College Students Process Bin Laden’s Death on Facebook


A screenshot of updates as people continue to post about Bin Laden's death.


May 9, 2011

The quiet in the library was punctuated here and there with the click of laptop keys as students worked on papers due Monday morning. Lindsay Strasser, a sophomore at NYU, was sitting at a table with her sorority sisters when one of them looked up from her cell phone and said, “Osama bin Laden is dead.”

“Everyone at my table thought it was a joke,” recalled Ms. Strasser. “It was so random. We kept working , no one said anything about it. About five minutes later, another girl at a different table who had her headphones in, said, ‘Huh, Osama bin Laden died.’ Apparently she’d read it on Facebook. So at this point, I logged onto Facebook, and I started noticing different friends from home and NYU had statuses popping up saying that Bin Laden had died. And another of my friends said that Obama was supposed to be on air in about a half an hour.”

This is how many students first heard about Bin Laden’s death, via text message or on the internet. The result was news that spread like wildfire. Ms. Strasser was one of many who heard about the content of the President Obama’s speech in rumor form before he gave it.

Ms. Strasser and her sisters gathered around a laptop to watch a live stream of the president’s announcement before going back to work and occasionally checking on the online community. “It was cool seeing Facebook explode with statuses. Because there were a lot of funny posts that night. I realized how funny my friends could be.

According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the Washington Post, 21 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 heard about Bin Laden’s death online, 14 percent of that on social networking sites. This is part of an ongoing trend in which 65 percent of young people list the internet as their primary source of news, double the percentage of 2007. More and more, news is being passed around online on websites like Twitter and Facebook. Furthermore, the Pew Research Center reported that the top theme in response to Bin Laden’s death on these two websites was humor.

Responses like, “R.I.P. Osama bin Laden- the World Champion of hide-and-seek,” populated Facebook’s News Feed. Humor, traditionally offensive in a case like this, thrived on twitter and Facebook because of the focus on saying something witty or entertaining for your friends to ‘like’.

Around this time an alleged quote from Martin Luther King Jr. made its way around the web through various social networking sites. The sentiment was noble, the wording was perfect. Too perfect. After more than nine thousand hits on Google and a viral following on Twitter, it came out that the quote had been misattributed through a series of posting and repostings. Is it any wonder that few people first trusted the news about Bin Laden’s death after seeing it on Facebook?

There is no doubt that social media creates an avenue for expression that is faster, more opinionated, and full of mediated content.

Sonia Weiser, a photojournalism student at NYU, felt that in some cases it comes down to trying to feel connected. “People in our generation who wouldn’t necessarily care, now that they have an outlet, they feel like they have to show that they care. Now that people have a way to express it, they want to show they’re aware of what’s going on in the world,” she said.

Ms. Weiser was in her room paging through a magazine when her friend saw the news on Facebook. “Everyone was so happy when he died. Everyone’s statuses were funny. People were making jokes about it,” she said, adding, “I had to grapple with why they were celebrating.”

Ms. Wesier said she felt that Bin Laden was so far removed from daily life that his death meant very little. Despite the throngs of college students at Ground Zero, there were some who echoed her ambivalence.

Elyssa Cherry, a sophomore at Texas Tech, said that she had mostly forgotten about Bin Laden until she heard the news. “[Sept. 11] doesn’t cross your mind every day. It is not something I think of when I get up in the morning. So it shook that up and made me realize that this happened as a kid and now I’m an adult. It was more astonishment at how times and the world have changed in the last 10 years,” she said.

However, she was skeptical about the impact of his death after growing up in a world at war. “It’s not going to change overall daily life.”

Chelsea McAuly, a freshman at Lamar University, was working on the conclusion to a paper about September 11, when she found out. She immediately updated her Facebook to reflect the irony. “It was odd that I was literally typing my paper when Obama’s announcement came on,” she said. But as far as her personal response to the news, she was not as enthusiastic. “My paper was about 9/11 but not about Al Qaeda or the terrorism behind the tragic event. So, I was feeling proud of our government and the Navy seals on the mission, but not much else.”

Jon Hecht, a freshman at NYU, felt that the response of jubilation among his generation was because of the new connection forged by the technological age. “We feel things together in a way that is incomparable to anything before now,” he said.

His essay on the matter discusses how America has been waiting for a moment to celebrate this newfound power to connect, ever since we saw the influence it could have in places like Egypt and Tunisia. We have been waiting for something that we can come together for, to spread the news and the emotional high all at once.

This then, is a defining moment for Americans not because of how it has changed them necessarily, but because it is a reflection of their desires as a nation touched by post 9/11 patriotism and cynicism.

“We need something good,” he said.


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