How Twitter Broke Its Biggest Story, #WeGotBinLaden
Nearly a year after U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden, the events of May 1, 2011 remain one of the busiest traffic periods in Twitter history. More than 5,000 tweets were sent per second when Twitter became the first source with news of bin Laden’s death. But how did the news break and quickly spread across the Twittersphere?
A team of Georgia Tech researchers, together with colleagues at Microsoft Research Asia and University of California-Davis, looked at more than 600,000 tweets for answers. By analyzing tweets sent during a two-hour time frame beginning just minutes before the first rumor, they found that opinion leaders and celebrities played key roles. Their data also shows that the Twitterverse was overwhelmingly convinced the news of bin Laden’s death was true, even before it was confirmed on television.
The study confirms the widely held belief that Keith Urbahn (@keithurbahn), an aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was indeed the first person to break the news on Twitter. His tweet was sent at 10:24 p.m. Eight minutes later, a CBS producer (@jacksonjk) tweeted her own confirmation. When a reporter with The New York Times (@brianstelter) retweeted both reports, the news began to spread more widely.
“Rumors spreading on Twitter is one thing,” said Mengdie Hu, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Interactive Computing who led the study. “Determining if they are true is another, especially in this era of social media and the rush to break news.”