How Useful Is A Tweet? A review of the first tweets from the Westgate Mall Attack

By Nanjira Sambuli
iHub Research
  Published 03 Oct 2013
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How Useful Is A Tweet? A review of the first tweets from the Westgate Mall Attack

As of March 2013, Twitter had approximately 550 million active users worldwide, with about 200 million monthly active users, and an average of 400 million tweets sent everyday globally.

Research analyzing the characteristics of information sharing on Twitter has found that people share information differently on the site as compared to other social networking sites, enabling it to possibly be used as a news media in addition to a social network. Since Twitter's launch in 2006, it has been a source of real-time updates on various events. Highlights of its unique usage include during the Boston Marathon bombings, when first updates were found on the social networking tool. Another example is during the Turkish protests (May/June 2013) where Twitter was used to spread information about the demonstrations on the ground, and where, unlike other recent uprisings, around 90% of all geolocated tweets came from within Turkey (and 50% from within Istanbul). At least 2 million tweets mentioning hashtags relating to the Turkish protests had been generated within the first 18 hours. Literature supporting the idea that Twitter breaks news/reports news faster than traditional newswire providers has been growing. At iHub Research, we also found this to be the case during the 2013 Kenya General Elections, where for instance, Twitter broke news of a violent incident in Kisumu, after the Supreme Court Ruling. Two weeks ago, we again found this to be the case with the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall (September 21st, 2013).

To better understand how the conversation on Twitter began, we manually searched through a Twitter archive, and derived a timeline with a minute-by-minute reconstruction of how information about the attack was initially shared and propagated. We used keywords of the general area and the mall itself, i.e. by searching for tweets with the words ‘Westlands’ and ‘Westgate.’

Who Tweeted What, and When:

We have found that the first tweet referring to the incident was generated at 12:38PM (GMT+3).

Twitter   geekinthejungle  gun shots in westlands  wtf

The first (local) media house to tweet about the incident was K24 TV at 1.11PM , 33 minutes and 17 seconds after the first tweet, advising people to steer clear of the mall, based on a lead shared by one of their journalists.

Twitter   K24Tv  Advising everyone around ...

Citizen TV followed one minute later (1.12PM) informing that they would be sharing updates on the reported shootout at the mall. AP was the first international media to break the story at 1.15PM.

Twitter   CitizenTVNews  In a few minutes, we bring ...Twitter   AP  BREAKING  Witnesses say gunmen ...

The first government authority to tweet was The National Disaster Operations Centre, (NDOC Kenya) at 1:05PM, mentioning reports from #KoT (Kenyans on Twitter) and that the police were informed, with the area police responding.

Twitter   NDOCKenya  Reports of gunfire and explosions ...

Some Initial Numbers:

Between 12PM and 1PM (GMT+3)(original Tweets only):

Topsy Pro Analytics (15)

Between 12PM- 1PM (GMT+3): (original tweets, retweets and replies)

Topsy Pro Analytics (12)

Between 12 and 2PM (GMT+3): (original Tweets only)

Topsy Pro Analytics (14)

Between 12PM and 2PM (GMT+3)(original Tweets, retweets and replies)

Topsy Pro Analytics (13)

The First 12 Minutes of the Siege, As Tweeted

Analyzing the characteristics of the first tweets, we found that most were posed in question format asking if anyone else had information or if others had heard the gunshots and explosions. We also found first-hand accounts from those inside the mall, and others confirming the venue of the incident. Below is a description of tweeting activity during the first 12 minutes, and more tweets covering that timeline are storified here.


  • The first tweet referenced the Westlands area, indicating that though not an eyewitness account, the sound of gunshots could be heard in the general vicinity. This is also the case with some of the initial tweets generated by others who were at the Sarit Centre, a mall approximately 850 metres.


  • The first tweet referencing Westgate (approximately one minute after first tweet) also poses a question on what was happening, ‘loads of loud sounds’ having been heard by the tweeter.
  • 27 seconds later, another tweet indicates gunshots at Westgate.


  • A tweet (1 minute, 2 seconds after) from someone at the mall informs that there have been gunshots ongoing for about 5 minutes, by their approximation.


  • The first geo-tagged tweet is generated. The tweeter later indicates that the ‘gunshot-like sounds’ were so loud they could hear them from the Sarit Centre, the venue to which her tweet is referenced. (Lower Kabete Road).


  • The first tweet referencing an explosion is structured in a format indicating that the tweeter was confirming it.


  • A journalist with the Standard Media Group who was around Westgate informs of heavily armed thugs having taken over the mall.
  • First tweeter sends a follow up tweet asking if anyone else in Westlands had heard the gunshots.


  • Another journalists alludes to small arms fire and explosions coming from either Westlands, or Gigiri, an area a few kilometres past Westgate.
  • First reference to grenades being used at Westgate.


  • First tweet to major local media houses, inquiring if they have any news on the incident.
  • Tweet from another journalist/foreign correspondent who talks of several explosions followed by 10 minutes of running gunfight in Westlands.
  • A tweeter informs that he’s confirmed with ‘his guy on the ground’ that something is going on around Westgate.
  • First tweet asking people to keep away from Westgate.


  • A tweeter inside Westgate tags the Kenya Red Cross, asking to get them (those inside the mall) help.
  • First tweet asking for someone to call the police.


  • Second tweet to the Kenya Red Cross.
  • A tweet from someone who’s heard a ‘bunch of explosions’.


  • Tweet from someone inside Nakumatt Westgate requesting that people alert cops.
  • Another tweet from someone inside Westgate who informs on two grenades (exploding) and hundreds of gunshots fired (still ongoing 10 minutes later). Also informs that ‘they’ are hiding but safe.


  • First image on the Westgate situation is tweeted.
  • Another tweet offering situational awareness is sent, and media tagged.
  • A journalist with K24 sends a warning tweet advising people to steer clear of the mall, as there’s a shootout taking place.
  • A retweet tagging the Inspector General and asking one of the first tweeters within the mall if they are ok (The Inspector General responds directly informing that police are at the scene approximately 32 minutes later).
  • Another tweet asking #KoT what’s happening is cc’d to Westgate’s security management company (Securex East Africa responds approximately 5 minutes later and informs that their team is on the ground).
We are still analyzing the tweeting activity that continued over the unfolding of the4/5 day siege, as the world took to Twitter for updates. We will follow up with more information in days to come. This Westgate example gives further support for the findings derived from our 3Vs Crowdsourcing FrameworkResearch, which will be officially launched at our cocktail event this evening, October 3, 2013. Related post: Forensics Analysis of #Westgate Tweets
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