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Byte me

News of a mystery Cambodian illness has gone viral this week, spreading across the internet ecosystem faster than the real world infection.

Although the wire service Reuters first reported that the World Health Organization was investigating the deaths of “at least 60 children” on Tuesday last week, the story blew up when it was seized upon by media giant CNN two days later.

Their website described the severe neurological and respiratory symptoms, the almost 100% mortality rate and the concern of Cambodia’s regional neighbours but things really got gruesome when CNN’s Dr Sanjay Gupta (“Staff Neurosurgeon, Emory Clinic CNN Chief Medical Correspondent”) flew into town.

Gupta’s graphic tweets and sensationalist stories painted a picture of doom, a dark world where “a mysterious syndrome [is] killing children so fast nearly all of the children infected with it die within a day or two of being admitted to the hospital.”

His colleagues frantically bashed out 140 characters describing how “thousands of parents flood hospitals w/sick children” and Gupta’s producer tastelessly uploaded what looks to be an Instagram photo of a pitifully small child in a hospital bed surrounded by tubes and his agonised mother.

CNN’s highly efficient social media machine ensured that their coverage was tweeted and retweeted, bouncing around the internet and compounding the pressure.

Now the Twittersphere began to light up with frenzied messages and terrifying rumours. As if the apocalypse was upon us, Twitter users wished good luck to loved ones and strangers alike and declared that they held the people of Cambodia in their thoughts and prayers.

I’d be touched, if I wasn’t an atheist.

CNN quietly acknowledged in a brief article on Wednesday that although a tragedy, the deaths were not linked to a mutant super killer, but rather “a mix of pathogens…and the inappropriate use of steroids.”

It’s too late CNN, the damage is done – the world thinks Cambodia’s population of under fives is being eradicated.

The newscaster’s overriding desire to break news first and biggest has got it in much more serious trouble recently. Its reporters called it wrong on Obamacare last month and broadcast live and incorrectly from the Supreme Court steps that the President’s flagship legislation had been struck down – confusing not just its viewers, but also the President, apparently.

The trouble is, particularly in the era of social media, news spreads like bacteria – spreading and mutating at speed – and it can’t easily be stopped.

As CNN’s coverage of “Cambodia’s mystery illness” has proved, inaccurate media reporting can sometimes be more contagious than a contagion itself.

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