Zombie apocalypse strikes – in cyberspace

In case you missed it, the zombie apocalypse began last weekend, at least to judge from activity on the Web.

Those of you who have watched every episode of "The Walking Dead" or ever played the amazing new video game should be ahead of everyone else in their preparations for the end of the world as we know it.

The rest of us might want to revisit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse page, posted in May 2011 as a fanciful way to remind people about disaster preparedness. The point was that you’d prepare for zombies the same way you would for pandemics, floods or other disasters.

Related story:

What can the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ teach us? In a way, everything.

That was an ingenious way of getting people to pay attention to an important issue (preparedness) by exploiting a fictional fascination (zombie).

But recent events might have had some people wondering if it’s fictional after all, as the term “zombie apocalypse” made it to the trending lists for Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. You see, it was a particularly grisly period in terms of crime, with a crazy man chewing off another person’s face alongside a highway in Florida,  a New Jersey man ripping open his body and tossing bits of his intestines at police, and a Maryland man accused of killing his housemate so he could eat his brain. It wasn’t a good time to be a police officer, or to try and enjoy a plate of spaghetti with the evening news.

People began posting and reposting these stories, and it didn’t take long before some readers began to stitch the events together and guess that the zombie apocalypse had begun. Some people probably jumped on the trend because they thought it was funny, or strange, but others seemed pretty serious about the threat of danger.

I’m not here to recommend a good book on zombie preparedness, though "The Zombie Survival Guide" is a great place to start. I wanted to mention the fact that, despite the recent buzz, the zombie plague that will wipe us all out has not, in fact, begun. Some people may have thought it was here based on the Twitter and Google alerts, but it was just a crazy weekend.

False warnings are the one downside to instant communication, even though most of the time, it’s an advantage. The Obama administration's recent digital strategy ordering federal agencies to make more apps noted that residents in New York could read on Twitter about the earthquake that hit Virginia last spring about 30 seconds before they felt it themselves.

That was a minor event, but had it been something more, they would have had at least a little time to prepare. For slower-moving events affecting bigger areas, such as tsunamis, early warnings can mean the difference between life and death.

Federal agencies have been making use of social media as part of early detention systems, such as the U.S. Geological Survey’s Twitter Earthquake Detector. Some also have taken to monitoring social media as part of intelligence-gathering efforts.

It’s unlikely that any agencies fell for this one (for what it’s worth, "zombie" doesn’t make the recently released list of the Homeland Security Department’s Media Monitoring Terms.) But that doesn’t mean people can’t get carried away.

The fact that these warnings aren’t screened or controlled by anyone means that some false positives can come through. This could cause a “War of the Worlds”-type panic that would make Orson Welles proud, when no real danger exists.

Even if everyone is screaming that the sky is falling, it’s not necessarily true. Use your common sense before you start attacking your sleepwalking neighbors, but keep that zombie survival kit handy, just in case.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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