Study: Celebrities played role in spreading news of bin Laden death

Georgia Institute of Technology | Poynter

A new research paper says celebrities played an important role in spreading the news of Osama bin Laden's death one year ago tonight. Researchers tracked which accounts were mentioned in tweets about bin Laden and found that there were three distinct patterns. Mentions of "media people" spiked first, but they were soon outpaced by official media accounts. Celebrity mentions grew more slowly, but those figures became dominant as time went on and media mentions declined. "While media people and the mass media compete to be the first to report the news, celebrities use their social influence to help spread the news and stimulate discussions," researchers conclude.

This graph shows mentions of three user types as news spread of bin Laden's death on the night of May 1, 2011. ("Breaking News on Twitter," Mengdie Hu et. al.)

Of the 100 accounts mentioned the most in the sample of tweets over two hours, 15 were real-life celebrities and 16 were "Twitter celebrities," with more than 100,000 followers. (Just 96,500 followers until I hit the big time!) Media people and mass media accounts made up 44 of the top 100 accounts.

The most-cited Twitter accounts were @CNN, @CNNEE (its Spanish-language account) and @nytimes. Jill Jackson, the CBS News producer who appears to have been the first to report confirmation of bin Laden's death, was the fourth most-cited. The top users were cited about 18 percent of the time, which researchers say matches previous conclusions that a small number of "elite" users generate a disproportionate amount of the information on Twitter.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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