In a two-hour time frame beginning just minutes from the first rumor, opinion leaders and celebrities played key roles in spreading the news of the operation by U.S. Special Forces, researchers at Georgia Tech reported Thursday.
The Twitter universe was overwhelmingly convinced the news of bin Laden's death was true even before it was confirmed on television, the researchers said.
They said the study confirms the widely held assumption that Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was the first person to break the news on Twitter, and when it was followed by tweets by a CBS producer and a New York Times reporter, the news began to spread more widely.
"Rumors spreading on Twitter is one thing," computer scientist Mengdie Hu, who led the study, said. "Determining if they are true is another, especially in this era of social media and the rush to break news."
"We believe Twitter was so quick to trust the rumors because of who sent the first few tweets," Hu said. "They came from reputable sources. Twitter saw their credentials and quickly believed the news was true."
After TV reports began to confirm the story, celebrities surpassed media mentions and carried the discussion throughout the night, the researchers found.
"The celebrities weren't the first people to arrive at the party," John Stasko, Hu's adviser and professor in Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing, said. "But they stayed the longest and brought the most guests."