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earthquake aftermath

Haitians walk past destroyed buildings in Port-au-Prince.DANIEL MOREL

With the traditional communications infrastructure having crumbled along with the buildings after the earthquake in Haiti, those looking for information have turned to new media.

If the earthquake had happened 20 years ago, Haiti would have been a black hole, with information trickling out only days or weeks later. This time, Twitter posts began appearing within seconds of the quake, while photos were posted on Twitpic and Flickr almost instantaneously, and disturbing videos appeared on YouTube soon after.

Along with the human devastation, astonishing photographs of the presidential palace toppled over could be seen by anyone around the world.

Among those posting regular Tweets is Haitian radio host Carel Pedre, who has been updating the outside world about what is going on, and posting photographs.

Troy Livesay, an American living in Haiti and doing missionary work there, reported on his Twitter feed just minutes after the quake hit: "Just experienced a MAJOR earthquake here in Port au Prince - walls were falling down. - we are ALL fine - pray for those in the slums." He has been posting detailed updates since on Twitter and his blog.

Facebook is also becoming a clearing house for information as people desperately try to find out about family and friends in Haiti. A group called Earthquake Haiti already has almost 30,000 members, along with a vast number of postings, photos and links.

As one Twitter posting declared: "More than ever, Internet is vital in Haiti, like water and electricity!"

Media, including the Globe and Mail, have been able to conduct interviews directly from Haiti using the Internet-based phone network Skype.

The Internet has also sped up the gathering of donations by aid groups, which have posted links to sites where money can be transmitted instantaneously.

Traditional news organizations are using their websites to help organize and consolidate some of the social media. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, for example, are listing Twitter feeds from people located in Haiti.

There is a clear pattern emerging in news coverage of disasters and protests, says Greg Goralski, a professor of new media at Humber College in Toronto. "The initial news just comes flooding in through fragmented and unfiltered methods, [essentially]through citizen journalism on the ground. But as the story progresses, the mainstream media is needed to filter it, and put things into context."

Within a couple of days, most coverage rests with the traditional media which has "put things into focus and given meaning to the fragmented pieces of information," he said.

This is, of course, not the first disaster where social media and the internet have played a role in disseminating information. Bloggers played a key role in getting the word out about the 2004 Asian tsunami, while Facebook and MySpace provided instant reaction to the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007.

The terrorist attack in Mumbai and the subway bombings in London also played out in social media.

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