There are plenty of bloggers who consider themselves to be serving a larger social purpose. How much of a service they actually provide depends very much on your own ideology. I'm sure RedState thinks they are providing vital, timely political analysis, while I think they're a waste of bandwidth. Similarly, there are countless quacks offering all sorts of bad medical advice (in fact, one of Pal's Laws is that the internet is 90% porn and 10% bad medical advice). Some of this bad medical advice serves an active "anti-public health" purpose, discouraging vaccination or claiming that the latest flu pandemic was some sort of hoax.
But there are a number of reliable blogs that serve a useful public health purpose, whether or not that is their aim. Could these blogs be a valuable resource during public health and other disasters?
The combined readership of medical and public health blogs is probably significant, but there are many barriers to using them as an emergency resource. Most bloggers are very independent, and most blogs run by official agencies have conflicting obligations (which is my way of saying they suck, but acknowledging that the reasons they suck are complicated). Finding a way to harness independents in an emergency could be quite tricky.
There are many examples of social networks such as Twitter delivering important information during crises, such as the 2009 Iranian election and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. But in addition to providing valuable information and social connection, these networks were used for other purposes. There has been talk that Iranian intelligence used Twitter to help track dissidents and to plant mis-information.
It's not hard to imagine that if a call went out to health care bloggers to help during a disaster, responses might range from enthusiasm, to self-promotion, to outright hijacking of the disaster for profit (something we've seen again and again, and again).
Most health bloggers (including myself) are probably unwilling to submit to any sort of state evaluation to see if we're "good enough" to be certified for disaster response, so if a government entity decides to harness the blogosphere, it's taking a chance. It would have to find a network of at least somewhat-trusted bloggers. One form the response could take would be to ask bloggers to change their front pages into a re-direct to an official disaster information site. This would take away some of the risk of relying on individual bloggers for message fidelity. Many bloggers use Twitter, and the message could be piggy-backed in through this and other social networking sites. I have an idea for a pilot run for this but before I go live with it I'm curious to see what you think.
Thoughts from the commentariat?