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When disaster strikes, check Facebook. That's what everyone else does

You may not be earning the same salary as a firefighter, paramedic or ER doctor but you, social media user, are an important player when it comes to emergency preparedness and disaster relief.

An upcoming article in the New England Journal of Medicine makes the point that Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare are becoming increasingly useful tools in the public healthcare system. Soon enough, public health units may stop asking people to call their information hotlines and instead urge them to follow their Twitter accounts for the latest updates on threat levels in the wake of oil spills or handwashing techniques in response to pandemics.

The article, penned by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, says social media users have played an important role in the last few years in disseminating information in the aftermath of natural disasters, industrial accidents and weather events. As the user bases of social networking sites swell, they offer major opportunities for officials to "''push' information to the public while simultaneously 'pulling' in data from lay bystanders," according to a press release about the article.

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Users are interested in getting and sharing this information, the researchers say. Beyond Maria Aragon's YouTube channel and Conan O'Brien's Twitter feed, in the U.S., they're also tuning into the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' YouTube channel (which held a captivated audience during the H1N1 scare of 2009) and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Twitter feed (which grew 20-fold in the span of a year), according to the article's authors.

After the BP oil spill last year, a group at Tulane University and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade used the open-source Ushahidi model to create a crowd-sourced map that tracked the reach of the spill. Users sent in photos and coordinates to alert officials to dead turtles and oil slicks in water.

But another recent paper (), which looked at the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami this year, warns that Twitter can also be an unreliable source of information. When incorrect information is tweeted, its effect can be even greater if it's retweeted without verification. Popular hashtags used in the midst of health crises can also make it difficult to pluck out useful information -- helpful tidbits get buried under all the noise.

When disaster strikes, where do you get your updates?

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