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Last Updated: Monday, 5 September 2005, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
When fake blogs attack
The Magazine's review of weblogs
By Alan Connor

Truth is a relative concept in the blogosphere
"Apologies for the long delay in posting. The past few weeks have been chaos. I was out with WHO teams from dawn to dusk as they tried in vain to stamp out the outbreak with drugs. People fell sick all over Hanoi and 1 in 50 of them died."

Sally O'Reilly's description - of how bird 'flu mutated from a talking point into a deadly pandemic - is one of the more depressing and alarming blogs at the moment.

The only succour you can take from it is that there is no Sally O'Reilly, that there is no no pandemic, and that the whole thing is made up. Made up, that is, by a reporter for the science periodical Nature.

The fake blog is a canny choice of medium to explore the issue - and not just because prominent UK blogs like Scary Duck and Chicken Yoghurt have every right to fear for their lives.

As well as the immediacy of a first-hand account, and the way we get to see the fictional outbreak's progress over time, avian influenza is one of those topics that could have been made for the blogosphere.

Or, as Johnathan Pearce put it:

    "the Internet, which helps to spread ideas with the speed of a virus, is now spawning blogs which are devoted to actual, existing viruses."

Among those weblogs and websites are H5N1, Bird Flu Today, Preparing For A Pandemic?, iFlu and Avian Flu: What We Need To Know.

And the Orthomyxoviridae viruses are not the esoteric subject you might imagine. Some of the topics closest to bloggers' hearts relate to the spread, or otherwise, of bird 'flu.

Foremost is a mistrust of authority. The incidence of H5N1 in mainland China has worried many - the Chinese government is not generally thought-of as forthcoming: and after Sars, there's an expectation that bloggers will be more honest about reporting disease than the established media.

And sure enough, a look at Chinese blogs reveals, among the current crazes for 5 Weird Habits and Super Girls, rumours of symptoms and deaths in Qinghai.

The main web source, Boxun News, is not trusted by everyone, but neither is the official line. Rick Moran is dubious and furious: "it could occur and we wouldn't realize it until it had already spread to other countries."

And this anger is infectious. There are those bloggers who feel quite safe and those who are terrified, and this mistrust of authority is not restricted to the terrified. Bill Sardi warns "[w]atch for more propaganda and scare tactics to get the public to line up for the shots", and Chuck Simmins is stoical:

    "Is there a danger of an influenza pandemic in the future? Yes. Can anyone predict when it will happen? No. [...] Could avian flu be the next pandemic? Probably not, it's been known for nine years and hasn't gotten any deadlier or produced a person to person transmitted strain. Would the WHO like lots more money to prevent a pandemic? You betcha!"

And as time goes on, the threat seems to keep getting more and more topical, above and beyond each announcement from the UN or the WHO.

Back in August, we learned that President Bush's holiday reading was going to include 'The Great Influenza: The Epic Story Of The Deadliest Plague in History', a weighty enough tome to alarm not a few.

And then Katrina happened.

As if terrorists weren't enough of a threat, the natural world has reminded us that it has plenty of terrors to offer itself, thanks. Worse, say some: if a hurricane which we knew was coming caused so much havoc, what will happen if there's a sudden outbreak of a killer virus? And so, of the many blogs bemoaning the public health infrastructure in Louisiana, there are those which are raising the spectre of mismanagement if we were faced with this battle of humans versus manure-inhabiting viruses.

Cassandras or Jonahs? Well, the blogversation is not exactly dominated by well-informed epidemiologists, any more than is the debate in the mainstream media. What you will find is plenty of links and a lot of fragmentary pieces of evidence and testimony - and then it's up to you. But two voices dominate. First, there are the soi-disant Cassandras:

    "Those of us who foresee a pandemic and hope to mitigate it by timely warnings will not be encouraged by Washing Away. It's a series of articles about the consequences of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans, and it was published in the Times-Picayune in June, 2002."

And second, there are those who aren't placing bets on whether it's going to happen, but are sure there'll be a stitch-up if it does. Closest to home, there's You Don't Know Me, who's livid that some people are more equal than others:

    "Why would the BBC need the jab? They aren't needed. We don't need to watch EastEnders in a bloody epidemic or hear the obvious on the news like 'You are all going to die'. I am sneezing like hell and now the BBC has just made me lose all hope. What use are the BBC? Why can't children, the elderly and the pregant be given the jab instead of the BBC?"

In case you're worried, the word is that Magazine staff are unlikely to be considered the highest priority. If this reassures or alarms you, please use the usual address to get in touch.

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