June 18, 2009

Political Extremism (At Home and Abroad) Dominates the Blogosphere

PEJ New Media Index June 8-12, 2009

Reaction to two events that put the spotlight on political extremists overwhelmed the discussion in the social media last week. One, widely covered in the U.S. media, was the attack at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. by a white supremacist. The other, barely noticed in this country, was a European Parliamentary election that seated two members of a hard-line right-wing party.

Together, these two stories generated almost 60% of the week’s links on the Web tracking site Icerocket, according to the New Media Index by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The two events also produced a similar pattern of response in the social media-outrage followed by more polarizing commentary about the causes and impact of ideological extremism.

Stories about the European election generated nearly a third (30%) of the week’s links, a clear indication of the international flavor of the online community. While a few American bloggers reacted, the vast majority of commentary came from British bloggers upset at the election of two members of the anti-immigrant British National Party (BNP) to represent the U.K.

The shooting at the Holocaust museum (29% of the week’s links) by white supremacist and Holocaust denier James W. von Brunn was primarily of interest to American bloggers who quickly turned to the question of who deserved blame.  

The third-largest story, at 10% of the week’s links, was the latest chapter in a saga that has generated significant interest in the social media. Last week, Miss California Carrie Prejean was stripped of her crown by pageant producers. She first gained attention back in April when her opposition to gay marriage-in response to a judge’s question at the Miss USA pageant-prompted bloggers to cheer her willingness to stand up for her beliefs. The pageant producers stated that she was dethroned for contract violations and not for her stance on gay marriage.

The fourth-largest story last week (at 8%) was a June 9 BBC report that downplayed the hype over the popular Web site Twitter. The story described a Harvard study finding that  just 10% of Twitter users generate more than 90% of the site’s content, and that the majority of users update their page less than once every 74 days.

The fifth biggest subject (also at 8%) was a June 8 CNN.com story about two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea after a closed door trial that generated international protests.

PEJ’s New Media Index typically utilizes data collected from two different Web tracking sites, Icerocket and Technorati. (Technorati has been having technical problems so this week’s NMI is based solely on daily figures from Icerocket.)

The top stories in the mainstream press last week were largely different from those online. With the exception of the Holocaust Museum shooting, which filled 11% of the week’s newshole in the traditional press, the other top stories received very little attention online. The No. 1 topic was the ongoing economic crisis (at 13%). After the museum shooting came the debate over health care reform (7%), the Iranian elections (6%), and the troubles plaguing the U.S. auto industry (6%).

European Parliamentary Elections

Some reaction to the European Parliamentary elections was a response to a June 8 BBC story that described the outcome as a victory for center-right parties and a defeat for the left. A number of U.S. conservatives took the results as a sign of hope.

"In an economic downturn, the Europeans are making the right choices, voting for parties that promise to cut government expenses, tighten immigration policies and trim social welfare," wrote Laer Pearce at Cheat-Seeking Missiles.

"Can it be that Europe will be more conservative than Obama and the Democrats?" asked Merv Benson at PrairiePundit. "It is looking like that is very possible. It could be a good sign for conservatives in the 2010 election here. Liberalism is failing everywhere."

But most of the attention to the EU results came from British bloggers who focused on the election of two members of the anti-immigrant British National Party. (The stated goals of the BNP include reversing the tide of immigration to restore the overwhelmingly white dominance that existed prior to 1948.) Much of the commentary included expressions of outrage that the group could win seats in an election and be part of the EU’s governing body.

"Lets be clear here: all the BNP represent is a future of isolation, humiliation and disaster for the UK," declared Hard Graft. "They seek to deny Britain its future and only offer a future of division, of sectarianism and of hate."*

"The BNP winning seats in the European parliament is a bit like the Nazi Party winning a Grammy; nobody quite knows how it happened, no reasonable person thinks it’s warranted, and everybody is filled with a sort of horrified curiosity to see what they’re going to do with it," analyzed Andrew at Plethoric Pundigrions.

More fuel was added to the fire when a press-conference by BNP leader Nick Griffin outside Parliament was interrupted by protestors chanting anti-Nazi slogans and throwing eggs-a video of which became quite popular. Bloggers who opposed the BNP debated whether the protest tactics were an appropriate response.

"The ‘egging’ of BNP leader Nick Griffin…is not good for democracy," declared Chris at TD Blog. "No matter what we think of him and his party, they have the right to say their piece. They are a legitimate party, and they did win their seats in a democratic election. And the best way to deal with their disgusting and racist views and policies is to expose them in rational discourse."

"This is a bloody stupid thing to do. The protesters should grow up; they need to realise that all they have achieved is make Griffin look good," criticized cabalamat.

One dissenting view came from the blogger A Bit More Wit: "It’s heartening to hear about Nick Griffin getting egged and subsequently prevented from holding his wee fascist press conference in Westminster today," the blogger cheered. "Hopefully, Sunday night’s appalling election returns will result in more militant anti-fascism, and turn into a long term strategic problem for the BNP."

Shooting at the Holocaust Museum

The initial response to the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. was of anger and disgust.

"My heart grieves today," wrote Michael Sean Wright after reading about the news.

But the commentary quickly took a turn toward the political and ideological. Some bloggers on the left argued that the shooting by white supremacist to James W. von Brunn reflected a dangerous hatred by right-wing extremists and that it vindicated an April Homeland Security warning about violent extremists that had been attacked by some conservatives. Some conservatives countered that von Brunn was not a man of the right and may have been influenced by radical Muslims and their left-wing defenders.

"Von Brunn’s despicable act today might serve as a temporary wake up call to the world of the dangers posed by the unstable elements among the racist right, but unfortunately I suspect that the shock value of the killing of [museum guard] Stephen Tyrone Johns will only last a few days," posted historymike. "The racist thugs who are convinced of a Jewish conspiracy to exterminate whites will continue to spew their idiocy, and occasionally the more demented in their lot will continue to kill."

"Brunn’s hateful rhetoric followed by today’s violent outburst chillingly echoes a controversial warning issued by the Department of Homeland Security concerning a rise in ‘rightwing extremist activity,’" stated the liberal blog Thinkprogress.org.

"More right wing terrorism, do you suppose [conservative blogger] Michelle Malkin will retract the criticism of DHS now?" asked Elvis Andretti.

Several conservatives-noting that the address of the right-leaning Weekly Standard magazine had been found in von Brunn’s car-asserted that his political leanings were not conservative after all.

"Weird, huh? What possible grievance could a Jew-hating 9/11 Truther who ranted about Bill O’Reilly and ‘neocons’ have against a magazine owned by Rupert Murdoch and edited by Bill Kristol?" puzzled Allahpundit at Hot Air. "Maybe he detected a leftward drift in the Standard’s editorial slant lately? You know how irascible those ‘right-wingers’ can be, especially when they’re fed a steady diet of Fox News. Which, um, Von Brunn hated."

And some conservatives offered other theories about who and what was to blame for von Brunn’s attack.

"Make no mistake. Muslims created this atmosphere where hatred of the Jews is okay and must be ‘tolerated’ as a legitimate point of view. The shooting today is just yet another manifestation emanating from that viewpoint," Debbie Schlussel, a blogger who focuses on radical Islam, wrote.

"Von Brunn was also a 9/11 Truther," Schlussel continued. "So he has even more in common with his Muslim brothers in arms and their left-wing buddies than any White Christian American."

Top YouTube Videos

The most viewed news video on YouTube last week was a catalyst for a highly publicized feud between one of TV’s most recognizable figures and one of the country’s best known politicians.

After Alaska Governor Sarah Palin toured New York City, comedian and late night talk-show host David Letterman focused one of his trademark Top Ten lists on her trip. The video shows a recitation of his June 8 list, "Top Ten Highlights of Sarah Palin’s Trip to New York," and included a joke that Palin had "bought makeup at Bloomingdale’s to update her ‘slutty flight attendant’ look."

Earlier in the same show, Letterman also joked about one of Palin’s daughters being impregnated at a New York Yankee game by baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez. While Letterman later said he was referring to Palin’s 18-year-old daughter who had recently had a child, Palin and her supporters insisted the comedian was talking about her 14-year-old daughter, who had actually attended a recent Yankees’ game.

After the controversy simmered for a few days, Letterman eventually apologized, saying in part, "I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception."

Note: YouTube has removed the ability to embed the video of David Letterman’s Top Ten List on other Web sites. To be taken to the CBS Late Show Web site to view the clip click here.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

June 6 – 12, 2009

1. David Letterman’s Top Ten List about Sarah Palin’s Trip to New York

2. A CNN story about a videotape showing a New Jersey man who was beaten and arrested by police

3. President Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo to the Muslim world

4. A video from an unspecified location that claims to show a ghost

5. Another version of Obama’s speech with a lower picture resolution



The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.

PEJ has launched the New Media Index as a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

Two prominent Web tracking sites, Technorati and Icerocket, monitor more than 100 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of social media, using the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links weekday each day.   They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (50 stories in all each week), and reads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology as that of the NCI. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Technorati and Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press.

The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.

While the News Coverage Index is comprised of primarily U.S.-based media outlets, the aggregators of blogs and other social media include both U.S. and non-U.S. blogs. In addition, stories that are linked to can be from non-U.S. sources. However, according to PEJ’s research over the last four months, the only non-U.S. news stories included in the top lists for Technorati and Icerocket have been the BBC (whose Web site is part of the News Coverage Index) and the Guardian.

The Project also tracks the most popular news video on YouTube each week.  

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.