Visualizing how Twitter spread news of bin Laden's death

A detailed visual look at how a single Tweet spread like a virus across Twitter within minutes--and scooped the president.

Boonsri Dickinson
Boonsri Dickinson is a multimedia journalist who covers science, technology, and start-ups. She is a contributing editor at CBS SmartPlanet, and her work has appeared in Wired, New Scientist, Technology Review, and Discover magazine. E-mail Boonsri.
Boonsri Dickinson
2 min read
Keith Urbahn (@Keithurbahn), the former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, got the attention of New York Times reporter Brian Stelter (@brianstelter). SocialFlow

Thousands of words have been written this week about how Twitter had the first reports that the United States had found and killed Osama bin Laden, but a start-up called SocialFlow has published a fascinating visual look at how the news originated and spread on Twitter.

At the center of the bin Laden Twitter storm that erupted Sunday night is Keith Urbahn (@Keithurbahn), the former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld who tweeted at 10:25 EST, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn."

Despite being relatively unknown outside of political circles and having just over 1,000 followers, Ubahn's credibility led to 80 retweets within one minute, including one from New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, reports SocialFlow. The company analyzed 14.8 million tweets and bitly links to understand the impact of a single tweet, starting from when news of the unplanned presidential address broke at 9:46 p.m. EST to when Obama finally gave his speech at 11:30 p.m. EST.

Related links
Twitter delivers news of bin Laden's death first
News agencies don't race Twitter on bin Laden
Bin Laden, Twitter, and the frenzy of noise
Sohaib Athar on Twitter fame after bin Laden raid (Q&A)
Bin Laden's death and the Web response (roundup)

Less than one minute after seeing Urbahn's tweet, Stelter (@brianstelter) tweeted: "Chief of staff for former defense sec. Rumsfeld, @keithurbahn, tweets: "I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden." Hundreds of Stelter's 50k followers retweeted him or replied to him. After two minutes, more than 300 people had retweeted Urbahn's tweet. The rest is history.

SocialFlow concludes: "Keith Urbahn wasn't the first to speculate on bin Laden's death, but he was the one who gained the most trust from the network. And with that, the perfect situation unfolded, where timing, the right social-professional networked audience, along with a critically relevant piece of information led to an explosion of public affirmation of his trustworthiness."

The full report on SocialFlow's site is a great read for anyone fascinated by the rise of Twitter's influence and power, plus the visuals the company put together to illustrate the phenomenon are worth a look.