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Understanding the Staggering Spread of Keith Urbahn's bin Laden Tweet

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, May 6 2011

SocialFlow's mapping showing the spread of Keith Urbahn's tweet on the killing of Osama bin Laden
Keith Urbahn's source tweet on the killing of bin Laden

By a quarter to ten last Sunday night, word had gotten out that President Obama would address the country that evening. By the time Obama spoke nearly two hours later, the world was aware that Osama bin Laden had been killed. How did that happen? Researchers at the New York City company SocialFlow have just released their analysis of some 14.8 million public tweets from that evening. Their work that tracks how a single tweet from a 27-year-old aide to former U.S. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld spread with amazing rapidity, to where the death of bin Laden became common knowledge before the president got a chance to open his mouth:

Keith was not first to speculate that the address is related to Bin-Laden, nor did he have a particularly influential presence on Twitter, with a following of 1,016 and a casual digital portrayal. But the right network effects came into play, and enabled his post to generate enough trust amongst his followers, their followers, and so on. ...

The rate at which Keith’s message spread was staggering. Within a minute, more than 80 people had already reposted the message, including the NYTimes reporter Brian Stelter [who had 54,000 followers on Twitter at the time]. Within two minutes, over 300 reactions to the original post were spreading through the network.

Their takeaways:

Authority, trust and persuasiveness play an important role in influencing others, but are only part of a complex set of dynamics that affect people’s perception. Connections are another important factor, along with timing and a dash of pure luck. But as humans, we are still incredibly irrational, and constantly make decisions based on our intuition, or whatever we feel like at that moment. 

Fascinating stuff. This whole situation provides another glimpse at how context, connections, and "a dash of pure luck" contribute to how information spreads in the Twitter age: in Pakistan, Sohaib Arthar tweeted about the Abbottabad raid in real-time, but the wider world didn't actually know about it until other tweeters went looking for witnesses.