This evening, as we learn about the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re seeing firsthand what happens when the real-time, immediate notifications of Facebook and Twitter meet real-world events. But how do we decide what’s gossip and what is fact?

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Updated: This evening, as we learn about the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re seeing firsthand what happens when the real-time, immediate notifications of Facebook and Twitter meet real-world events. It’s not the first time, but the death of Osama Bin Laden is truly a global event in the way that Prince William and Kate Middleton’s marriage on Friday was not, or even what the protests in Egypt and Libya are not.

While there are doubtless plenty of Americans who will wake up tomorrow to be greeted with the news that a special operations mission has killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, millions discovered the news Sunday night on Twitter or Facebook. And while they may have tuned into the news on television, many more watched the live stream from the White House on the web, or streamed it from Al-Jazeera, CNN or countless other sites offering the news in real time. And some likely followed it via Twitter for far longer than the brief address. Update: After President Obama’s speech last night, Twitter said it was fielding about 4,000 tweets a second.

From the time of the reported first tweet on the topic, coming from @KeithUrbahn who lists himself as “Chief of Staff, Office of Donald Rumsfeld, Navy Reserve intel officer, and owner of two miniature dachshunds. Opinions are my own,” which was posted around 10:25 p.m. EDT, Twittersphere and Facebook denizens followed a compressed news cycle as folks waited for confirmation from someone, anyone.

Excitement. These tweets quickly followed expressing a tone of excitement and the thrill of being first to report potentially huge news.

Uncertainty. Almost as fast as the news hit, the doubters came out questioning whether the news was legitimate or not. Some were waiting for the news venue of their choice to weigh in, while others were waiting for the coming statement from the president.

Searching for Validation. Torn between wanting the news to be true and the fear of being wrong, folks turned either reverential in their love of Al-Jazeera or the New York Times or whoever was already reporting details or scornful of those who might have been more cautious.

Confirmation. The White House confirmed, and now the search for meaning, data and tasteless jokes will begin in earnest.

Jokes, Profits and Platitudes. Once confirmed, the platitudes, jokes and attempts to profit either via owning a domain, a twitter identity (say hello to @ghostosama) or the umpteenth joke about the birthers now asking for a long form death certificate are free to escalate. Meanwhile Google updates its Maps to show the location where bin Laden was killed.

Action. This is where Facebook and social media really shine. From tweets about people seeking more information from friends to those seeking to find out if others are meeting at Ground Zero by checking out a live web cam of the site, people now can learn about news and do something.

Real Analysis. Not on Twitter, unless it’s via a link to a blog or a newspaper. What insight on geopolitics can one really offer in 140 characters?

Maybe it’s time to recognize these stages, or come up with more thoughtful ones, so we can recognize where we are when we tune into this cycle and behave accordingly. As journalists, we often get scoops or hear of news and have to make a similar set of judgments before reporting it, but on Twitter, what often starts out as gossip now has the weight of news. As recipients, we have no way to judge at first glance though if it’s real or wishful thinking. Perhaps it’s time we gave ourselves a better set of tools?

With additional reporting by Cyndy Aleo.

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  1. Way to dig out a nice post on Sunday night, Stacy. Sleep well.

    1. Stacey Higginbotham Paul Monday, May 2, 2011

      Thanks, Paul. I figured I wasn’t going to be sleeping anyway :)

  2. You forgot “analysis of media coverage.” (That’s supposed to come last but you got it out of order.)

  3. Just for laughs…
    What’s Osama last words?
    “OK cousin OBAMA, I am not going to beat around the BUSH no more!. Let me twiter one more please….”

    1. What do you mean from cousin obama?

      1. It was a joke, Irfan.

  4. Mikalee Byerman Monday, May 2, 2011

    Interesting analysis – jokes are indeed part of the process!

    I thought the chanting that began at the Mets v. Yankees game illustrated the power of FB in transmitting news — incredible how quickly sentiment spread!

  5. Very well written.

  6. Kathryn McCullough Monday, May 2, 2011

    Fascinating analysis of news via social media. Congrats on being FP-ed!

  7. Americans would would prove more productive if they worked toward an end to THREE COSTLY AND DEADLY WARS that can be linked to the chaos created by Osama bin Laden and now have neither purpose nor justification.

    The cycle of violence in the digital age seems to do even more damage.

  8. This new about Bin Laden was created in Photoshop (not even a short video about it). those “demotivational poster” images are more reliable than this.

  9. My Camera, My Friend Monday, May 2, 2011

    Great post. It’s always wise to think twice about what you hear on Twitter and Facebook and wait for more credible source to be certain.

  10. Stephen Page (eudaimonia) Monday, May 2, 2011

    Yes, we certainly live in a new age of information. We are living in a historical epoch, one that is changing the world, changing the way people think, changing the way we interact internationally and subculturally. We are reshaping ourselves, remapping our brains, restructuring our schema. We are reprogramming our internal GPS’s. It is all so fascinating, so exciting to be a part of. A period we have to embrace personally with a global-humanity point of view.

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