Behind Bin Laden: The Role of Social Media

By Kelsey Blair Comment

In his ocean-grave, bin Laden must be rolling over and over again. News of his capture and death first broke on social media, and the twitter-verse has exploded with reactions from the public – probably not the official, respectful, send-off, he would`ve envisioned. But, what role did social media really play in the announcement?

A huge role. In fact, social media reported live on bin Laden’s capture; albeit, unknowingly. Sohaib Athar, and IT consultation, was tweeting early Sunday morning. At first glance, the tweeters  weren’t particularly note worthy. For example:

“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”

It turned out, however, that Athar was accidentally live blogging Osama’s raid. Though, the American public wouldn’t discover this until Sunday night.

Late Sunday, May 1, 2011, there was a rush of activity as the media scrambled to cover a last minute White House briefing on an un-identified subject. As crew were rushing to prepare microphones and lights, Twitter was also scrambling. What was the announcement? Was it big? Speculation was abound. Then, Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for the office of Donald Rumsfeld,  the defense secretary under President George W. Bush during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (not the country singer married to Nicole Kidman), tweeted:

“So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn,” he tweeted at 10:24 p.m.

Minutes later, Jill Jackson of CBS tweeted: “House Intelligence committee aide confirms that Osama Bin Laden is dead. U.S. has the body.” But, it was another hour until there was official confirmation from the President. During this time, the internet exploded in activity and Twitter users sent over 4, 000 tweets per second.

By the time you got up this morning, not only had you likely already heard the news, but there were already lists compiled of the best political and celebrity tweets. Beyond the capture itself, there are two particularly interesting notes about social media’s role in bin Laden’s capture.

First, while we might not need another reminder about how social media is changing the face of reporting, journalism, and communication regarding major world events, Osama’s capture certainly provides this. However, more significantly, it isn’t just social media generally that seems to be the “pulse” of news stories as they are breaking; it’s Twitter. Whether it’s Will and Kate’s wedding or the capture of a terrorist ten years on the run, Twitter is the heart beat of up to the minute information and initial reactions.

Second, one has to wonder whether or not the Obama administration didn’t have a hand in orchestrating some of the social media fury. After all, it is unlikely Urbahn would’ve tweeted the information without some kind of permission and a pretty high degree of certainty. Moreover, the timing of President Obama’s address certainly lends itself well to social media. Obama could’ve easily scheduled the announcement the next morning, but by holding the address in the last hours of Sunday night, it allowed, perhaps even invited, social media to spread the word by Monday morning.

Regardless, the role of social media proves that when the next major world event takes place, and people ask where you were, the answer will most likely be “on Twitter”.