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The numbers underscore the increasingly valuable role that social media, particularly Twitter, can play in the wake of natural disasters. The microblogging site helped drive fundraising after the earthquake in Haiti last year, and it served as a critical communication tool after the New Zealand earthquake in February.

Twitter was already a big hit in Japan, where more than three-quarters of the population is connected to the Internet. The earthquake convinced even more users of its value as a communication lifeline.

“Many people signed up for Twitter after the earthquake, and that’s because they wanted to exchange information,” said Nobuyuki Hayashi, a prominent Japanese tech journalist and consultant.

Twitter played a great role in the first few days” after the quake, he said. He added, however, that the surge of activity also brought to light some of Twitter’s shortcomings during disasters.

As helpful as Twitter was after the quake, it also helped propagate a number of unfounded rumors and fears. A post-quake fire at an oil refinery east of Tokyo led to a torrent of tweets that incorrectly claimed the blaze would result in toxic rain.

Some people moved to Facebook “because they can access more trusted information and engage in more topic-based conversation,” Hayashi said.

That’s something that concerns Web designer Qanta Shimizu as well. But he sees a greater good in embracing social media in times of crisis.

In 1995, when a massive earthquake devastated the western city of Kobe, the Internet was in its infancy and the mass media controlled the flow of information. National consciousness of the disaster shifted too quickly, Shimizu said, as the media moved on to new topics.

“Society has changed now, and through the Internet, I wanted to find a way to offer support indefinitely,” he said.

Shimizu created a Twitter application to remind Internet users to do their part, however small. “Setsudener” _ a play on the Japanese term for “save energy” _ automatically darkens a user’s profile picture from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., symbolizing the need to cut back on power consumption during peak demand.

Japanese Web developer Yusuke Wada created “Anpi Report” to gather and organize information posted on Twitter about missing individuals. Through Facebook and Twitter, he has found more than 200 volunteers to manually sift through tweets to enter into a database.

Anpi Report says it hopes to expand its service in the near future by linking its information with Google’s “person finder” database for people who are either seeking information about a missing person or have information to provide about someone affected by the disaster.

For others, especially local governments and agencies, simply venturing onto social media has been a big step.

Mitaka city in western Tokyo decided to start a Twitter account after the earthquake. Announcements of the possible rolling blackouts led to a huge spike in traffic on the city’s website that it could not handle, said spokesman Shinichi Akiyama.

One of the city’s recent posts informed residents that The Tokyo Electric Power Co. had called off blackouts for Wednesday _ an essential piece of information for businesses and households. The information is posted on the city’s Website, but putting it out on Twitter enables the city to keep residents informed in real-time, Akiyama said.

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