On a big, honking great news day like today, with the announcement of the death of the Osama bin Laden, you always get someone exclaiming triumphantly how they heard it on Twitter, like, hours before the official news networks had the story.
It’s inevitable that juicy nuggets of news will spread like wildfire on Twitter; the urgency to share the information, the eagerness to follow the story as it develops.
What people often forget is that traditional news agencies have to spend time verifying the authenticity of stories and images before reporting the story.
And in the rush to keep up with the incredible pace of Twitter, sometimes basic rules of reporting and publishing content get forgotten.
It’s no surprise that news of the death of the world’s most-wanted man was first leaked through Twitter, even before President Obama had made his official statement. Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumfeld tweeted to say: ‘So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn.’
Sohaib Athar, who lives in Abbottabad and tweeted about the raid without at first realising its significance has become a minor internet hero with a soaring follower count of over 50,000. He’s getting a bit strung out by all the media attention by the looks of things: ‘Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.’
But along with these people who are close to the source come lots of rumours and untruths. For a recent example of this look no further than the case of Senator Gabrielle Giffords and the incorrect reports of her death that spread on Twitter after she was shot in the head at point blank range back in January.
Keith Urbahn himself urged caution later today, after he received praise for his part in getting the story out there.
And it wasn’t long before the clash between the urge to spread the news and the time taken to check facts was becoming apparent.
First thing this morning I was looking at an image of a seemingly dead and bloodied bin Laden that was circulating on Twitter, while at the same time John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today programme was saying that images are coming out but they haven’t yet been verified. However, the Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph, Sun and Mirror all posted the image on their homepages alongside their reports of his death.
Like the BBC, the Guardian had their reservations about using the picture. In their report Osama bin Laden corpse photo is fake they explain that the image has been around for two years and used to justify several times previously that he was dead.
On their liveblog of Bin Laden developments they showed a screenshot of Pakistan TV using the image and questioned its authenticity: ‘Given that the body is said to be in the custody of the US at Bagram air base, it seems unlikely that this is really of bin Laden, so it may be worth waiting for some confirmation. Nothing on US television yet, which also suggests it’s not legit.’
But it’s not just images. There’s text errors as well. Fox News stated in a caption that ‘Obama Bin Laden’ had been killed (see picture at the top of this post). The slip-up quickly went viral. Given that Fox News devote so much airtime to attacking the President it’s no wonder that people accused the network of doing it deliberately.
But I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. For starters, Fox News has form when it comes to on-screen errors, for example putting Egypt in the wrong place on a map or claiming that 120% of Americans have an opinion on ‘climategate.’
It’s also surprisingly easy to write Obama instead of Osama. I’ve also seen plenty of people getting mixed up on Twitter today, often victims of the autocorrect function. However, their errors weren’t broadcast on a national news network.
So there’s nothing subversive about this mistake; it’s just a mistake. And one which reminds us that ‘more haste, less speed’ is a good adage to remember on adrenaline-filled news days.
3rd May 2011: Edited to add
Fox News announce that President Obama is dead. It’s one of a heap of Osama/Obama mix-ups that were made by news anchors, as shown in NYMag’s report It Was A Record Night For Obama/Osama Confusion. Watch the on-air gaffe below: