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In Hurricane, Twitter Proves a Lifeline Despite Pranksters

As Hurricane Sandy pounded the U.S. Atlantic coast on Monday night, knocking out electricity and Internet connections, millions of residents turned to Twitter as a part-newswire, part-911 hotline that hummed through the night even as some websites failed and swathes of Manhattan fell dark.

Twitter, which in the past year has heavily ramped up its advertising offerings and features to suit large brand marketers like Pepsico Inc and Procter & Gamble, suddenly found itself offering its tools to new kind of client on Monday: public agencies that wanted help spreading information.

For the first time, the company created a "#Sandy" event page - a format once reserved for large ad-friendly media events like the Olympics or Nascar races - that served as a hub where visitors could see aggregated information. The page displayed manually- and algorithmically-selected tweets plucked from official accounts like those of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was particularly active on the network.

Agencies like the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the New York Mayor's Office also used Twitter's promoted tweets - an ad product used by advertisers to reach a broader consumer base - to get out the word.

The company said offering such services for free to government agencies was one of several initiatives, including a service that broadcasts location-specific alerts and public announcements based on a Twitter user's postal code.

"We learned from the storm and tsunami in Japan that Twitter can often be a lifeline," said Rachael Horwitz, a Twitter spokeswoman.

Jeannette Sutton, a sociologist at the University of Colorado who has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security to study social media uses in disaster management, said government agencies have been skeptical until recently about using social media during natural disasters.

"There's a big problem with whether it's valid, accurate information out there," Sutton said. "But if you're not part of the conversation, you're going to be missing out."

As the hurricane hit one of the most wired regions in the country, news outlets also took advantage of the smartphone users who chronicled rising tides on every flooded block. On Instagram, the photo-sharing website, witnesses shared color-filtered snapshots of floating cars, submerged gas stations and a building shorn of its facade at a rate of more than 10 pictures per second, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom told Poynter.org on Tuesday.

Many of the images were republished in the live coverage by news websites and aired on television broadcasts.

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