Social Media goes mainstream

Portland’s Mark Flanagan examines what happens when Tweets break the biggest story of the year

It goes to show how much the world has changed when Osama bin Laden‘s aversion to technology was one of the factors that drew the attention of US I

ntelligence to his Pakistani hideout.
Apparently, the CIA became suspicious of the Abbottabad mansion “after noting the compound had few electronic links to the outside world.”

On this basis, I have a few elderly relatives who should prepare themselves for Navy Seals bursting through the front door during Antiques Roadshow. Another consequence will be that, from now on, no self-respecting Jihadist will be without his own iPad or LinkedIn profile.

The event itself, bin Laden’s downfall, turned out to be another milestone in the unrelenting advance of social media. Seven hours before President Obama’s address to the nation, Sohaib Athar, whose Twitter handle is@ReallyVirtual, posted a tweet about a helicopter hovering above Abbottabad. He then reported “a huge window shaking bang” and went on to say that he hoped it wasn’t the start of “something nasty.”

Athar was, of course, unaware of the significance of his tweets. The next day, he posted the message “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

After starting the weekend with just 750 followers, the number following Mr. Athar’s Twitter feed had leapt to 91,000 by Tuesday afternoon. No doubt, a career as an American Idol judge beckons.

Another Tweeter, Mohcin Shah (@m0hcin) commented during the evening that nobody was picking up phones in Abbottabad, not even landlines, and that his family in the city reported hearing three blasts one after another.

Hours later, the White House abruptly announced that President Obama would be making a statement, leaving the TV rolling news channels to speculate on the nature of the address. By then, Twitter was buzzing with rumours that Osama was dead.

Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, (not Keith Urban, the country music singer, sadly) tweeted the news a whole hour before the President’s address.

It was suggested that Urbahn’s “reputable person” was dear old Rummy himself – who in turn may have been tipped off by George W. Bush, who was phoned by President Obama with the news ahead of the public announcement. However, Urbahn scotched this story by tweeting later that his source was “a connected network TV news producer.”

All of this sent Twitter into a frenzy. The company said that at 11pm eastern time on May 1st, shortly before President Obama began his address, users’ posts peaked at 5,106 per second. At 11.45pm, when the president had finished speaking, there were 5,008 tweets per second.

Previous Twitter highs have been seen around major sports events and the Japanese earthquake. This year’s Super Bowl saw a peak of 4,064 tweets per second which, itself, beat the previous record achieved during last year’s World Cup, when message volume reached 3,283 per second.
So, what conclusions can we draw?

Firstly, that the pundits should stop being surprised at the large scale use of sites like Twitter during global events. As Emma Barnett, Digital Media Editor of the Telegraph, has written, this is exactly what the platform was designed for.

Secondly, none of this remotely means that social media is replacing traditional media. Twitter does not supplant other media, it amplifies it. Whilst I first heard the Osama news on Twitter, I immediately checked out TV for the details and live pictures. Moreover, if you followed the content of many of the tweets around #Osama, then much of it was a commentary on what was being reported on TV. For an increasing number of us, Twitter is becoming the first place to turn to find out what is going on but it’s also proving to be the perfect complement to big TV moments.

Thirdly, news organisations need to adapt to the fact that they no longer have a monopoly on breaking news. Emily Bell, formerly of the Guardian and now Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, has written eloquently about how every news room will have to remake itself around the principle of being reactive in real time.

One genuine but naïve hope is that the events of the Arab Spring demonstrate that social media tools can be more effective agents of change than terrorism through martyrdom. Obviously, we must be careful not to overstate the role of technology – these tools can facilitate revolution but they do not necessarily bring it about. In the same way that, in the past, pamphlets and word-of-mouth helped mobilise disparate groups around a common cause, social media only has the power to harness a prevailing spirit and accelerate the revolutionary process. It is also no respecter of borders. What happens in Tunisia and Egypt motivates and empowers protesters in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

We don’t know where this will all end up. We do know that, at least, bin Laden won’t be around to see it.

Mark Flanagan is Head of Digital at Portland.