This probably won’t be news to you: the United States government announced Sunday night that it had carried out an operation that succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader held largely responsible for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks nearly a decade ago.
What you might find interesting, however, is that the news first emerged on Twitter.
A media alert went out just before 9:45 PM Eastern Time that the President would “address the nation” at 10:30. But a mere five minutes for the speech started, Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted a bombshell: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”
President Obama confirmed the news only after a mountain of tweets had already erupted, retweeting and responding to Urbahn’s message at incredible rates. (We’d love Twitter to show us details.) Late into the night, #osama remained the site’s top trending topic.
The big question is whether this proves (again?) that Twitter is a viable medium for the passage of breaking news. And there’s no easy answer.
As far as I know, even after an avalanche of tweets flowed freely, everybody still waited on the edge of their seats for confirmation from trusted news sources, like the New York Times or CNN. No one wanted to be the gullible sucker to fall for yet another tornado of Twitter rumor-fueled lies.
All that said, the fact that news of Osama’s death originated on Twitter is compelling, even if it represents just a drop in an ocean of misleading and misinforming tweets. Just look at the entertainment world. Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears, Jackie Chan--it seems like every day another one is dying in tragic, unexpected accidents, according to Twitter trends. Is it the biggest game of telephone ever or are people just retweet happy?
Osama’s death is so significant, however, that it could never be lumped with the rest. Whatever you think about how the man’s death will actually affect the world, it can’t be denied that the political climate and conversation is at least a little morphed for the foreseeable future.
And that’s the magnitude of the monster that was born on Twitter.
Inevitably, what it comes down to is that Twitter is only as powerful a newsbreaking service as you make it to be. If you’re following a few members of the White House administration along with some of your friends who like to tweet truthless nonsense, you might experience some trouble sifting through the muck for actual news. Maybe it’s just a matter of everybody, even the self-professed social media mavens, getting better at using social media.
If you really think about it, Twitter is just putting all the people we care to listen to in a big room and turning our focus to statements from each, one a time, in a never-ending flow. The user’s job is to understand what should be paid attention to and what should be filtered out as more noise.