started to kind of bring a whole different attitude to the table in terms of how you leverage the Web for real-time engagement and responsiveness.
Mr. ANDREW WILSON (Web Manager, Department of Health and Human Services): Not only are we trying to get information out with these tools, but we're also trying to establish relationships.
NOGUCHI: Andrew Wilson heads the new media Web division of the Department of Health and Human Services, which works closely with the CDC on Internet outreach. He says social networks like Twitter have helped the agencies develop online relationships with local public health experts, journalists, and bloggers, who then help broadcast messages to their own networks of people.
Mr. WILSON: We were able to take those connections and relationships that we've made and use them to our benefit in this current situation. And I fully expect that going on in the future, we'll be able to take these same relationships and use them to our advantage in other future emergencies.
NOGUCHI: Wilson said being ahead of the pack and alerting the public has another huge benefit. It helps head off some of the misinformation that circulates on the Internet.
Mr. WILSON: You can see in the continuing stream of information that people really want to pass that information around. They really want to show here are the people that have the information and you should watch what they're saying.
NOGUCHI: Wilson's new media division within Health and Human services is only a few months old, but already, he says, lessons learned about online outreach are being shared among other state and federal agencies that in turn hope to gain their own new media following.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.