News of bin Laden's death a landmark social networking event

Osama bin Laden could not escape the reach of technology, in life or in death.

In part, he was a victim of the times. When he first went into hiding after engineering the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, social media was in its rudimentary stage, broadband networking was not yet pervasive, and the cell phone was still the networking tool of choice.

Bin Laden apparently saw the changes coming, and so early on, he opted to go off the grid, metaphorically speaking, and avoid any technology that might leave a digital footprint, including the Internet and satellite and cellular phones.

At the time, it made sense, but eventually it left him positively conspicuous. Once intelligence analysts became aware of the compound, they had to wonder: Why would someone with property worth as much as $1 million have no connectivity to the outside world?

It was a vital piece of intelligence, experts said. “After noting the compound had few electronic links to the outside world— and incinerated its trash rather than putting it out to be picked up — Obama gave the go-ahead on Friday for a helicopter raid into the compound,” wrote Mark Thompson at Time’s "Battleland" blog.

The attack itself was a landmark event in the world of social media, as news spread via Twitter, Facebook and other sites while the major news organizations were still scrambling to react.

The word first broke when a neighbor of the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was startled by the sudden outbreak of violence next door. It so happened that he was already on Twitter, as various news outlets reported.

“A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope it's not the start of something nasty,” wrote Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant using the name ReallyVirtual. A little later, he tweeted, “Go away, helicopter — before I take out my giant swatter.”

Athar was “tweeting away at seeming random events in his adopted hometown at the same time that the U.S. military was engaging in what was a decade-in-the-making operation,” writes a blogger at the HyperVocal website.

Twitter and social networks went into overdrive at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time on May 1 when White House officials announced that President Barack Obama would be making a speech. By 10:30, an hour before Obama took to the podium, the news was already spreading.

“Before Obama's televised speech at 11:30 p.m. ET, people on Twitter were not only aware of the news of bin Laden's death, they were already dissecting it, and some were asking why it was taking the president so long to say something,” writes John Sutter at CNN.com.

To say the news went viral is an understatement. Content delivery company Akamai Technologies estimated that traffic to online news sites spiked late that night at 4.1 million page views per minute, reports William Jackson at GCN.com, a sister site of FCW.com.

Hackers are also taking advantage of the attention generated by the story, Jackson wrote.

A malicious link to a fake video has appeared on Facebook, and Athar's website was found to be compromised with a malicious exploit kit, according to the security company Websense Security Labs.

“It’s not a high-profile site,” said Patrik Runald, senior manager of security research at Websense. But when breaking news stories began driving traffic to it, it came up dirty in a scan by the Websense ThreatSeeker Network, which identifies malicious and compromised sites.

Meanwhile, others had some harmless fun trying to identify bin Laden's compound on Google Maps and writing scathing reviews of the property, reports Ian Paul at PCWorld.

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, May 4, 2011

"Rumor" and "news" are tending to get mixed up in definition. And "news" that is only understandable after later real news reports isn't of much immediate value to most, is it?

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