Bin Laden and The IT Crowd: Anatomy of a Twitter hoax

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Bin Laden and The IT Crowd: Anatomy of a Twitter hoax
BBC News
23 May 2011

Rumours circulating on Twitter that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of The IT Crowd sitcom were an elaborate new media hoax. Here comedian Graham Linehan explains how he organised the ruse.

I spread a story on Twitter that in some of the videos seized from his compound during the Navy Seals raid, Osama Bin Laden was watching my sitcom The IT Crowd. I did it to illustrate the lightning speed at which a rumour can circulate and mutate on Twitter.

Only joking! I did it because I thought it would be funny, but it did circulate and mutate really quickly so maybe there’s a good lesson for us here. I mean really, it’s scary what Twitter can do. You can’t get more offline than my mother, and even she said to my brother, the day after the story “broke”, “Did you hear about your brother and Osama?”

So! It appears that one good way of starting a rumour is to pretend that the story is already circulating.

Tweet:“Does anyone have confirmation that Osama was watching The IT Crowd in these home movies? Amazing if true. Don’t know how to feel” Glinner May 7, 2011 at 18:40

I certainly didn’t have any plans to spin this one out, so I followed it up almost immediately with this punch line.

Tweet:“Obviously, a monster, but still. Was he all bad?” Glinner May 7, 2011 at 18:41

That was something I thought might be funny. If I started reconsidering my feelings towards a mass-murderer because he liked my show.

But no-one realised it was a joke. It didn’t “land”, or in layman’s terms, it wasn’t “funny”. So I was still getting very concerned/curious responses. So I decided to ride around on my ridiculous imaginary pony a bit longer.

Tweet: “…seen in several videos watching and mouthing dialogue from the cult Channel 4 sitcom. Unbelievable.” #itcrowd #OBL Glinner May 7, 2011 at 18:48

The magic of quote marks meant that this was met with nothing but genuine interest and a definite, hushed sense of “this is really big news”.

Hashtags help to both spread the word and apply another level of spurious authority. Although again, I wasn’t thinking in tactical terms.

I had a search running throughout all this, of course, and was quickly able to retweet a few quotes that made it feel as though the news was coming via several different sources, and not just me.

[Click here for a selection of tweets by people reacting to Linehan’s ruse and to read the rest of this article]

Graham Linehan is a comedian and writer of The IT Crowd, which centres on a trio of socially inept computer support staff. He also created the comedy Father Ted. This is a version of an article that first appeared on Graham Linehan’s blog.