September 27, 2023

Turning to Social Networks for News

“I have my own gut instincts on what it might be,” the CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said a couple of times, adding that a senior White House official had thanked him for showing “restraint” and not speculating.

Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, some CNN watchers had already heard the news. Unconfirmed reports — that turned out to be true — of Osama bin Laden’s demise circulated widely on social media for about 20 minutes before the anchors of the major broadcast and cable networks reported news of the raid at 10:45 p.m., about an hour before Mr. Obama’s address from the White House.

It was another example of how social media and traditional media deal with the same news in different ways and at different speeds. Just as CNN once challenged newspapers and evening newscasts with a constant stream of images from the Persian Gulf war, Twitter and Facebook have become early warning systems for breaking news — albeit not always reliable ones.

Twitter saw the highest sustained rate of posts ever, with an average of 3,440 per second from 10:45 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Eastern time. There were more than five million mentions of Bin Laden on Facebook in the United States alone, as news of the raid at his hideout spread starting around 10:30 p.m. A new Facebook page titled “Osama bin Laden Is Dead” popped up for people to begin sharing their thoughts. It had more than 400,000 fans on Monday. (A second page, “Osama bin Laden Is Not Dead,” soon followed.)

Text messages and social networks did not only help people get and spread the news about Bin Laden’s death, but they also helped people absorb it, spurring impromptu gatherings at ground zero and outside the White House.

It left some reporters and observers trying to place the shared experience of the Bin Laden news in context. “Kennedy moment for a new generation,” wrote Alan Fisher, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, on Twitter. “For my generation, they’ll remember 9/11 and Diana’s death. For those younger, Osama’s death will be on that scale for its global impact.”

Sam Dulik, 20, a sophomore majoring in Latin American studies at Georgetown University, was writing a paper in his dorm room when he looked at his Facebook page and saw an update from a friend, making reference to a coming announcement by Mr. Obama and speculation about Bin Laden’s death.

“It just ripped across Facebook,” said Mr. Dulik, who watched in real time as bits and pieces of the story exploded in his Facebook news feed. Then he saw calls urging students to gather at the university’s gates and head to the White House.

“For the first time ever, rather than just informing me, it spurred me into action,” said Mr. Dulik, who grabbed an American flag off his wall and headed out.

Once the president made his announcement, users of Instagram, a photo-sharing application for the iPhone, flooded the service with photos of Mr. Obama speaking, snapped from televisions and laptop screens. Soon there were photos of American flags and then photos from the crowds gathered in New York and Washington.

Around 11 p.m., during the eighth inning of a tied Mets-Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” started in a section near the third base line. Billy Wichterman, 30, a season ticket holder, pulled out his iPhone, searched Twitter and found out why the chants were filling the stadium.

Some people in the crowd remained cautious.

“At first, I was slightly skeptical because I know that there were reports in the past where airstrikes were not successful,” said Julia Hays, 24, of Pitman, N.J., who was at the game. “Then I saw a lot of friends tweeting about it — that Obama was about to come on the news. Then I heard the chants and saw people pulling out their phones checking.”

What was missing on these services, for the most part, was original reporting. That was left up to the news media, particularly the few that had reporters in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Our Kabul reporters spoke to Afghan security chiefs who said it comes too late — there is now a Bin Laden on every street,” Peter Horrocks, the director of BBC Global News, said in an e-mail.

Dan Gillmor, the author of “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People” and a journalism instructor at Arizona State University, said it was important to remain cautious about the impact of how people are consuming real-time news, particularly given the erroneous reports that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had died in the shooting in Tucson in January.

“I think that we should be cautious about the value of these networks,” Mr. Gillmor said. “The value of these networks is huge for everyone involved, including the users. I think that we should be cautious about turning over all of our conversations to privately held companies that are in business for their shareholders in terms of things we control ourselves.”

Jenna Wortham contributed reporting.

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