"Follow Ebola" is everything wrong with the Internet
Have you tweeted the word "Ebola" over the past few weeks? If so, then chances are you've received an automated @ reply from an account called Follow Ebola. The Ebola bot message reads, "hey <your name> I see that you are tweeting Ebola, check out zpr.io/GDgy for up to the minute #Ebola info."
So that's pretty annoying, right? It's bad enough to spam people, let alone to spam them over a serious public health crisis.
But it gets worse. Out of perverse curiosity, I clicked on the link and was greeted by a site that looked like something I would have made in a beginner's web design class -- in other words, generic HTML fonts and lots of orange. The only difference? Follow Ebola also has plenty of banner ads, desperately crying out for someone to accidentally click on them and send the site's makers a few ill-gotten dollars.
So Follow Ebola spent all their money on Twitter spambots and forgot to pay a web developer. It happens. But the "content" of the site is even worse. It aggregates Ebola headlines under a "News" section, most likely populated by an RSS feed. But when, say, a New York Times headline is clicked, users aren't shipped off to nytimes.com. Instead they see a complete reprint of the article on Follow Ebola's own site. The site doesn't even use one of those weird "wrappers" where both Follow Ebola and the New York Times get a pageview. Perhaps most insultingly, at the bottom of each page there's a link to "Read the rest of the story." But on every article I checked, Follow Ebola already posted the piece in full -- there was no "rest of the story."
And finally (and not surprisingly), the site is not above the kind of fear-mongering that marks some of the worst coverage of Ebola. The homepage features words like "killer," "gruesome," and "grotesque," but that's not the worst of it. Under its "How is Ebola transmitted?" section, it lists "Aerosol / Airborne Transmission." First of all, the virus is not "airborne" in the same way that, say, the flu is airborne. Ebola generally isn't transmitted by coughing or sneezing, unless an actual drop of saliva or mucus enters the person's mouth, eyes, or nose. For that reason, this risk is usually limited to health workers who must take extra precaution. By suggesting that Ebola spreads as easily as the flu, the site is stoking panic where there needn't be.
Moreover, the site claims that public health officials are "intentionally crafting language so as to minimize public concerns regarding other possible means of transmission." You mean they're misleading us? What else are they lying to us about?? I'm sorry but this is a time to listen to public health officials, and not to engage in CDC trutherism.
So let's go down the list: Social media spam? Check. Ugly design and banner ads? Check. Content theft? Check. Fearmongering and conspiracy theories? Check. Unless I'm missing something, Follow Ebola is everything wrong with the Internet.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]