Nora Sleeth is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
A Pakistani citizen who Tweeted about the bin Laden raid without understanding its significance discovered that social media sites create opportunities for instant publicity, whether or not this publicity is welcomed.
Early May 2, 2011, Sohaib Athar, a Pakistani computer programmer living in Abbottabad, was troubled by the sound of a helicopter overhead. Athar immediately turned to Twitter to express his annoyance. As he updated his Twitter account with a description of the events that followed, Athar became increasingly suspicious of the commotion, yet he did not understand the importance of his Tweets until several hours later. Through Twitter updates, Athar described the gunfire and explosions that disturbed ordinarily quiet Abbottabad and simultaneously unknowingly liveblogged the events of the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
Increasingly, Internet users are announcing the events of their daily lives through social networking sites. Athar’s response to the helicopter presence in Abbottabad is but one example of how Twitter is changing the way global news events are reported. Not only was the initial raid first described on Twitter, but as news of bin Laden’s death spread, many people checked social networking sites to confirm the rumour and obtain additional information.
Although Athar initially had no idea that his Tweets would soon become part of an international news event, he has now received global recognition for his accidental reporting of the bin Laden raid. Less than a day after the raid, Athar had gathered over 14 000 additional followers on Twitter.
Athar’s fame is evidence of the ability of social networking to turn individual users into news reporters. While Twitter is often criticized for encouraging a generation of over sharers who feel compelled to divulge every ordinary and mundane life event online, it has also created a new method of journalism that thrives off of the instantaneous communication of individual interpretations and reactions.
The power of social networking to bring fame to unsuspecting users may have other consequences. Athar became a public figure almost immediately, bringing attention to the views and events previously described on his Twitter. It is important to be aware of the dangers of allowing personal views to become public knowledge on social networking sites. Twitter messages, if made public, can be damaging to business relationships, reputations and personal safety. Furthermore, as recently discussed in another IP Osgoode blog, Tweets on public profiles are not considered private and can be published by the media. The ramifications of the extremely public nature of Twitter communications are amplified by users’ ability to re-tweet posts without the knowledge or consent of the author. Additionally, it is not necessary to have a Twitter account to gain access to Twitter updates. Messages posted on public accounts can be accessed through search engine results.
These warnings tend to pertain more to individuals who are already public figures and thus have seemingly more to lose; however, as Athar’s situation indicates, social networking can result in unsuspecting Internet users finding themselves in the public eye. Tweets or status updates that were previously intended for a small group of followers can rapidly become public knowledge. Perhaps this is the double-edged sword of social media. While the overarching purpose of sites such as Twitter is to allow broad communication of views and experiences, permitting such information to be made public may result in unexpected or unwanted attention.