Why All the Hyperventilating About Twitter 'Breaking' Bin Laden's Death Is Total Nonsense
Last night I happened to be surfing the website of the Guardian, the British newspaper, at what must have been almost the exact moment that it posted the breaking news that Osama bin Laden was killed. I deduced that timing because in tweeting a link to the Guardian's headline, I used URL shortening service j.mp (a sibling of bit.ly), which allows you to see how many people have already clicked on j.mp/bit.ly links for the particular web page to which you're pointing. At the moment I tweeted, there were exactly two clicks total to the Guardian story. When I checked again just four minutes later, my link to the Guardian had been clicked on a rather astonishing 468 times. (As of this writing, Monday morning, there are 556 clicks on my link and a total of 2,470 on all j.mp/bit.ly links to that specific page.)
So, yeah, I saw for myself that Twitter played a huge role in quickly disseminating the news. But a lot of the hyperventilating about Twitter "breaking" the bin Laden story is just bullshit. The Business Insider, for instance, published a post this morning titled "Twitter Just Had Its CNN Moment." BI's Matt Rosoff points out, as zillions of other bloggers also have, that the apparent first "report" about bin Laden's death from a credible source came from Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for Bush administration Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. At 10:25 p.m. ET, Urbahn tweeted, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn."
Rosoff then adds:
The rest of the media didn't "officially" confirm it until 20 minutes later. President Obama didn't speak until 11:35.
By that time, the Twitter stream had already moved from rumor to fact to strange observations (Hitler was confirmed dead exactly 66 years before) to criticisms of Fox News (for spelling "Osama" with a "B") to inappropriate jokes and fake accounts -- @OsamainHell tweeted about not being able to do any more videos, while @GhostOsama regretted enabling location on his tweet.
Meanwhile, Obama finished talking and Brian Williams resumed his solemn platitudes; and the TV suddenly seemed very old and boring.
In other words, Twitter was faster, more accurate, and more entertaining than any other news source out there.
Give me a break! Except for the "more entertaining" part, that 's just total nonsense. Because Rosoff's narrative (which appears to take its Twitter vs. mainstream media timeline from a Sunday night Media Decoder blog post by The New York Times' Brian Stelter) conveniently ignores three totally essential subsequent Urbahn tweets -- even though they're shown, in a screen shot, within Rosoff's own post. After his initial dissemination of the rumor, Urbahn tweeted, "Don't know if its true, but let's pray it is ." He then retweeted a skeptical tweet from blogger Joshua Foust and added a note of endorsement in front of it: "Indeed. RT @joshuafoust: Eh. We've heard it before." And then Urbahn added, "Ladies, gents, let's wait to see what the President says. Could be misinformation or pure rumor."
In other words, Urbahn was sharing a juicy but unconfirmed nugget -- one that he himself didn't wholly believe. In journalistic terms, he didn't "break" anything, folks.
Still, that hasn't stopped a steady stream of idiotic headlines along the lines of "Twitter Nails Osama Capture, Death First" (The Huffington Post) and "Osama bin Laden Dead, The Story Twitter Broke" (Fast Company).
The simple fact of the matter is that everybody on Twitter -- including Keith Urbahn -- was waiting for either an official confirmation or a debunking of the bin Laden rumor from the White House and the mainstream media.
Because God knows Twitter is great at breaking rumors -- like the "death" of Jackie Chan in late March. What it's no so great at is reporting or otherwise figuring out the difference between fact and fiction. (See my recent screed on this subject.)
All the media attention directed at Urbahn's first bin Laden tweet without the context of his later tweets is journalistically unforgiveable. Especially given what Urbahn himself has added to our knowledge today.
Who, you may be wondering, fed him the rumor about bin Laden's death in the first place? Maybe some sort of Twitter news fairy. Or a correspondent from Twitter's Middle East bureau, which is staffed with brave Twitter staffers who roam the desert in flak jackets and armored vehicles so as to "break" news on Twitter first?
Um, no. Early this morning Urbahn tweeted, "My source was a connected network TV news producer. Stories about 'the death of MSM' because of my 'first' tweet are greatly exaggerated."
And then right after that gracious defense of the mainstream media, he added, "As much as I believe in rise of 'citizen journalism,' blogs, twitter etc supplanting traditional media, my tweet isn't great evidence of it."
Furthermore, I can guarantee you that the vast majority of links being shared on Twitter about bin Laden's death point to mainstream media reports -- specifically reports from a handful of the most credible, dedicated news organizations on Earth, including the Guardian and The New York Times.
But no matter. Mainstream media bashers will continue to believe that Twitter broke the news of bin Laden's death. Rot in hell, Osama bin Laden, but long live the Twitter news fairy.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.