The story behind the Gadhafi story: How news of his demise evolved on Twitter

It began shortly after 7 a.m. ET on Oct. 20, when big news on the war in Libya had taken to Twitter. 

Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had reportedly been captured and Twitter, as was the case with the death of Osama bin Laden, had quickly become the popular source for updates.

But at this point the news had yet to be confirmed. National Public Radio's Andy Carvin (@acarvin) was one of the first to seek confirmation using social media.




This is when things quickly became convoluted.

Attributing a report to a leader in the transitional government, Reuters stepped it up with news of injuries to Gadhafi's legs. By 7:30 a.m. several media outlets were reporting on Gadhafi's capture but the Twitterverse remained unconvinced.

Echoing the sentiment of BBC correspondent Matthew Price, an Arab affairs commentator chimed in.

And just as we were awaiting confirmation on Gadhafi's capture, an even larger detail began popping up on television screens and Twitter feeds abroad. Below is a screengrab from Al Jazeera, via the Columbia Journalism Review, where reports of Gadhafi's capture quickly took a back seat to claims of his death:

Shortly after the update, one Twitter user mocked Al Jazeera for a conflicting mix of imagery and reporting.

The Gadhafi captured/injured/killed reports were now in full swing, and while everyone seemed to understand the significance, no one knew what to believe.

At this point, any news concerning Gadhafi's capture/injuries/death had been attributed to NTC official(s), or to unnamed sources that, for all we know, could have been from the NTC. Neither NATO forces nor the U.S. State Department had commented on the developments.

In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was just as shocked and skeptical as the Twitterverse when she was informed during her visit to Afghanistan. And she didn't even get wind of the full spectrum of reports.

Still left in the fog, those who had read the tweets, seen the headlines or heard the reports wanted more. Gadhafi hashtags were inundated with frustrated users as commentary on sourcing—and what constitutes legitimate confirmation—became all the rage.

Here's a quick look at how the Gadhafi story evolved via the Al Jazeera English Twitter feed. The news broke from "injured" to "killed" in just under half an hour.

And then, just a little before 8:30 a.m. ET, Agence France-Presse released a convincing yet gruesome photo confirming some of the story. Evidence of an injured Gadhafi captured by rebel forces appeared legitimate.

It's 8:30 a.m. ET, and during the last hour and a half of groundbreaking yet unconfirmed reporting, the New York Times had remained silent on the subject. Until this:

A quick 16 minutes later:

Gruesome photos and video footage of a bloody Gadhafi, laid out on the hood of a truck filled with Libyan rebels, started going viral at this time. Media outlets and Twitter feeds used the footage as confirmation, and by 10 a.m. ET, most seemed convinced of Gadhafi's death.

Yahoo! News Canada received official confirmation via Reuters just before noon. An official story had put an end to a busy morning of scanning the web and monitoring TweetDeck. Yet, while the Gadhafi tweets were many, one journalist's nostalgic wit really captured the morning's frustration.

(Photos: Screengrabs via Columbia Journalism Review)