How celebrities spread Twitter's biggest-ever story

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Steve Martin and Kim Kardashian drove the breaking of the news of Osama bin Laden's death.

When US Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden on May 1 last year, Twitter was the first to break the news. Twitter logged more than 5,000 tweets per second.

And by studying more than 600,000 tweets, a team led by Georgia Tech researchers has found that opinion leaders and celebrities played key roles.

The study confirms the widely-held belief that Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was indeed the first person to break the news on Twitter, with a tweet sent at 10:24 pm.

Eight minutes later, a CBS producer tweeted her own confirmation, and a New York Times reporter retweeted both reports. 

Within minutes of Urbahn’s post, says PhD candidate Mengdie Hu, 50 percent of tweets were reporting the death as certain. By the time TV networks broke into programming 21 minutes later, nearly 80 percent were already sure that bin Laden was dead.

"We believe Twitter was so quick to trust the rumors because of who sent the first few tweets," says Hu.

"They came from reputable sources. It’s unlikely that a CBS News producer or New York Times reporter would spread rumors of something so important and risk jeopardizing their reputation. Twitter saw their credentials and quickly believed the news was true."

But while nearly everyone on Twitter was talking about the news, the discussion was actually being driven by a group of 100 'elite' users, with a member of this elite mentioned in nearly a fifth of tweets.

Unsurprisingly, media outlets such as CNN, CNN Espanol and the New York Times led the way in the first few minutes.

However, within a half hour of the TV reports, celebrities surpassed media mentions and carried the discussion throughout the night. They included comedian Steve Martin and reality stars Kim Kardashian and Paul 'DJ Pauly D' DelVecchio of Jersey Shore.

"The celebrities weren’t the first people to arrive at the party," says professor John Stasko. "But they stayed the longest and brought the most guests."