A butterfly flaps its wings on Twitter, and a vaccine map goes viral

CFR vaccine preventable diseases mapIf you follow the problem of vaccine denialism (like most skeptics do) and are on social media, you probably saw a cool interactive global map of disease outbreaks this week. It was created by the Council on Foreign Relations – there’s a picture of it here and a link below the fold.  

Just in the last week it was posted by many major websites including Kottke.org, Mother Jones, L.A. Times, The Verge, Wired, The Atlantic Wire and even Forbes. And of course all those posts – and the direct link to the map – were being wildly passed around on social media.

Whenever I see something like this going viral, I dig a little bit before I retweet or repost it.  Sometimes there’s a better version of the post to link, or the one you saw didn’t attribute it to the original author correctly. I like to make sure I send out the best possible version of something, not just the first one I saw.

When I dug into this vaccine preventable illness map, I found out an interesting thing that almost all of the major media posts missed. Namely, this map is not new.  In fact, it’s over two years old – it was released in late October 2011 as this press release indicates.

So why the heck is it going viral now?

I did a little digging and found an interesting thing. Most of the major media posts can be traced back to a single influential blog. And that blog’s post can be traced back to a single Twitter post that set the entire chain in motion.

The Map

The thing that got everyone’s attention was this interactive online map of vaccine-preventable outbreaks worldwide.  Below is an animation of it showing the outbreaks from 2008 through 2013: CFR map animation The map uses the Google Map API and is fantastically interactive. Each outbreak has data behind it, you can drill down, zoom to particular areas of the world or times, focus on particular diseases and so on.  Click the graphic above or this link to explore. The map can be embedded, you can download all the data behind it, and you can submit new outbreaks to be added.

It is easy to see how this would be very interesting to folks concerned about vaccine denialism. It is no wonder it went viral.  But why is it going viral now?

Tracing it Back

I started seeing the Twitter activity the week of January 20, and here are the major media outlets which created posts about it at that time, and who they credited. (There are no doubt others now, this isn’t an exhaustive catalog).

  • Forbes (January 23) credited a blog post at The Incidental Economist (see below).
  • Vaccine Watch (January 23) credited LA Times (see below).
  • The Wire (January 22) credited The Verge (January 21) which also credited LA Times.
  • Wired UK (January 21) credited LA Times also.
  • LA Times (January 21)  credited Mother Jones and Incidental Economist.
  • io9 (January 21) credited Business Insider (see below)
  • Mother Jones (January 20) credited The Incidental Economist.
  • The Incidental Economist (January 20) credited Kottke.org.
  • Business Insider (January 17) didn’t credit anyone (see Twitter discussion below)
  • Kottke.org (January 16) credited @jopearl on Twitter

So you can see 8 of these posts can be traced back to the Kottke.org post, which credits a Twitter user. We have to go to Twitter for the path prior to January 16.  (And in the process we’ll find the likely source of the other two posts).

Fortunately, Twitter has a little known feature that you can paste URLs into the search box, and it will find posts of them even if individual Tweets are using URL shorteners on the link. So we can use that to augment when people directly credit each other and find where the ball got rolling.  Here’s the sequence going backward starting with @Jopearl:

@Jopearl directly credited @ClaraJeffery:

@ClaraJeffery has 17,000 followers (and is the Co-Editor of Mother Jones) and as you can see she got a ton of retweets. But where did she get it?  Well she also retweeted this  immediately before, giving us a clue:

@jacremes directly credits @MarilnTokyo:

And what about Business Insider (and therefore io9)?  The Business Insider post was written by Lauren Friedman, who is @fedira on Twitter. For public Twitter accounts you can examine who each person follows, and I found that @fedira follows @ClaraJeffery.  Voila, she was inspired by the same sequence of tweets, one step earlier than Kottke.

An Unlikely Tweet

But the trail goes cold there with @MariInTokyo.  I contacted Mari Armstrong-Hough who is a professor at the School of Political Science and Economics at Meiji University in Tokyo. She told me she wasn’t sure who she had gotten it from.  

I suggested that she might have seen this tweet which was about 15 minutes before hers:

She didn’t recall that, though she said she does follow @Laurie_Garrett of CFR. But @Laurie_Garrett didn’t tweet about this until about an hour after @MariInTokyo. Armstrong-Hough told me she sometimes uses this map as a “teaching tool for undergraduate seminars” so she was already aware of it.

According to Twitter search, Seth Berkley was the first person to tweet this map on January 15, and nobody tweeted it at all in the two days prior. Tweeting of the link is pretty steady after January 15.

So why did Berkley tweet it?  Well that’s easy to discover with a little searching.  Again using Twitter URL search (and quite a bit of scrolling) if we simply look for the very first tweet of this map ever, a few days after it was released, we find this:

That’s Berkley’s organization, and that’s not a coincidence.

If you use Google to search CFR’s website for Berkley’s name, you find it in their global health program. CFR had a roundtable meeting at the time of the map’s launch titled “Losing Ground in the Vaccine Fight? Denialism, Measles, Polio, and Mumps – Old Scourges and New Problems” at which Seth Berkley spoke, you can read the transcript at that link. (There is also an audio recording of that session in MP3 format). So clearly he was involved at the time of the creation of this map.


Certainly once this map started gaining steam virally, one can imagine it would have found its way to the blogs somehow – via one or another of @GAVISeth’s 35 retweets or especially @ClaraJeffery’s several thousand retweets.  But although Professor Armstrong-Hough was never retweeted, it is clear that it was her tweet (to fewer than 300 followers) is what triggered Clara’s tweet and the rest of the chain leading to the reaction in the blogs I documented above. When I pointed out how key her tweet was, she commented:

Honestly, when I tweet about public health data visualizations I usually feel like I’m tweeting into the void. I snap a random picture of a funny book at a train station in Tokyo and get 50 retweets… but tweet about a great empirical resource or health data visualization? Maybe a fellow academic responds or retweets, but that’s usually it. I still do it because it’s important and exciting and I want to be a good science communicator, but the disparity in reactions to fluff about where I live versus the work I care about can be dispiriting. It’s nice to know that sometimes things really do get out there because a butterfly flaps its wings.

Keep this in mind when you are using social media. Even if you have few followers, and you seem like you are talking to no-one… occasionally a retweet is like a butterfly flapping its wings.

And check out that map, it’s a great tool for talking about the importance of vaccination.

Updated again: Laurie Garrett of CFR says the map has seen nearly half a million visitors in the last 10 days!

32 thoughts on “A butterfly flaps its wings on Twitter, and a vaccine map goes viral

  1. Pingback: Uitbraken van met vaccinatie voorkombare ziekten op de kaart - Kloptdatwel?

  2. sgerbic

    I got the chills when I read your conclusion Tim. The little things we do most of the time mean nothing. But once in a while its like winning the lottery, you just can’t know. So it is best for us to keep doing the little things.

  3. Dragnfli

    Fascinating on how this particular map went viral. And kudos for investigating before you retweeted or shared on other social media. Sad to say, too many people take Facebook memes and quotes as truth.


    A very helpful insight into the social media operation and the delusion of the people who take it as truth. This article changed my judgement and decision regarding social media. Thank you for this.

  5. Chris

    Reblogged this on ChrisBlog and commented:
    Really interesting investigation to source the origin of a viral story. And also interesting to think about how experts and media outlets and citizens help to spread the word on an important story, one that was otherwise left alone in the ether for the last two years. Media is motivated to drive eyeballs to content, a journalist sees something interesting from an expert who she trusts and puts it into circulation and then it goes from there. It speaks to the “internet of things” really working, enabling social activity to flourish.

  6. Invisible Mikey

    The map is spectacularly entertaining. People love moving colors. It reminds me of human industrial activity animations I’ve seen reconstructed from satellite passes.

    The deniers I speak to face-to-face on a daily basis at the clinic where I work do not ordinarily have or use computers, but they do have cell phones. Perhaps I can get it to them that way IF they request information. The fact that patients have an absolute legal right to refuse medical treatment sadly limits how proactive we can be about educating them. They must ask first, and usually they only ask after a neighbor or relative has ended up in hospital.

    I wrote about vaccine denialism, in the context of a local pertussis epidemic, in 2012:

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  8. lry93

    I think it is pretty impressive that you go through all that trouble to find out where the first source is. Like all those other people have flapped the wings of the butterfly, you have also helped to flap them in your own way.

  9. climbing bean

    I saw this map somewhere recently (The Verge, perhaps?) and found it interesting, but your detective work in discovering the original tweet and information was really great! Great post, thank you for sharing it with us all :) And congratulations on being freshly pressed, too!

  10. Angus (@Daddogus)

    I see that the anti-vaxers are panicking a bit and trying to discredit it as ‘anecdotal’.

    Here’s Sayer Ji, claiming it has backfired!?


    I’ve hxxp’ed the link

      1. Angus (@Daddogus)

        Seems like Sayer Ji is cherry picking. If you download the csv of data for the map, sure there are newspaper sources but they only form part of the story, there’s an awful lot of highly credible sources. It also assumes that papers just make up deaths or wrongly attribute causes of death; not something that I imagine they could get away with for long.

  11. Pingback: Contagious Content: The Role of Social Media in Global Health | United Nations Foundation

  12. Pingback: #vaccineswork, Redes sociales ayudan a propagar campañas de vacunación | iRescate

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