Bin Laden is dead: Twitter buzzes

May 2, 2011

“This is actually Twitter’s defining moment.”

That’s what I tweeted on Sunday evening as I watched the news unfold about the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden…on Twitter, which didn’t even exist when the hunt for the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks began nearly a decade ago.

I was sitting in my home office, helping my husband file our, um, overdue taxes when I noticed a Tweet from Reuters at 21:54 ET that the president would “make a statement shortly.”

I’m not sure if Reuters was first, but we were definitely early. Other news organizations began reporting an Obama statement. Within 10 minutes, the Twittersphere was in a tizzy. Musings included the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi or something “relating to national security.” Others joked that the president was making an announcement simply to interrupt Donald Trump’s show “The Apprentice.”

But plenty of folks predicted that Osama bin Laden was dead. The first reliable report came from Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld’s spokesman. It took more than an hour for President Obama to speak to nation, well past the reported 22:30 ET address. (And reporters get busted for missing deadlines?) But, by then, we all knew the news.

And that’s why I think this is Twitter’s shining moment. Sure, Twitter has been a valuable tool as we watch the news in Iran, Egypt, Libya, Japan and so many other hot spots. It’s also useful for forming flash mobs — there are crowds forming outside of the White House and the World Trade Center site as I type this. (Twitter is also essential if you need to complain to an airline.)

Yet the first time I had a sense that Twitter would change journalism was on June 25, 2009. That’s the day Michael Jackson died, and by filtering Tweets from places such as TMZ and the Los Angeles Times, I watched the story unfold on Twitter. That’s when I got hooked.

Crowd-sourced news is fresh and viral, but it is far from perfect. It can be messy, snarky and definitely erroneous. Tonight I saw a flurry of Tweets that the New York Times confirmed bin Laden’s death, minutes before it actually did.

Some other notable Tweets on the day we learned that bin Laden died:

The New York Post had this not-so-subtle Tweet: “WE GOT THE BASTARD. BREAKING: OSAMA BIN LADEN DEAD.”

Henry Blodget of Business Insider used his powerful perch to pick on CNN — he didn’t like Wolf Blitzer’s coverage. “CNN is pathetic.”

Kurt Soller: “Twitter is amazing at times like this, for offering a combo of news, comedy, and failed attempts at both.”

I asked Antony De Rosa, social media guru and a Reuters colleague, what he thinks: “Twitter keeps having moments,” he told me in a private message…on Twitter. “Iran was the first big international moment, then Egypt, but the first reliable report of (Osama bin Laden’s) death on Twitter is the biggest yet.”

I also turned to social media guru Jeff Jarvis for insight. He is an associate professor at CUNY and a blogger at BuzzMachine, which he started after 9/11. “Twitter has had many defining moments,” Jarvis told me in an email. “This is another. What is special this time: we want to reach out and be together. Twitter enables that. The old definition of a shared national experience was watching TV at the same time. This shared experience is happening with TV in the background. The Internet is our connection machine and Twitter is the new Times Square.”

Jarvis clearly liked what he had to say to me. A few minutes after this email arrived, guess what he tweeted? “Twitter is our Times Square on this victory day.”

What do you think? Is Twitter changing the way we break and consume news? Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @LaurenYoung



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After I wrote this late last night, I learned that Pakistani civilian was live Tweeting the raid on bin Laden’s hideout, although he didn’t know what was going on. We’ve got coverage here on 2/us-binladen-twitter-idUSTRE7412MW20110 502

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I got this email from a friend based in Afghanistan: The tweets in this part of the world were equally interesting…

I don’t believe that Rummy’s spokesperson got the scoop though… in the middle of the night here a Pakistani civilian in Abbotabad tweeted about some helicopters, a helicopter crash, etc. Waiting for the news
stories on that.

Posted by lyoungny | Report as abusive

I live in the UK, and have been watching the coverage on international news stations all night, and throughout the day today. It’s been a very bizarre day, filled with so much joy for the US, but at the same time, giving us a scary outlook on what is only the beginning of the end of the War on Terror.

There aren’t many days that define a historical event so long after it happened. However, the use of social media actually breaking the story of Bin Laden’s death has helped show what the world will be like when the mass media conglomerates that control the news we view are defunct, and social media, controlled by me, you and millions of others, help show what truly happens in the world.

Posted by Adam9309 | Report as abusive

I’m in the Jarvis camp. Twitter seems to have many defining moments. But I think it feels like “the” defining one when the thing people are tweeting about is something you’re paying attention to or living through. Thanks for this post, Lauren. Really got me thinking!

Posted by heymarci | Report as abusive

Thanks for your post, I use twitter all the time and it really got me thinking allot about the different things twitter is used for. oh and I am following you after you’r post :)

Posted by rachorch | Report as abusive

Very true and timely. I find myself increasingly turning to twitter for news, especially during breaking events like last night’s. Raw and messy it is, but dynamic and exciting, too – and sometimes first with big stories. I’ll read the news analyses later – sometimes finding the best ones via links on twitter.

Posted by claibornem | Report as abusive

Twitter became the virtual newsroom. I first learned something was up when I saw the WH tweet that president would speak – and they only gave the press an hour’s notice. People were asking questions and checking sources in a rapid fire pace. I was glued to my iphone. Twitter was breaking everything.

Posted by plubold | Report as abusive

“Is Twitter changing the way we break and consume news?”

No, Twitter has CHANGED the way we break and consume news. Like it or not, the transformation has already happened.

For myself, I found out about bin Laden via a phone call from a friend, who discovered it from her teenage daughter on Facebook. I turned to Twitter for confirmation and to see how the world was reacting.

The journalists I follow on Twitter, such as Lauren Young, were finding and sharing the same updates I had. Details were unfolding in real time and before network TV news could show images of people in Times Square and at Ground Zero, I had already seen and felt the passion of the people who were *there* and uploading images and tweets.

Twitter is a part of the new model, until the next major networking tool comes along…


Posted by LaurieMeisel | Report as abusive

I liked your Reuter’s article re the reporting of the death of Bin Laden via Tweet’s

Thought you might like the ‘linked’ newspaper ‘extra’ from The Healdsburg Tribune, my home town, Healdsburg California.
On 11.09.1918, two days before Armistice 11.11.1918, the local press was able to get’breaking international news’ to small town newspapers within hours of events in Europe. And distribute it to the local population.
The Healdsburg Tribune was proud to announce at 2:18 pm on Saturday November 9, 1918 that ‘The Kaiser has abdicated the German Throne’
Healdsburg, CA is a small town of 11,000 people today. In 1918, it was a town of about a 3,500 people and had two newspapers.
As evidenced by the this ‘extra’ from the Healdsburg Tribune, it looks like Twitter has taken 92 years to cut the news cycle from hours to minutes.
see aldsburgTribune11091918KaiserAbdicates#

So Twitter is not about speed, but about breadth and changes in editing. Reporting is now from everywhere/anyone to anyone/everywhere, with limited editorial input. Editing has shifted and is now based more on the consumer’s personal choices, to relationships with ‘the journalists I follow’
The consumer of news now needs to decide where to spend their time and who to read.

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Posted by Veckan som gick – Vecka 18 « Same Same But Different | Report as abusive

Excellent insights. I definitely think Twitter is changing the way we break and consume news. I know it’s true for me at least. I stayed up until 3 a.m. the night of the announcement, glued to Twitter and Facebook – not a television set.

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[…] feed of the events, and there’s also a brilliant article from Lauren Young, of Reuters, about how Twitter broke the news of Bin Laden’s death. Both definitely worth a read if you have the […]

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[…] For now, Twitter is mostly back to normal. Breakfast reports, silly observations, blog posts, and scams are all trending again. But, for a moment last night, Twitter was something completely different. It is a bit hard to explain for those of you that weren’t there. I am sorry for this. Laura Young from Reuters news called it Twitter’s defining moment. You can read her column here. […]

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