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Zombie swine flu hoax story: Does Twitter have panic-creating potential?

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Zombiesshaunofdead_l

Zombiesshaunofdead_lThis hilarious but totally bogus story — about a mutant zombie strain of the swine flu and designed to look like a legit BBC News story — is making quite the splash on Twitter. The link to the story has been retweeted (in other words, shared on user’s Twitter feeds), at last check, 720 times, according to Tweetmeme, a website designed to aggregate which links are getting the most play on Twitter at any given moment. Even more interesting is that the story — which is undoubtedly a complete fake as it makes claims like a Netherlands boy dying and then rising from the dead and lunging at his mother, among other crazy things — is listed on Tweetmeme’s homepage with this very misleading and official-looking moniker: BBC NEWS | Europe | EU quarantines London in swine flu panic. And it’s right alongside actually legit BBC News stories, like this: BBC News | Health | What scientists know about swine flu, which is also being retweeted but not nearly as much. Shouldn’t someone at Tweetmeme catch the potential panic such a legit-but-bogus link could incite?

If you look at what the Twitter community is saying when posting the fake link, it’s a mixed bag. Everything from tongue-in-cheek takes — “OMG! Swine flu virus has mutation…and it’s now creating zombies!” says user redrisker — to the dismissive: “Great example about trust and checking sources,” Tweeted user MeManders.

Another interesting dimension to this story is the URL that’s used for the hoax. Just look at it: http://bouncewith.me.uk/europe/8027043.htm. Clearly, you’re not being directed to the BBC News website. But it’s important to remember that, on Twitter at least, a good portion of the URLs posted are turned into “short links,” which save space. So users rarely look at what they’re clicking on anymore — until they get to the destination. Checking the URL, and whether it redirected to a legit website, may or may not happen.

In this case, thankfully, most users seem to get the fact that the story is a joke, but we do seem to have the ideal forum for a potential War of the Worlds-like event. And how could this affect entertainment news? (For instance, could the Jaleel White suicide rumor from a few years back have gone nuts on Twitter? Hehe.) Does this silly little, yet entertaining, communication application have the potential to spread panic? I surely think so, especially since it’s so unpoliced. But what say you, PopWatchers?