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

Bin Laden and a character from The IT Crowd
Image caption There is no evidence Osama Bin Laden liked the IT Crowd

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.

Image caption Graham Linehan was eventually keen to end the joke

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.

[Here follows a selection of tweets by people reacting to Linehan's ruse]

Tweet: "So, apparently OBL was a fan of The IT Crowd? @dalehernando + I were in an episode of The IT Crowd. OBL saw my face. Mixed emotions" tomadolph May 7, 2011 at 18:58

Tweet: "So Osama Bin Laden used to watch The IT Crowd, nice to know I have something in common with the guy who was the worlds most wanted man :L" bussey99 May 7, 2011 at 18:59

Tweet: "If you've never seen The IT Crowd, please don't let the fact that a mass-murdering terrorist leader watched it put you off. It's still great " Lennon_Scented May 7, 2011 at 19:26

Thanks, and apologies, to all the people I've quoted above. Know this, at least, you were not alone, not by a long chalk.

People were beginning to ask for evidence, so I decided to link to my source, something [science writer] Ben Goldacre always insists on.

Tweet: "Weirdly, reference has been removed. Security reasons? RT @YC19916: can you send a link to this article?" Glinner May 7, 2011 at 19:29

Damn it! They removed the reference!

Tweet:"Completely bizarre TV fact of the day: Osama Bin Laden used to watch the IT Crowd" freesat_TV May 7, 2011 at 19:29

Ding! A brilliant tweet to receive and be able to retweet. Apologies to @free_sat, but the delicious word "fact" was more than I could have dreamed.

Tweet: "Osama Bin Laden was watching The IT Crowd when they got him apparently" GavRov May 7, 2011 at 19:29

Out of nowhere, the story had changed to his watching the show as the Seals stormed the compound.

I decided to try and get some sleep (different time zone...I was on holiday), hoping that the story might catch fire overnight. To help it along, I tried to make it sound like I was harried and upset.

Image caption Few people actually know what Bin Laden liked to watch in his Abbottabad home

Tweet: "Still totally shocked/confused about #OBL #itcrowd news. Phone ringing every 5 mins w another journo asking for quote. Signing off for now " Glinner May 7, 2011 at 20:03

The next morning, I started to get a little nervous... the thing could go on for at least another day, and I wanted to end it so I could stop thinking about it.

Tweet: "Was Osama an IT Crowd fan?: Rumours that sitcom was found in hideout" chortle May 8, 2011 at 9:33

Yeah, yeah, definitely time to end it. (By the way, Chortle seem to have removed the story, which is a shame. Why, guys? You were part of a fun experiment! Nothing to be ashamed of!)

I had to go out on a strong joke, because I didn't want to be accused of merely trolling my followers. So I thought about it for a while and decided to go out on the following scenario.

Tweet: "Have been sent a video file by Irish embassy in Washington of Bin Laden watching #itcrowd. Not allowed to upload. #OBL" Glinner May 8, 2011 at 9:55

Tweet:"Guy who worked for embassy very nice. Said 'You have no reason to feel upset. His liking show is no comment on your work'." #OBL Glinner May 8, 2011 at 9:59

The last few tweets don't really need commentary. Or at least they shouldn't.

Tweet:"Bin Laden sitting in front of TV with remote. My heart is in my mouth. Can't really see screen, which is frustrating." #OBL #itcrowd Glinner May 8, 2011 at 9:57

Tweet: "Music coming from the television very distorted (pirate copy?). Unrecognisable, almost" #OBL #itcrowd Glinner May 8, 2011 at 10:02

Image caption In a still from a home video found at his villa, Bin Laden was shown watching an item about himself on TV

Tweet: "So weird. This isn't the #itcrowd theme. Do pirates put diff music on shows in middle east?" #OBL Glinner May 8, 2011 at 10:04

Tweet:"Good idea. RT: @terktz why don't you use Shazam to find out what music it is?" #OBL #itcrowd Glinner May 8, 2011 at 10:08

No such person as @terktz, by the way.

Tweet:"Shazam didn't work at first. Now has result as Theme From Big Bang Theory That's weird." #OBL #itcrowd Glinner May 8, 2011 at 10:10

I thought that was a strong enough gag to go out on.

Tweet:"Truth about Osama and The IT Crowd: was actually Big Bang Theory he preferred" chortle May 8, 2011 at 19:22

No, no...

Tweet: @Glinner "the story was picked up and reported by the Dallas Evening News" veryjonesy May 8, 2011 at 11:10

This was like turning a cruise liner around.

Tweet:"Finally found a still of bin Laden watching the IT Crowd" cc: @Glinner Mike_FTW May 8, 2011 at 18:15

I realised uneasily that the story might go on yet, and mutate even further.

But then again, maybe I wouldn't have to.

Tweet: "Still wrong, I'm afraid." Glinner May 18, 2011 at 21:02

So there you go. Big Bang Theory. Ask them about it. Nothing to do with me.

This is a version of an article that first appeared on Graham Linehan's blog.