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Tweeting Bin Ladens Death
May 8, 2011 1:14 PM   Subscribe

How the news spread via twitter Interesting visualisation of tweets of Bin Ladens demise. "...the Tweet by Rumsfeld chief of staff Keith Urbahn that got the ball rolling was retweeted more than 80 times within one minute after it was sent, and that by the 3-minute mark, it had led to more than 300 reactions"
posted by marienbad (22 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
The hermetic and arrogant New York Times.
posted by vidur at 1:24 PM on May 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


His wife, Austrian actress Nicole Kidman, had not responded to our request for comment by the time this story was published. - NYT Ed.
posted by hal9k at 1:42 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fascinating, thanks for both links marienbad and vidur. I like how the New York Times completely bungled the account of the important role their organization had in breaking the story. That's a unique type of out of touch with social media when you can't even keep track of your own tweets.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:44 PM on May 8, 2011


That might be because he doesn’t consider tweeting to be part of a NYT reporter’s job; it might be because he doesn’t consider retweeting to be reporting. But Brian Stelter is a prime example proving that neither is true.

I agree with the general criticism of the New York Times misrepresenting its role in reporting on the OBL story, but repeating unsubstantiated rumors via Twitter makes them no less unsubstantiated, even if it's hip to use Twitter. Re-"tweeting" is not journalism. It's just another source of data that is a mix of signal and noise.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:51 PM on May 8, 2011


Cool, the C3PO swimsuit!!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:52 PM on May 8, 2011


If a journalist goes on TV and discusses breaking (and unsubstantiated) news, it's usually looked at as journalism or at least "news." If a reality TV star is on talking about her dog's eating habits, it's not.

If a journalist goes on the radio and discusses breaking (and unsubstantiated) news, it's usually looked at as journalism or at least "news." If a shock jock is on objectifying a woman for his listener's pleasure, it's not.

Why wouldn't it be the same with Twitter, or Facebook, or a community blog like MetaFilter? It seems stodgy and outdated to say only this medium is appropriate for the dissemination of news.

Things are unsubstantiated until they're substantiated. Those tweets and retweets weren't vetted the same way something that goes to print in the NYT is, but they were still completely true and out there before the "real news" was. Approaching new information disseminated via Twitter with skepticism makes complete sense, but I think it's great that journalists are willing to break self-imposed silence on new media platforms. I'm thinking of the Daily Show montage where the 24hr news network pundits were wasting time not reporting something they knew they were going to report at some point in the immediate future.

The news is fact-checked with more diligence before it hits NYT print, but I'd argue that they're also slower to admit they were wrong. Sure, on a platform like Twitter, journalists and citizens are in a rush to break news, which makes it sloppy and suspect, but I'd also argue that they're more willing to admit they were wrong, since they have a direct connection with their fellow twitterers. The wall isn't there.
posted by defenestration at 2:27 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sure, on a platform like Twitter, journalists and citizens are in a rush to break news, which makes it sloppy and suspect, but I'd also argue that they're more willing to admit they were wrong

Perhaps the #amazonfail debacle is a good example of where this breaks down. There was a lot of heat and noise from people who were really quite badly misinformed by each other's tweets. And the tweets were not only wrong, they were amplified by sheer volume of echoes, acting like a positive feedback loop.

Granted, Amazon very, very badly screwed up their PR response, but when the fact-based story finally made its way to the news outlets, the feedback loop had died and no one seemed as interested in the correct story, or in correcting themselves and each other.

One mistake the writer makes is suggesting that volume of retweets implies trust and, therefore, correctness. The #amazonfail counterexample shows how easy it is for a collective to make that mistake, I think.

I suspect it might be easy to look at how the OBL tweet network evolved over time, and derive some post hoc conclusions based upon how it played out on social media. I'm not sure those conclusions are useful, though, based on how rumors played out in past events.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:54 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


One mistake the writer makes is suggesting that volume of retweets implies trust and, therefore, correctness.

This. How much of the constant noise reverberating around the Twitter echo chamber ever turns out to be factual and newsworthy, and how much is just... noise reverberating around the Twitter echo chamber? It's not like the President didn't appear on TV a few hours later to announce this. What even remotely conceivable benefit accrues from someone pulling this out of the vacuous Twitter flood three or four hours earlier than the President's speech?
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 3:06 PM on May 8, 2011


An understanding of how the news reverberated around Twitter hours before it was announced by the President and what that possibly means for the future of news dissemination?
posted by defenestration at 3:09 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can a rumor be considered news, before it is corroborated? Or was it still just rumor up to that point, regardless of the method of transmission (Twitter, telephone, smoke signals, etc.)?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:13 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, I think context is important. It was definitely a rumor, but it was posted by people who could conceivably have insider/early knowledge of something that hasn't been officially reported yet. It wasn't a throwaway tweet by @Belieberrycrunch97 or @myantihumorsexjokesaresoedgy, y'know?

I guess you could consider it a rumor that held weight due to the context it was presented in that wound up being completely true, thus breaking the news before the news was "news." It's something new in its immediacy and shouldn't be ignored or discounted because it doesn't work the way other media works.
posted by defenestration at 3:22 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think this visualisation is a cut above the usual Twitter/Facebook/whatever network dataviz, simply in that it actually conveys a sense of how the connections are genuinely shaped, rather than the usually blurry mess of criss-crossing lines. So, thanks.

A side note to this, which I think is pretty pertinent to the way the discussion's going, is this excellent bit of research by Steve Myers of Poynter into how the discovery of Sohaib Athar - the IT consultant in Abbottabad who inadvertently live-tweeted the Bin Laden raid - spread in the space of a few hours among various networks. I think what it brings out is that each of those slightly abstract node that you see on the visualisation of the Bin Laden death rumours are all individuals, with their own sets of expertise, contacts and interests. And a lot of that context is known to the people immediately passing that information on - the process can often (not always) be the opposite of Chinese whispers, amplifying trusted information rather than reducing the signal/noise ratio with every reproduction.(My mate Chris, who is one of the people featured in the story, blogged his own thoughts about it here.)

And on the whole issue of "re-tweeting is not journalism", try taking a look at what NPR's Andy Carvin is doing with his Twitter coverage of events across the Arab world. It's almost entirely composed of retweets of people on the ground in the region - and it's dense, messy, and every individual element of it is to a large extent unverified. But the aggregate of it presents a compelling and, I'd argue, accurate (if incomplete) picture of what's happening, and it's one that wouldn't otherwise come to light. That sounds a hell of a lot like journalism to me.
posted by flashboy at 3:27 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I guess then I'd say it's news, not journalism...? I think I associate "journalism" with some intelligent curation of the "news," perhaps taking history or related events into account, or providing some context... Twitter doesn't - in fact, CAN'T - provide that. And I've yet to hear any real rationale for why knowing about bin Laden's death three or four hours before the President announced it had any value to any one anywhere - what possible benefit could that have?
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 4:02 PM on May 8, 2011


it's dense, messy, and every individual element of it is to a large extent unverified

An interesting grad student project would be to take OBL and similar directed graph networks from major news events (something major enough to be reduced to a binary true/false event, e.g. someone is dead), generating some kind of tracking p-value over time. Take the null hypothesis that the news is just a rumor, and the alternate hypothesis that the news is real, i.e. OBL is dead, and assign a significance to the rumors as time progresses and retweeting travels to different nodes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:03 PM on May 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's new journalism. Everything's going to be ok.
posted by localhuman at 4:16 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've yet to hear any real rationale for why knowing about bin Laden's death three or four hours before the President announced it had any value to any one anywhere - what possible benefit could that have?

Just because a particular piece of breaking news didn't have any immediate value to us personally doesn't mean that it - or some other item of breaking news - has no value to anyone anywhere.

Bin Laden's death may have impacted the markets (I haven't checked, and I am not asserting that it has), thus impacting millions of people in a fairly direct way. And while it may not be a desirable effect, the breaking news of his death may have allowed his Al Qaeda deputies to get away before the drones came for them.

In any case, once we agree on the general case - that breaking news is valuable in different ways to different people - the specific case of Bin Laden's death is not particularly far from the curve.
posted by vidur at 4:55 PM on May 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


An interesting grad student project would be to take OBL and similar directed graph networks from major news events (something major enough to be reduced to a binary true/false event, e.g. someone is dead), generating some kind of tracking p-value over time. Take the null hypothesis that the news is just a rumor, and the alternate hypothesis that the news is real, i.e. OBL is dead, and assign a significance to the rumors as time progresses and retweeting travels to different nodes.

Journalism is the ultimate for Bayesian analysis, though. Rumsfeld's chief of staff reporting it is not the same as if Shaq started the rumor.
posted by one_bean at 5:45 PM on May 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


But vidur, that's precisely my point - I want you, or someone, to explain how "breaking news" is so valuable. You can't just say, "Oh, OK, this specific example doesn't demonstrate that breaking news is vital, but IN GENERAL, it is..."

And you're also ignoring the fact that Twitter is, for most intents and purposes not related to the media business, the tech industry, and black teenagers, a cesspool of half-truths, misheard remarks, and self-serving bullshit simply served up to one's own clique (c.f., Arrington, Michael). You'd have to be an idiot to assume anything that came unverified over Twitter was "true"...
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 5:48 PM on May 8, 2011


OneMonkeysUncle, it really depends on what you mean by "valuable". I've mentioned two possible angles on OBL's death. I am not qualified to ascertain the first of those (impact on markets), and I don't think anyone of MeFi is close enough to anyone in Al Qaeda to know about the second of those effects.

The death of any "notable person" is valuable news. I hope we can agree on this.

The death of Steve Jobs (well, he is going to die eventually) will probably have some consequences for Apple and Apple's shareholders and Apple's senior executives. The death of any organization's top leader is an important piece of news for people within that organization, and to some outside the organization depending on what the organization is.

If such news is valuable, it follows that those who are going to be impacted by it would prefer to know about it as soon as possible. It is then upto the individual to decide what kind of information source he is going to consider credible. You might want to wait for NYT to confirm something, but maybe others want to act sooner or, at the very least, have more time to think about it while awaiting confirmation from NYT.

In the present case, Ayman Al Zawahiri probably doesn't even trust the word of President Obama or NYT. He probably waited to confirm the news through his own sources. But I am fairly certain that as soon as he heard the news, he started thinking about his own next moves and the several alternate plans he must have made for such a scenario. The specific details of the case may decide which option he would take, but he needed to figure out what questions to ask in order to select one of the fallback plans.

Please note that I am NOT saying that Twitter is great because it allowed Al Zawahiri some time to think about his options. I'm just saying that breaking news is valuable to people in different ways, even if we don't know about all such cases.

Disclaimer: I haven't yet had to consider acting on any twitter-based information for my own sake. This is all just a thought experiment sort of thing for me. Given how unexciting my life is, I don't expect to ever receive actionable news through twitter.
posted by vidur at 8:25 PM on May 8, 2011


It also depends on what the meaning of the words "is" is.
Thought I'll put that here before someone else does.

posted by vidur at 8:29 PM on May 8, 2011


Still got a long way to go to catch up with the BBC. Ten years ago they reported the 'collapse' of WTC-7 26 minutes before it happened.

Now that's a standard to aspire to.
posted by Twang at 9:11 PM on May 8, 2011


Still got a long way to go to catch up with the BBC. Ten years ago they reported the 'collapse' of WTC-7 26 minutes before it happened.

If only they had tweeted it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:49 PM on May 8, 2011


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