How 4 people & their social network turned an unwitting witness to bin Laden’s death into a citizen journalist

You’ve probably heard by now that an IT consultant in Pakistan used Twitter to share what he heard as Black Hawk helicopters swooped down on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

But the more striking demonstration of social media’s reach is how quickly people in the U.S. read Sohaib Athar’s first-person account of the raid – within a few hours of the president’s announcement late Sunday night.

Athar, aka @reallyvirtual, had perhaps 750 followers (according to figures I obtained midday Monday from Twitter Counter) when he noted the sounds of a helicopter overhead.

Far from being a one-person news agency, Athar used Twitter mostly to chat with people about his family, technology, politics, news and coffee.

Yet we quickly found him, and soon he was being hounded by journalists. In 24 hours, Athar went from someone who jokes with friends on Twitter and invites people to his coffee shop to someone who broadcasts his thoughts to more than 86,000 followers.

How did he become so influential so quickly? How does anyone? It takes the right piece of information at the right time, passed across small overlapping social circles, starting with just a few hundred people.

In this case, there are four key players. Two of them are a couple: a journalist who lives in New York and a social media specialist who lives in London. The other two have roots in Pakistan: a journalist and documentary filmmaker who recently moved to the U.S. and a political commentator in Islamabad.

Each of them contributed to a chain of information that turned one man’s offhand comments about a helicopter in the middle of the night into an internationally known work of citizen journalism.

A series of overlapping networks

Going backwards from when I learned of Athar’s account at 2 a.m. Monday, here’s the chain of tweets that led me – and in key ways, I suspect, most journalists – to him. (I reported this story by looking at people’s tweets and contacting them for confirmation and further details.)

I learned about Athar’s live-tweeting from Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land (134,912 followers), who retweeted a post from Megan McCarthy of Mediagazer (7,926 followers). I follow both of them – actually, I follow several people in this story – but I saw his post before hers. (Follower counts are for Sunday in case anyone had massive increases in followers.)

McCarthy heard about it from CJR’s Ryan Chittum, who had 1,601 followers.

Chittum retweeted a post from ProPublica’s Scott Klein (1,280 followers), who heard about the live-tweeting from Mike Corey, digital innovations editor for the Center for Investigative Reporting (615 followers).

Corey retweeted a post from Paddy Hirsch (1,422 followers), a Knight Fellow at Stanford, who retweeted Katie Benner (1,338 followers), a writer for Fortune.

“It was weird,” Corey told me via Twitter. “I had just tweeted that it was strange that no one had heard a helo crash/blown up, and then new info appeared.”

Benner got her information from her former coworker Maha Atal, a freelance journalist and Forbes blogger with 1,317 followers.

This is where it gets interesting and a little confusing. About midnight Sunday, Atal showed her boyfriend Chris Applegate a retweet from Beena Sarwar (6,133 followers), a journalist and documentary filmmaker who recently moved to the U.S. from Pakistan. (Atal isn’t sure how she came across Sarwar’s tweet, considering she doesn’t follow her on Twitter. But Atal does have connections to Pakistan, having reported there from 2009 to 2010.)

Sarwar had highlighted a response from Mosharraf Zaidi (4,521 followers), a political commentator in Pakistan whom she knows personally and on Twitter. Zaidi’s tweet at 11:50 p.m. ET Sunday was a simple smiley face response to another person who had complimented him:

“:) RT @silicon_d: Mad props 2 @mosharrafzaidi for sixth sense: ‘What was a low-flying heli doing flying around Abottabad Cantt at 0130 hrs?’ ”

Applegate did some reporting that added important details to the chain of information that Sarwar and Zaidi had passed along.

Applegate told me via email that upon seeing Zaidi’s tweet, he wondered if there was “additional coverage that might add colour.”

So he did a search using Google Realtime. Unlike Twitter’s advanced search, which only allows users to restrict a search by date, Google Realtime enables users to look for tweets between particular times. He looked for tweets that had the word “Abbottabad” and were posted before 11 p.m. ET Sunday. (He wanted to to exclude anything stemming from the president’s address, in which he mentioned the name of the town where bin Laden had been hiding.)

This is the compound where it is believed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden lived in Abbottabad on Monday, May 2, 2011. Bin Laden was slain in his luxury hideout in Pakistan early Monday in a firefight with U.S. forces, ending a manhunt that spanned a decade. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

And Applegate found Athar “just like that” — the tweets describing the helicopter flying overhead, his jokes about his giant helicopter swatter, the blast, and his conversation with others in which they tried to piece together what happened.

Atal’s tweet, posted at 12:37 a.m., and Applegate’s, posted at 12:38 a.m., were different in a key way: They pointed out that Athar appeared to have live-tweeted the raid without knowing it. Atal’s post:

“.@reallyvirtual appears to have liveblogged the raid w/o knowing it. go read.”

And Applegate tweeted:

“Wow. Turns out at least one person, @ReallyVirtual, inadvertently liveblogged the raid in Abbottabad earlier today http://bit.ly/lU5b4s

Applegate, who had 3,317 followers on Sunday, said it’s possible that he wasn’t the first person to point this out. But he hasn’t seen earlier tweets with similar references.

At 12:41 a.m., Athar tweeted, “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.” (In a FAQ posted on his website a few days later, Athar said he realized this after seeing Atal’s tweet.)

Zaidi and Omar Waraich, a correspondent for The Independent and Time, noticed Athar’s tweets and quickly went to his coffeeshop in Abbottabad; they were the first two people to interview Athar about what he had witnessed during the raid.

Bridging networks

Certain kinds of players in social networks have special roles. People who are connected to many others are important because they’re hubs. They can spread information quickly.

Another key type of player is the “bridge,” someone who connects two distinct networks. Cut that connection, and there’s no other way for something to move from one part of the network to the other.

In different ways, these four key players are bridges. Zaidi, Sarwar and Atal appear to have been key in moving the news of an “ear witness” from a network that was heavy on Pakistan connections to one that was heavy on media connections — and thus to the public at large.

“I find myself in that position quite often,” Sarwar told me, describing how she has spearheaded email groups and a Yahoo Group. “I get an awful lot of information coming to me, and I’m kind of a compulsive information-giver. I hate keeping it to myself.”

Several years ago, someone described this characteristic in terms now familiar to people tracking where journalism is headed. A friend told her, “You’re a great news curator.”

In this case, she didn’t realize how she acted as a connector even though she came across an AP story about Athar Monday morning and saw that it was connected to Zaidi’s tweet. It wasn’t until we talked that she learned of her role.

Applegate was a bridge too, in a slightly different way. He added essential information that resonated with people and spurred them to pass it on.

Without those people, would we have learned — so quickly — that someone had live-tweeted the raid that killed bin Laden? (A structured analysis could show if other people in these networks share similar connections, just as I share many of the connections with fellow journalists who passed the information along.)

“I may have been the first to find him,” Applegate said, “but other smart people out there would have been doing the same thing.”

Perhaps that person would have been a journalist, and we would have learned of Athar’s role through news organizations, as people in Pakistan and Afghanistan learned about Terry Jones’ burning of the Quran. In that case, information crossed the globe through traditional media; here traditional media was at the end of the chain.

Whether we’re talking about Twitter followers or newscast audience, the most recognizable form of influence is the one-to-many relationship – the person with the ear of many people.

But here we see a different kind of influence, in which the number of followers doesn’t matter as much as who those followers are. (This is a key finding of The New York Times’ research into how news spreads through social networks.)

On his own, Athar couldn’t distribute his observations very far. Indirectly, he did have access to a large network, though he probably didn’t realize it at the time. He became influential because people in those networks recognized the importance of what he had observed and passed it on.

Now Athar has a large network of his own: 96,000 people as of Tuesday morning who want to hear what he says. He’s unlikely to become a bystander of an international news story again. But maybe one of the several hundred people he follows will be that bystander, and because that person has Athar’s ear, his account will spread fast and far.

CORRECTION: This post originally misstated the number of Twitter followers Maha Atal had on Sunday.

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