Social media are having a central role in the fast-unfolding political story surrounding the tragic deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and three of his staff last night.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his colleagues were killed in what the US Government now suspects was a planned attack amid fiery protests at the US Consulate. The protests were started in response to the trailer for an anti-Islam movie uploaded to YouTube by “Sam Bacile”, who news reports have said is an Israeli-American real estate developer but might actually be a pseudonym. Florida pastor Terry Jones, who had previously pulled a Koran-burning stunt that inspired riots in Afghanistan, promoted the video yesterday in calling September 11 “International Judge Muhammad Day”. Egyptian media picked up on the mocking, and you know what happened from there.

Since then, the tragedy has evolved largely via new media, and especially Twitter, fueling an ugly political incident in the US. The timeline of this tale, presented below, highlights how quick-twitch online reactions can distort debate, inflame emotions, and influence the news agenda in election time. It also shows the incredible and terrifying pace of the “24-second news cycle“.

A Social Media Timeline of a Tragedy in Libya (In Eastern Standard Time)

July 2, 2012: Sam Bacile uploads a trailer for “Innocence of Muslims”, an anti-Islam film that casts the Prophet Muhammad in derogatory light.

September 11, 2012, 6pm: Pastor Terry Jones stages a press conference, which he live streams, and promotes Bacine’s movie as part of what he calls “International Judge Muhammad Day”. The story is picked up by Egyptian media.

Soon after, the US Embassy in Cairo Tweets: “We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”. The Tweet is later deleted.

The night of September 11 : Protesters riot at US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and at US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

US Embassy in Cairo Tweets that it stands by its it earlier Tweet: “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy. This, too, is later deleted.

10.30pm: Mitt Romney’s campaign releases a statement from the Republican candidate for President: “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” Romney says. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” Romney later retracts the statement.

Midnight: Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, Tweets: “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.” His Tweet apparently refers to the Tweets from the Cairo embassy, which the Obama Administration has disavowed.

ABC News Nightline Anchor Terry Moran speaks for a crowd when he replies to Priebus’ Tweet by saying: “Really? You believe this?”

Later that night: It is revealed that Ambassador Stevens and three State Department staff have been killed in Benghazi.

Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister posts a Tweet condemning the Benghazi attack.

Approximately 12.30am, September 12: Sarah Palin takes to Facebook attacking Obama for the embassy’s Tweets and not issuing a statement condemning the action. “Apparently President Obama can’t see Egypt and Libya from his house,” she writes. By midday, the post has attracted 118,000 “likes”.

8.33am: The Atlantic’s James Fallows publishes a blog post that calls this Mitt Romney’s “3am phone call” moment, and one that does not reflect well on the Republican candidate.

Sometime this morning: A gamer writes an emotional obituary for State Department official Sean Smith, who was killed in Benghazi, and posts it to TheMittani.com.

1.17pm: The New York Times is now reporting that the US suspects the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was planned.

All this has taken place within the space of about 19 hours.