Study: Twitter users convinced of bin Laden’s death before media, President confirmed it

How did people learn that Osama bin Laden had been killed a year ago? The story is simple: Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “broke” the news on Twitter before any major news outlet reported it, more than an hour before President Barack Obama announced it:

Some people assumed the “reputable person” in Urbahn’s tweet was the former defense secretary himself. But Urbahn later said that a TV news producer, seeking an interview with Rumsfeld, told him that the U.S. may have killed bin Laden. 

In retrospect, Urbahn’s tweet looks less like an instance of breaking news and more like casual conversation. CBS News producer Jill Jackson’s tweet nine minutes later, in which she cited an unnamed House Intelligence Committee aide, appears to be the first to confirm bin Laden’s death.

Jackson may remain a supporting character in media history, however, because Urbahn’s tweet rapidly convinced Twitter users that bin Laden had been killed, according to a new research paper examining how the news spread on Twitter.

In the nine minutes between those two tweets, the percentage of tweets expressing certainty about bin Laden’s death surged. By the time news outlets confirmed bin Laden’s death about 20 minutes after Urbahn’s tweet, 80 percent of Twitter users talking about bin Laden expressed certainty that he was dead.

What made them so sure, so quickly, before the government had announced anything? It was the perceived credibility of Urbahn, whose Twitter bio says that he’s Rumsfeld’s former chief of staff.

Those early Twitter users also were influenced by the credentials of Jackson and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, who retweeted Jackson and Urbahn.

The study spurs an interesting question: What makes people believe something is true? In this case, the perception of credibility – which can be imparted by a few words in a Twitter bio – rests on new factors rather than traditional ones, like journalistic reporting. As Urbahn shows, someone with impressive credentials can convince people something is true even if he didn’t mean to.

When the audience is more certain than the source

Just a few days after bin Laden’s death, researchers at SocialFlow described the influence of Urbahn’s tweet and Stelter’s role in passing it along. The new study, led by Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Mengdie Hu, carries that forward by assessing Twitter users’ confidence in the early rumors of bin Laden’s death.

The researchers manually classified about 300 tweets according to whether they appeared to be certain that bin Laden had been killed. They used that to train software to analyze about 615,000 tweets, which comprised about 10 percent of all the tweets about bin Laden posted in a two-hour period that night.

At 10:21 p.m., the beginning of the two-hour period they studied, just five percent of tweets that mentioned bin Laden expressed certainty that he was dead, the researchers found. When Urbahn posted his “hot damn” tweet at 10:24 p.m. – followed by Stelter’s tweet about a minute later – that spiked to more than 50 percent.

When Jackson posted her reported confirmation at 10:33 p.m., 60 percent of tweets referring to bin Laden seemed certain that he was dead. That increased to about 80 percent around the time that ABC, CBS and NBC reported bin Laden’s death about 10:45 p.m., according to the study. It rose slightly from there.

This graph shows that tweets expressing certainty about bin Laden death’s spiked after Keith Urbahn’s tweet and before it had been confirmed a CBS News producer. By the time major media outlets reported bin Laden’s death, most people on Twitter already believed it was true.

What does it mean when half of the people talking about a rumor are sure it’s true before there’s a clear reason to believe it? It’s a reminder that people don’t necessarily wait for someone to provide the facts.

“Keith Urbahn tweeted this without really thinking what the consequences could be,” Hu said. “The perceived level of certainty may not reflect the real level of certainty” of a source like Urbahn.

The study doesn’t discount the role of the media, however. Though the people who tweeted about bin Laden’s death in the first few minutes appeared to be quite sure of the rumor, that was a small group compared to the number of people who tweeted about bin Laden’s death after media widely reported the news. That’s when the rate of tweets exploded.

Inferred credibility

Jackson, Urbahn and Stelter were the most-cited users in tweets about bin Laden that were posted between 10:20 and 10:45 p.m., the study notes. Researchers speculate that their professional roles were key in propagating the information across Twitter in such a short time.

It is unlikely that an aide for [former] Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or a CBS News producer would spread groundless rumors of something so important and risk jeopardizing their reputation.

About 30 percent of tweets mentioning Urbahn’s Twitter handle included the word “Rumsfeld”; almost 19 percent of those citing Jackson’s Twitter account mentioned “CBS.”

“These people talking about this news … these are people who we are willing to trust,” Hu said.

But is that trust misplaced? We now know that the source of Urbahn’s credibility was not the source of his information.

Even at the time, he sought to downplay what he had said, tweeting minutes later, “Don’t know if its true, but let’s pray it is,” and urging people to wait to hear the president’s speech.

Urbahn told the New York Observer at the time that he didn’t believe that people relied on his association with Rumsfeld. He said his Twitter account is “very detached from my job … It’s more personal. I don’t see them as linked.”

Hu doesn’t think you can separate the two so easily. “People are using their personal accounts to talk about things,” she said, “and then we associate their personal opinions with their jobs, with their boss.”

Her conclusion challenges journalists’ conception of their “personal” Twitter accounts, which often has a lower threshold of reliability than what they tweet from their employers’ official accounts.

People follow journalists’ personal Twitter accounts because they want to be closer to the source of the information. Some users may be savvy enough to know that the bar is lower than an official news account; others may retweet journalists’ accounts just as they would an official account.

“There was a lot of guessing about bin Laden but no one wanted to say it out loud,” Stelter told the Observer. Urbahn’s tweet “allowed people to take that idea seriously.”

Stelter told me via email Monday that he first saw Urbahn’s tweet without any context tying him to Rumsfeld. He looked at Urbahn’s Twitter profile, Googled him to see if that checked out, and decided to put Urbahn’s statement in front of his 54,000 followers:

Stelter told me what factored into his decision:

I considered the following: his Twitter bio; his number of Twitter followers; his Googleable references; and most importantly, what I tweeted later: that reporters in Washington were hearing whispers about bin Laden.

That’s why I followed up with “The whispers about bin Laden are getting louder in Washington circles. The media is by and large being careful not to jump the gun though.”

The feedback loop

Last May, American Journalism Review editor Rem Reider criticized those who lauded Urbahn for “breaking” the news.

The celebration of Urbahn’s timely tweet sends out precisely the wrong message. It seems to suggest that guessing is good enough, that verification is just so old school, that simply throwing it out there is perfectly fine.

His criticism is well-placed for journalists who use Twitter as a publication platform, but not for the vast majority of users who consider Twitter a conversation platform.

The study hints at a related pitfall: how Twitter can exaggerate the feedback loop between sources and the media.

Consider how the information flowed. A TV producer called an official source to line up an interview, sharing the reason for his request. The official source tweeted what he was told, simply referring to the producer as someone “reputable.” Other media and the public at large saw that tweet as further indication that the rumor of bin Laden’s death was true.

The feedback loop is not new. What is new is that this sort of thing once happened in one-to-one interactions. Now they’re public, where anyone can read them and read into them. (The New York Observer, called Urbahn’s “hot damn” comment a “Rumsfeldian sign-off.”)

But it makes you wonder: Would things have played out differently if Urbahn had said his source was in the media?

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the 615,000 tweets included in the study comprised 10 percent of all tweets during the two-hour period. The 615,000 tweets were 10 percent of tweets about bin Laden.

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