The most important news of the century, brought to you by Twitter

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

When news started to slip out around 9pm ET on Sunday night that the President was making a big announcement regarding National Security, speculation was the game of the hour.  At first, people were assuming the big speech was to be on Libya, given that, about 24 hours earlier, the U.S. had announced that they killed Ghaddafi’s son in a mortar attack on the compound.

As the minutes wore on, key White House staff began to leak small details.  “Not on Libya” was the first word from journalists inside the press room.  Speculation then turned towards the “other war,” a war we used to call “the forgotten war” at internal meetings at my old job.  Could it be Afghanistan?

And then, like so many key aides before him, the leak came.  Donald Rumsfeld’s current chief of staff, Keith Urbahn, confirmed that he had heard “from a reputable source” that Osama Bin Laden was dead.

Nothing about this story, from the earliest speculation to the final, crucial leak, is unusual in Washington circles, except that all of this unfolded primarily on Twitter.

As the television networks scrambled to get a signal from the White House, reporters and producers tweeted out details they were hearing.  The TV networks, with the anchors in newsrooms in New York or Washington, then repeated the tweets, fueling the cycle.  The frenzy was aided by the fact that the Presidential announcement, originally intended for 10:30pm ET, actually took place closer to midnight on the East Coast, and so, network anchors had some time to fill.

On Monday, a Mashable.com poll asked readers “Where did you find out?” The response was clear.  Over 53 percent of the 19,900 responses were social media sources Facebook, Twitter, and Instant Messaging.

Mashable.com created a nifty interactive timeline of the some significant tweets last night, showing how the information spread from one key source through major news and opinion sites.  Twitter today reported that Sunday night’s announcement was the highest sustained activity ever seen on the micro-blogging site.

I was one of the people who found out on Twitter.  Because I used to work in Washington, I follow many of the DC Journalists that were at the White House last night when things began to stir.  In the coming days and weeks, I expect to hear many stories about where people were and what they were doing when they found out.  I expect many of those stories to include the social media that we all increasingly rely on for up-to-the minute developing stories.

I, for one, did my part, retweeting and posting to facebook as much information from as many reputable sources as I could gather.   The real news here is how one man, Keith Urbahn, who has less than 7,000 followers can become a celebrity overnight through reblogging and retweeting from his followers to their much larger networks.