How The Attack On Osama Bin Laden Was Live-Tweeted

And other stories about how the news of Al Qaeda’s leader’s passing ping-ponged around the web and social media, from BNO News to George W. Bush. It was one of the most tweeted—but not the single most tweeted—events, Twitter tells us.

bin Laden is dead rally in Times Square

As we reported last night, the first report that Osama Bin Laden's had been killed came not from the news media but from a tweet (by a person who, it turns out, is a former Navy intelligence officer—so perhaps he had particularly good sources). Now, however, it appears that the news—or at least indicators about it—had already appeared on Twitter hours before.

At about 5:30 pm ET*, Michael van Poppel, president of BNO news, a news wire that provides content to local outlets in the U.S. (and until last year had the best, simplest, fastest breaking news app on the planet), tweeted something he had heard on GEO TV, a Pakistani television station.

As we later found out, the U.S. special forces conducting the raid on Bin Laden's hideout lost one of two helicopters used in the operation.

But even van Poppel might not have been the first alert on Twitter. Sohaib Athar, who lists as his location on Twitter as Abbottabad, the Pakistani town where Bid Laden was found, and who describes himself as an IT consultant "taking a a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops" (ironically), tweeted the following at about 4:30 p.m. ET (which would have been 1:30 a.m. local time):

Shortly after, Athar, whose Twitter stream @ReallyVirtual went from a few hundred followers early yesterday evening to over 16,000 by the wee hours of this morning, unknowingly tweeted about the U.S. special forces attack: "A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S."

Athar’s tweets continued to describe what he was hearing in Abbottabad. As he later tweeted, it now appears that he was "liveblogging" the U.S. operation.

But Athar was not the only one reporting on the news. Mohcin Shah, a tweeter who lists their ("his," we assume) location as Rawalpindi, Pakistan, posted the following:

Shah and Athar apparently know each other, perhaps only through Twitter, or perhaps in person, but they had an extended back and forth about what was happening in Abbottabad. (We recommend you go back and read it.)

By now, however, the news was breaking on Pakistani television, and tweeters based there started reporting what they were hearing:

Meanwhile, Athar continued to report what he was hearing and thinking:

Bits and pieces began to show up on Facebook—including on the account belonging to a Pakistani special forces group, where someone posted a map (taken from an iPhone, it looks like) of where the helicopter crash purportedly took place:

It was only hours later that the former naval intelligence officer issued his tweet. The fur really started flying on Twitter after the news broke through the mainstream media, a little before 11 p.m. EST, that Osama Bin Laden had indeed been killed.

A Twitter spokesman tells Fast Company that the rate of tweets peaked immediately before and right after the speech President Obama gave last night about the raid—at about 4,000 tweets per second. That was about the same as the highest-ever rate of tweets for a sporting event, a record hit during the final moments of this year’s Super Bowl.

Update: On Monday, Twitter updated its figures. It now says that, before Obama's speech, tweets were coming in at 5,106 tweets per second, and after the speech at 5,008. It adds, however, that last night saw the highest sustained rate of tweets ever. From 10:45 pm ET - 2:20 am ET, tweets were coming in at an average of 3,000 tweets per second.

Twitter also provided the following graph on Monday:

Still, Sunday night's activity didn't come close to the highest number of tweets ever. That record was set on January 1 of this year when Japan started ringing in the New Year. Almost 7,000 tweets per second were flying then. (But last night's figures were way ahead of the amount of Twitter usage when Michael Jackson died—just 456 tweets per second. But that was June 2009, and significantly fewer people were on Twitter.)

Facebook was apparently the place to be if you were a politician. George W. Bush posted a statement, which as of early this morning, had over 36,000 Likes, and over 9,000 comments.

And if anyone had any doubt that Facebook is now the broadcasting medium of choice for pols, all you had to do was follow the company’s "Congress on Facebook" page to track the number of Senators and Congressman posting statements to their pages about the death of Bin Laden.

Over on Google, Sunday's news pulled off an amazing feat: At about 1 a.m. ET this morning, every single topic in Google’s "Hot Searches" list was related to Bin Laden’s death. (And yes, we are making the assumption that people were searching for Fox News, the Associated Press, and CNN because they wanted Bin Laden news and not, for example, because they were trying to find out who was going to be on "Piers Morgan Tonight.")

Predictably, it didn’t take long for people to start editing Bin Laden’s Wikipedia page. The first update appeared at 10:37 pm ET. But the page for Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was hiding out, got hit pretty quickly too.

The first edit there was at 8:40 pm ET 11:40 pm ET (8:40 pm PT) —with an eloquent addition that said nothing but "Yo bitches I got here first ya heard" from a contributor identified only by an IP address. A minute later was when the first reference to Bin Laden’s death was added, and by half an hour later, Wikipedia editors had locked the page down to prevent vandalism.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for someone to create a fake Osama-in-Hell Twitter account:

But perhaps the greatest honor Twitter received all night was the following:

* All times are estimates, based on Twitter time stamps (like "9 hours ago")

[Image from Times Square, top: Flickr user Josh Pesavento]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

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2 Comments

  • H Michael Smith

    The Head Cock Roach is no more...hope they stuffed a bunch of pork rines in his mouth...pissed on him then dumped his carcass in the ocean..thank God it's not the Atlantic :) The thought brings a smile to my face...ok 99 more to go..get er done...