Social media, smartphones and how the world learned about the death of Osama bin Laden

by Kellie Bartoli

The death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011 cemented the arrival of social networking and mobile devices as credible media sources.

While many of us have long relied on Twitter, Facebook and our phones for news, this is the first time that these platforms actually beat other outlets to the punch.

Here’s a quick timeline of the Bin Laden news reporting in Eastern Time:

9:45: Twitter is first to report via White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer that President Obama would speak shortly.

10:25: Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld, tweets, “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” He almost immediately added, “Don’t know if its [sic] true, but let’s pray it is.

10:45: ABC, CBS and NBC interrupt programming almost simultaneously to “officially” confirm his death.

11:35: President Obama addresses the nation.

In that nearly-two hour span, Business Insider points out, “By that time, the Twitter stream had already moved from rumor to fact to strange observations…to criticisms of Fox News (for spelling “Osama with a “B”) to inappropriate jokes and fake accounts…”

Nearly 3,500 tweets per second

And the tweets just came on coming. On Monday, Twitter announced that Sunday “saw the highest sustained rate of tweets ever. From 10:45 p.m. to 2:20 a.m. ET, there was an average of 3,440 tweets per second…At the peak, Twitter users posted 5,106 tweets per second.”

Over 19,000 people responded to a poll by social media guide Mashable by Monday afternoon, which show 31.66% heard the news via Twitter, 19.82% on Facebook and 12.16% through their phone/text.

Facebook played a part in the news coverage, as well. By 11 p.m., there were more than a dozen Facebook posts per second containing “bin Laden.” The page “Osama bin Laden is DEAD” already has over 416,000 “likes” (more than 150,000 coming Sunday night alone), and appears to be adding hundred of thousand of likes by the minute.

Google dramatically increased its coverage since the last “where were you” moment in history on September 11, 2001. As Danny Sullivan expertly detailed in Search Engine Land, four hours after the attack, the Google homepage included links to the Washington Post and CNN, and read, “If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio. Many online news services are not available, because of extremely high demand.”

Searching “World Trade Center” brought up results you would have seen on Sept. 10 - nothing about the attacks. On Sunday, however, Google’s top searches quickly began to reflect the breaking news; eventually, all 20 of the hot trends focused on it. Similarly, Google’s Autocomplete changed rapidly: at one point, no autocomplete result showed that bin Laden had been killed. Twelve minutes later, 3 of the top 5 results suggested it.

News travels faster via smartphones

According to Dave Karow, senior product manager at Keynote, the news of bin Laden’s death “caused a much bigger spike than the royal wedding.” He also noted that 40% of news websites were down at any given moment. “I would expect mobile to crater faster [than regular sites]...But this year, web news sites are taking mobile seriously, as the number of smart phones grows. When people hear news now, they look to their mobile phones for confirmation.”

An AP photo shows fans at the Mets-Phillies game at the Citizen’s Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia checking their phones as the news spread. During the ninth inning, as word of bin Laden’s death made its way through the crowd, a chant of “USA!” broke out.

Smartphones, and their apps, undoubtedly helped spread the breaking news. A new report even suggests that the iPhone app Tactical NAV may have aided the mission to locate bin Laden. There’s been no official comment about the app.

Even if the Navy SEALS didn’t use an app, many people certainly did. In addition to the standard CNN, MSNBC and Huffington Post apps, there are many free downloads available to keep you in the know. On Android devices, there’s NewsBeat and NewsRob. On the iPhone/iPad, try Fluent News Reader and Pulse News Reader.