Social Media Drives bin Laden Coverage

News of the death of Osama bin Laden spread across social networking sites late Sunday night.


By Jenna Withrow News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (May 2, 2011) – On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans sat in silence, huddled around their television screens watching the devastation from the terrorist attacks. Ten years later, people hovered over their mobile phones and computer screens, hungry for information on the death of Osama bin Laden.


Last night’s news of bin Laden’s death spread like wildfire across the social media spectrum. Millions of people worldwide first learned the news through websites like Facebook and Twitter.


The death was first reported on Twitter around 10:25 p.m. The official Twitter accounts for the New York Times, CNN, and USA TODAY began reporting the news a short time thereafter.


At approximately 11:30 p.m., President Barack Obama confirmed what social media users had been discussing for an hour; both in a live televised address, and on the official White House Twitter account.


While many watched the President speak on television, millions tuned in on online live streams. A group of University of South Florida Architecture students, busy working on final projects in their on-campus studios, huddled around laptops to watch the President speak live from the East Room of the White House.


At the time of Obama’s speech, Twitter reached more than 4,000 tweets per second. Here’s a list of tweets from around the world posted during Obama’s speech.


As demonstrated now and during recent natural disasters, social media is a valuable tool for providing both breaking news and information that the news media do not have the resources to cover, said Kelli Burns, an assistant professor in USF’s Department of Mass Communications.


"Twitter and Facebook have become news sources for many people. When people witness a breaking story, whether by watching the news or experiencing it themselves, they turn to their networks to spread it,” Burns said. “Many social media users want to be a valuable resource to their friends and other connections, and this is one way to do that."


Since the news broke, several keywords related to bin Laden dominated Twitter’s worldwide trends, including Osama bin Laden, the acronym OBL, Navy Seals, the city where bin Laden was killed Abbottabad, Pakistan, and God Bless America. One Twitter user residing in Abbottabad unknowingly live-tweeted during the raid in which bin Laden was killed.


Users of the location-based social networking site Foursquare, began checking in to new locations themed around a post-bin Laden world.

A Facebook Page titled “Osama Bin Laden Is Dead” went viral, with nearly 350,000 likes. The page has become a real-time discussion board, as users from around the world share their thoughts, reactions, and news stories. Users’ Facebook news feeds were dominated by their friends’ reactions to the news.


"When people are connected to these networks, they talk about the news together, rather than experiencing it in relative isolation," Burns said.

Jenna Withrow can be reached at (813) 974-0331.