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Twitter captures the Osama Bin Laden raid

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:05 UK time, Monday, 2 May 2011

I turned on the radio at 0700 this morning - and heard the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. I immediately picked up my phone and tweeted this fact - only to be bombarded with messages saying this was now very old news. In the age of Twitter you have to be online all night to keep up with events.

Already this is being described as another huge day for the micro-blogging service - "Twitter just had its CNN moment", as one American website put it, comparing this event with the first Gulf War, where millions suddenly woke up to the fact that cable news was the place to observe a war unfold in real-time.

I assumed that Twitter had merely been very fast to pick up on what more conventional news sources were saying - but it appears not. More than an hour before President Obama delivered his address with the news of the operation, this tweet from a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld popped up:

screengrab of tweet

So Twitter was first with the news, partly because it has become the medium now used by people in the know to spread information. But what was more remarkable was that the raid on the Bin Laden compound was actually tweeted live by a witness who didn't realise what he was seeing.

Late yesterday evening, a man called Sohaib Athar, who describes himself on Twitter as "an IT consultant taking a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops," reported the presence of a helicopter hovering above Abbotabad:

He then went on to document first his annoyance about the helicopter's noisy presence, then an apparent explosion, and his dawning realisation that something big was going on. Eventually, he tweeted:

"Uh oh, now I'm the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it."

Sohaib Athar, or @reallyvirtual, had been transformed within a couple of hours from an obscure IT guy in Pakistan to an eyewitness to history. According to new figures from Twitter, he is among a global population of 200 million users. Such is the power of this network that it has become the key resource for older media trying to stay ahead of events - a journalist who does not use Twitter is now like one who abjures the mobile phone.

Other crowdsourced online news sources - from Wikipedia with its swiftly updated Osama Bin Laden entry to Google Maps which rapidly had a location for his Abbotabad compound - also proved their worth.

But there's a harsh lesson for some news organisations trying to adapt to the digital age. I looked at The Times and the Telegraph iPad apps this morning and neither had changed their front pages to reflect the news about Bin Laden. Most days, it does not matter that iPad editions "go to bed" at the same time as the papers. This morning, it made them look like 20th Century relics - and if users are being asked to pay for the apps, as is the case with The Times, they may have some searching questions about what they're getting for their money.


  • Comment number 1.

    Brilliantly relevant post there Rory.

    I've only been on twitter since the start of 2011. A bit of a late adoption, I know! However I am now completely in love with it. I am still utterly amazed at the access it gives to the lives of others, the unfolding of global events and unprecendented ability that it gives journalists to blog from the very front line.

    The awful news of Tim Hetherington's death in Libya, with Tim tweeting minutes before he was fatally wounded, shows that journalists and commentators are now able to bring us news, views and opinion that make traditional 'live' news look positively analogue...your final paragraph regarding the Times & Telegraph apps highlight this very clearly.

    I think that the real upshot of all this is not that he users of these apps aren't getting their monies worth, but that they've backed the wrong horse. They should have invested their £1/week, or whatever it is, in twitter instead!

  • Comment number 2.

    I don't see a bright future for the traditional press.

    I have ceased reading newspapers as a source of current information. Instead, I sit at breakfast, going through my twitter feed on my iPad. It's like a newspaper, but it's not out of date. And most importantly, it's focussed around my own interests and priorities, not those of some morally dubious press-baron proprietor who is keen to "shape public opinion" while charging that same public for the privilege. (and advertisers to boot).

    Sorry, but that 20th century business models is collapsing. And good riddance I say.


  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    Well this is a major coup for Twitter and will 'big up' the service. It will possibly sound a death knell to other would be competitors (only time will tell). Believe it or not, i first heard this news on CNET this morning and my views on Twitter has not and will not change. I am not a journalist and find it irrelevant to my needs

  • Comment number 5.

    And, just like the "CNN moment", we need to learn fast that just because something is instant doesn't mean it's true. CNN has become a laughing stock since the Gulf War as the truth about its reporters' close connections with the US military has come out, and Twitter likewise gives no guarantee about the journalistic standards of those who twit.

    No spin doctor or PR department can work without using twitter but that doesn't matter as they all already do.

  • Comment number 6.

    Is this really a defining moment? That very first tweet was by a guy who didn't know what was happening - it was a single tweet among millions of tweets, and no-one knew the importance of it. There's speedy discussion, and there are verified facts. The Internet is great for the former, but not the latter. Even the Washington insider announcing the news on Twitter 60mins before President Obama seemed to have passed on second-hand information.

  • Comment number 7.

    How much more can you push Twitter? The 'scoop' was an observation, which did not explain the event. This is not journalism, it's a coincidence.

  • Comment number 8.

    The tweet at the time was completely useless. It was only later when it was revealed what was really going on by some1 else that it was clear what he had tweeted about. Looking back, the tweet is more of a novelty than a defining journalistic moment.

  • Comment number 9.

    The sheer volume of tweets breaking the news before the mainstream media is the story here: a politically connected relation of mine in New Zealand re-tweeted the prediction from a political contact in the States ... an hour before the NY Times, then CNN reported it, and then Obama announced it. That's the power of Twitter.

  • Comment number 10.

    Consider: if Osama Bin Laden had been following his local tweets he might have had time to take evasive action or even effective aggressive action against his attackers!

    Would that have been such a 'valuable' contribution to the safety of the World?

    Would you be praising technology so much in these circumstances?

    Information is a two edged weapon! It is never neutral!

  • Comment number 11.

    How was this a 'CNN moment'? That doesn't make sense. If I want news, I go to a news medium, because I know that it will be there. What do I get from Twitter? Gossip. If I'm lucky. Mostly inane rubbish about what someone I've never met had for breakfast. How could anyone pull that one tweet from the millions and claim it was a news service? Mr. Cellan-Jones needs to stop his breathless fanboi support for Twitter and put it where it belongs.

  • Comment number 12.

    Twitter is mostly for twits who can't read or understand joined up English!

  • Comment number 13.

    99.99999% of people only know about the guy tweeting the attack because they've read about it in the traditional news media. The death of news services as we know them? I don't think so.

  • Comment number 14.

    Where is the journalistic need for verification in all of this? Who or what is Sohaib Athar, the background is important and does not fit in a tweet.

  • Comment number 15.

    Why is there no obvious way of Tweeting this article!?

  • Comment number 16.

    Correlating and commenting on Twitter-based news is a function currently mostly served by print media, true.

    But just like the race to "bring the news first" they may find themselves competing with Twitter or similar online sources in the near future. The difference is it's a competition they stand a remote chance of winning.

    It may serve the press to reposition themselves as a source of organised quality news, though this would require a dramatic shift to providing quality news in the first place. As an image thing it may also help to stop calling it journalism, in other words the practise of journal-keeping, to distance themselves from the diary-like "first source" contributions of the likes of Sohaib Athar and Keith Urbahn.

  • Comment number 17.

    My current students in Intermediate Journalism Class at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria training School, Lagos Nigeria, should read this and make comments. The Social Media are already proven their edge in terms of speed and citizen involvement in news gathering and dissemination.

    No journalist ignores them.

    Thanks Rory.

  • Comment number 18.

    Those on this blog who have questioned the importance of Twitter don't understand what it is.

    It's not comparable to anything that has gone before, it is one of many new digital media phenomena that are changing how we communicate with each other. It is about the voice (and sometimes wisdom) of the crowd, which has millions more outposts, feelers and sources than the traditional 'official' media ever will. How it transforms the media and journalism in particular is becoming more apparent every day, and there are already services which are working to sift, filter and categorise Twitter sources to make them more easily accessible and digestible.

    I'm a relatively recent convert myself, but can promise you that when you learn how to use Twitter, you realise that the mainstream news media is quite a one-dimensional service, with headlines and sources chosen by a few for the many. Twitter's headlines and sources are chosen by the many for the many, and that surely is true democratisation of information.

  • Comment number 19.

    The point, Hernehunter, is that those pearls of wisdom (in 140 characters or less) lack analysis, moderation and context. How does the removal of journalism make conventional media one-dimensional?

    The argument of mass empowerment is also vapid - in what way does Twitter provide greater access than email, Facebook, MySpace or, indeed, conventional print?

    However, each to their own. I am more concerned that the BBC is so overly promoting Twitter. Has news gathering now become a social activity? Or is it simply a cheaper way to gather news?

  • Comment number 20.

    That's where you're wrong Edwin, tweets are not limited to 140 characters, they can act as a gateway to any web page. You can shorten links like this one - - try it, it takes you to this page. And the link can be to anything, any source, your own blog or even mainstream media! And of course retweets allow mainstream or unofficial media (such as the chap in Abbotabad) to be amplified as necessary, if worthwhile. If you then imagine that a tweet is a signal or home page to any website or source, then the possibilities are endless.

    So analysis and context are very much included. Moderation, admittedly, is up to the user, but that's how it should work anyway isn't it? Isn't that empowerment? The other social media you mention are for particular purposes: direct messaging and socialising, which is different to the way was created Twitter is now used. Sure it's micro-blogging, but it has become organised by users in a way that I'm sure the founders didn't even envisage.

  • Comment number 21.

    One more thing Edwin, in answer to "in what way does Twitter provide greater access than email, Facebook, MySpace or, indeed, conventional print?":


    Think what Google has done for information gathering. Now think about Twitter and see how similar it is (wait for the ads!), and how different it is to email, Facebook, MySpace or, indeed, conventional print.

  • Comment number 22.

    Hernehunter , my apologies. I was under the assumption that Twitter was just a medium to let people know you have bought a new hat, or have let the cat out. Much like Facebook. Phenomenon? Sorry, I thought it was a fad.

  • Comment number 23.

    To answer your question Rory, what are iPad users getting for their app? Take today, The Times has provided rolling coverage on its app since 7am, evolving throughout as the results have been called.

    Yet, there's no commentary on how this is outplaying the printed version of the paper which was woefully out of date before it even arrived on the news stand.

  • Comment number 24.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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