Twitter Spreads News Of Bin Laden's Death

Michele Norris talks to Andy Carvin, NPR's senior strategist for social media, about Twitter's role in disseminating information about Osama bin Laden's death.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Global Internet traffic surged before midnight as news of Osama bin Laden's death hit the media. We're talking more than 4.1 million page views a minute at the very peak. We're going to take the next few minutes of this program to discuss the Web's role in all of this.

And coming up, we'll hear from a group that monitors terrorists and extremist websites to gauge reaction there to bin Laden's death.

But first, Andy Carvin, NPR's senior strategist for social media is here with me to talk about the role Twitter played in breaking the story. Welcome to the studio, Andy.

ANDY CARVIN: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Now, I understand there were two big moments on Twitter that really pushed the story forward. Let's talk about both of them.

CARVIN: Well, the first one is the one that lots of people saw. It was when an aide to Donald Rumsfeld mentioned on Twitter that they had gotten Osama bin Laden. And being that people who are on Twitter and also connected to the Beltway, they tend to be rather chummy, word spreads very quickly. In a matter of minutes, everyone was talking about it.

In contrast to that, a number of hours beforehand, there was a man in Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was killed, who goes by the name Really Virtual on Twitter. And as it turns out, he actually live tweeted the attack. At one point early on he wrote, helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 a.m., it's a rare event. He was joking about the stress of hearing helicopters and explosions and really having no clue what was actually going on.

NORRIS: And he describes himself as someone who had tried to get away from the city and was holed up with his laptop.

CARVIN: Yeah. At one point he even writes: "Funny, moving to Abbottabad was part of the being safe strategy," quote, unquote. When he first found out about it, he said: Osama bin Laden killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Uh-oh, there goes the neighborhood.

NORRIS: How did he find out that he'd actually live tweeted this?

CARVIN: I'm actually not sure who the original source was. Somewhere into President Obama's speech last night, it started spreading all around Twitter. You don't know the origination point always. And so, people are still trying to figure that out.

NORRIS: And his reaction was interesting.

CARVIN: He certainly wasn't expecting this to happen. He had something like 750 followers before bin Laden was killed. Right now he's hovering just below 60,000 followers. So, he suddenly reached celebrity status on Twitter. One of his last tweets over the last couple of hours was, leave me alone, please let go to sleep. I'm not going to do any more phone calls. So he's clearly overwhelmed by all the coverage and didn't realize that if he had gotten the word out, he essentially would have had the scoop of the decade.

NORRIS: There was also some bad information that was being spread. A lot of rumors.

CARVIN: Right. Not too long after the word got out on Twitter and about the time that President Obama was going on air, people began to circulate a photo claiming that it was the first photo of bin Laden dead. And it was a rather gory picture of a man whose face looked very much like him, had a long beard. It looked like he had been shot through the eye.

Ultimately, a number of news organizations, including Le Monde in France, have done stories finding the original photo that got Photoshopped together with a picture of bin Laden to make this fake picture. It just wasn't done for this specific occasion. They rehashed it from last year.

NORRIS: Is it possible to gauge international reaction via Twitter?

CARVIN: I think you can gauge some reaction. But you have to remember, in many places, the people who are on Twitter are essentially the elites of the country. They're well-educated, they're well-networked. And so, they're not necessarily a representative sample of the population.

What they might be telling you is essentially what young people are thinking or what the intellectual class happens to be thinking. But it doesn't necessarily tell you what's going on on the, quote, unquote, "street."

NORRIS: Andy Carvin, always good to talk to you.

CARVIN: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: That's Andy Carvin. He's NPR's senior strategist for social media.

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