By Jonathan Purtle
I'd bet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention never imaged that they would be issuing a statement to allay public concerns about a zombie apocalypse. "CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms)," an agency official told the Huffington Post last week.
This wasn't the first time, however, that federal public health officials ventured into the realm of the occult — and one can't help but wonder if a zombie-related hoax that the CDC sponsored last year might have contributed to the sadly misguided, but rampant, zombie fears the prompted their statement.
In May 2011, the CDC launched a zombie apocalypse social media campaign to raise public awareness around the importance of emergency preparedness. The zombie approach — which included a comic book featuring vicious looking zombies and blog post by Assistant Surgeon General Ali S. Khan (inaugurating a full zombie category of posts) — was a novel spin on a decade's worth of unsuccessful efforts aimed at getting Americans to prepare for natural disasters and public emergencies (i.e., stockpile extra food and water, have duct tape and flash lights on hand, make a plan, etc). The CDC thought a "sexier" approach might get more people interested this serious issue.
The campaign was seemingly a hit. It caused a flurry of media excitement, increased the number of Twitter followers from 12,000 to 1.2 million, and generated enough clicks to the zombie apocalypse pages to crash CDC's web site.
But did the campaign actually get people to prepare for public health emergencies? Or did it just provide federally endorsed fodder for "the end is near" theories circulating on the web? I think the latter.
We live in the age of the Internet — the age of the great corroborator. At all hours of the day we can go online and find information to confirm any pre-conceived notion we're inclined to believe — regardless of whether it's true or not. I'm not of the zombie-believing persuasion. If I was (as apparently many are), however, I'd probably go online to check the 'facts' about this zombie apocalypse that everyone's talking about. If I were to find a federal website telling me to prepare for a zombie apocalypse, I might very well believe the hype.
The CDC's zombie apocalypse preparedness campaign and subsequent zombie denial raises questions about the approach that government entities take as they develop a social media presence and explore new mediums of communication with the public online.
Social media provides the opportunity for government to develop a personality on the web. This has potential for government to be perceived less like a drab, faceless bureaucracy and more like an old friend from high school who you're still tight with on Facebook — and successfully engage the public on neglected issues (e.g., emergency preparedness) as a result.
But should the government jest on the web, well-intentioned and entertaining as it may be? Or should the government remain a bastion of dry, but no frills and factual, information in an ever-growing digital sea of conspiracy theories, misinformation, bad science, and all out craziness?
Or should it take a new approach entirely?