WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The great zombie swine flu hoax of 2009 had the Twitterati briefly in uproar.
"Does Twitter have panic-creating potential?" asked Entertainment Weekly, relating the sudden explosion of mostly light-hearted "re-tweets" of a parody news story about the new swine flu strain and an outbreak of zombies.
As the world grapples with its first pandemic threat in years, Twitter and other social media have moved center stage in communicating news about the new H1N1 virus, forcing a rethink of traditional communications strategies.
The immediate benefits: sharp, targeted, viral messages can reach more people more quickly than ever before. But this also represent new and unfamiliar terrain for public health experts for whom message control can be a matter of life or death.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, a senior official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the flu outbreak was a hit, at least on the Internet.
"We're hitting some records here with eight million visitors to CDC's website a day now, apparently over 80,000 subscribers to Twitter who were dealing with this," Schuchat told a recent conference..
"I guess we have one tweet per second related to the new H1N1 virus."
Not everyone is up to speed. The CDC's Dr. Richard Besser got some teasing after calling the messages "twits". I'm aware that it's a tweet, not a twit," Schuchat said the next day.
Janice Nall, director of the CDC's eHealth marketing division, said pushing the agency's message -- from YouTube to podcast to Twitter -- has involved a steep learning curve.
"We try to track every single thing we do and see what works and what doesn't," she said in an interview. "We have to go where people are. If they were in the malls, we'd reach them in the malls. But they are using these sites."
The CDC's site (www.cdc.gov/socialmedia/h1n1/) provides online videos, streaming RSS feeds and image sharing, as well as frequent updates on the Twitter messaging site (twitter.com/CDCFlu) which give people the latest infection figures along with ways to beat the flu virus.
"There's a whole crew that does nothing but clear and craft messages," Nall said. "You get your content cleared through a chain so it is consistent with everything else being said."
President Barack Obama's use of social media during the 2008 presidential race was dubbed "campaign 2.0" and the rest of the government is now trying to catch up.
"People have failed to take a lot of these tools seriously because of their names: Twitter, Yammr," said Mark Senak of the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard.
"There was a time when Google sounded funny, but everybody takes Google seriously today."
Apparently, a few people may have taken zombie swine flu seriously as well.
The spoof zombie story, which appeared on a website designed to resemble a serious news outlet, was featured on sites that track popularity of Twitter "tweets", causing it to be "re-tweeted" by hundreds of other users.
"It was a big story because people thought it was funny, not because they thought it was real," said Nick Halstead of Tweetmeme, a British company among those criticized for the "zombie" tweet.
Nall of the CDC said the evolving way people interact with the media could create risks of its own.
"It is so constant, we want to be careful that it is not raising anxiety levels," she said.
editing by Maggie Fox