July 2, 2009

The Deaths of Michael Jackson and “Neda” Grip the Blogosphere

PEJ New Media Index June 22-26, 2009

Michael Jackson and Neda Agha-Soltan had little in common in life. But together last week their deaths in Los Angeles and Tehran consumed the blogosphere and became emblematic of the flow and character of modern communication.

For fans of Jackson, the Web was a place where they could find instant news about his passing and commiserate with others about their feelings and his meaning in their lives. For those following the developments in Iran, the image of "Neda" became a powerful symbol of the protest movement there after an amateur video of her death spread rapidly through Twitter, YouTube and other new media.

They became together the latest demonstration of the power, both emotional and political, of the many-to-many nature of social media.

For the week of June 22-26, discussion of Michael Jackson and Iran in general combined to make up almost half (47%) of the links on blogs and social media as measured in the New Media Index by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Despite the fact that Jackson’s death occurred late in the week, stories about the passing of the pop star led all linked-to topics, accounting for 27% of the links embedded in the social media sites tracked by the monitoring services Icerocket and Technorati. On the evening of his death, interest in Jackson was so high that many of sites with the most popular Jackson pages experienced outages and slowdowns. Accompanying comments from bloggers mostly expressed shock at the singer’s death and offered moving accounts of his influence.

Amidst tributes to the pop star, political unrest in Iran remained a major topic for the second week running. In PEJ’s index of social media, the subject was the No. 2 story last week (accounting 20% of the week’s links). While the conversation focused on a range of related issues (from President Obama’s response to day-to-day developments in Iran), a remarkable amount of the discussion focused on the woman who died during a protest over the country’s disputed elections.

To many, the pictures of Agha-Soltan’s last moments personified the cruelty of the Iranian government in response to the protests. A graphic video of Agha-Soltan’s death was the most viewed news video of the week on YouTube.

The third-largest story-line on blogs and social media last week, receiving 10% of the links, dealt with the Obama administration. Much of the attention was focused on a June 24 Washington Post column by Dana Milbank where he sarcastically referred to Obama’s recent press conference as the "The Obama Show" and chastised the alleged collaboration between the White House and a reporter from the Huffington Post.

The fourth story (also at 10%) was the admission by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford that he had been having an extra-marital affair with a woman from Argentina after he had gone missing for several days.

Fifth (at 9%) was an unusual BBC story about Australian wallabies reportedly eating opium poppies and hoping around in circles "as high as a kite."

On a separate social networking platform, Twitter, Jackson and Iran were also the two most linked-to news topics, although the emphasis was different than in the blogs. According to the tracking site Tweetmeme, which tracks links embedded in tweets across the globe, Iran represented 64% of the "news-related" links while Michael Jackson was second at 18%. In other words, the pop star was a major topic, but it did not overtake the intense involvement of this platform in the post-election Iranian protests.

In the traditional press, Iran and Michael Jackson also led the week’s agenda combining for 37% of the week’s newshole according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. Governor Sanford’s scandal was third followed by coverage of the health care reform debate in Washington and continuing reporting about the U.S. economy.

Michael Jackson

After the celebrity gossip site TMZ.com first reported that Michael Jackson had passed away the afternoon of June 25, activity all over the Web increased to near-record levels.

Twitter received as many as 5,000 Jackson-related messages per minute during its peak – noticeably slowing its service. The Los Angeles Times Web site received more than 2.3 million page views in one hour thus causing several outages there.

In the blogs and social media analyzed here, most posts linked to reports of his death, with comments that shared shock and grief or sought out more information.

"No matter the rumors, or the media craze, or what the tabloids would publish every week on him, he was such a huge inspiration to me growing up," wrote the blogger caffeinic. "He made me enjoy music, enjoy singing – if any celebrity in my life inspired me to go for what I wanted the most, to follow my dreams, it was him. Rest in peace, King of Pop. You’ll be missed."

"Growing up in the 80’s to escape his presence was impossible," shared cosmopolitician. "I’m saddened today by the great loss the world has witnessed, but grateful for the many memories of him that have helped to make up my first 30 years."

Others focused on the historic nature of discovering one of the country’s best-known pop music figures had died.

"I imagine today will be much like the day that JFK was assassinated, Princess Diana died in a car accident or the planes hit the Twin Towers," insisted Laruen Ober at Seven Days. "Everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news that the King of Pop was dead."

"This death is highly important because I haven’t seen a worldwide superstar like that ever," remarked someone who calls himself Mr. Philosopher. "My memories of MJ will remain fond, but now the time has officially come. Who will be the next monarch of pop? They won’t be wearing Mike’s crown. They’ll have to fashion their own."

Neda as the Symbol of Iranian Protest

There have been a number of conflicting reports about the death of Neda Agha-Soltan. Some have indicated that she was part of the Iranian protest movement. Others suggested she was passing by the protests and got out of her car to see the events and get some fresh air.

Whatever the case, the image of her dying-caught on amateur video and spread throughout the world via sites like YouTube and Facebook-made her death a symbol of protest, of government brutality, and put for many a human face on the cause. While hardly all of the discussion about Iran focused on Agha-Soltan, no other individual has galvanized people as much as she.

"Like millions of people around the world, the tragic death of Neda has affected me tremendously," wrote Daniel Clark Orey at On Being Notorious. "I felt a temptation to scream and run to the end of the world and say my prayers with unusual earnestness and a heavy heart…I felt like screaming for the weary eyes and innocent moans of the victims of Iranian revolution."*

"I warn you: it is a harrowing clip," added Till at Timeless Stories for the 21st Century before linking to the video of her death. "Not so much because it is graphic…But to watch the death of Neda Agha-Soltan is so shocking because it is to witness it; to witness the extinguishing of a human life, brought closer perhaps because it is a young woman, and-particularly for Westerners-a yong woman that could have walked the streets and lived a life anywhere in one of our ‘civilized’ countries."

The outpouring of emotion over Neda spread through Twitter as well. A number of users changed their avatars to an iconic image of a green broken heart with her name written beneath it.

Several of the most popular Twitter links about Iran this week also related to Neda. The first was a CNN.com story about her life, passed along with the accompanying message: "Who was Neda? Slain woman an unlikely martyr – CNN.com #neda #cnn."

That CNN piece, along with many other news accounts of her life, offered a number of personal details. It described Neda as "happy, serene, and spiritual" and that she was the second of three children in a middle-class family. These specific facts, along with portrait-like photographs of her that circulated, led many to feel like they had lost someone they knew among the Iranian protests.

The second common link was to the Web site Mashable.com. There, Pete Cashmore reflected on the nature of the technology on politics when considering her death.

 "Among the myriad Tweets and Facebook messages, could it be that a YouTube video becomes the galvanizing moment in Iran’s troubled election?" he asked. "And as some outlets declare this the "Twitter revolution", did they overlook the power of online video to shape world events?" 

Top YouTube Videos

A news report featuring segments of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death in Iran was the most viewed news video on YouTube last week. By June 26, it had been viewed more than 400,000 times.                                  

Due to copyright restrictions, YouTube has removed the specific news video from its Web site.

To be taken to the CNN.com site to view the clip, click here. (Warning: this video contains graphic images.)

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

June 20 – 26, 2009

1. A CNN report about the video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death

2. Michelle Obama delivers an address to kick off United We Serve-a call for Americans to volunteer

3. Comedian John Hodgman roasts President Obama during a speech at the 2009 Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner

4. A Bolivian television station, PAT, accidentally shows images from the television show Lost while claiming they were of the crash of Air France flight 447

5. President Obama and Chief Petty Officer John Lehnen discuss the importance of fatherhood

Note: Technorati’s list of top-linked to stories, due to technical errors, was not updated for Tuesday, June 23, or Wednesday, June 24. Therefore, this week’s data is based on Technorati’s lists of Monday, Thursday, and Friday along with Icerocket’s lists from all five days.



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.

For the examination of the links from Twitter, PEJ staff monitored the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket and Technorati, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Technorati and Icerocket, PEJ captured the five most popular linked-to pages each weekday under the heading of "news" as determined by Tweetmeme’s method of categorization. And as with the other data provided in the NMI, the top stories are determined in terms of percentage of links. (One minor difference is that Tweetmeme offers the top links over the prior 24 hours while the lists used on Technorati and Icerocket offer the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

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.