October 22, 2009

Global Warming and a Balloon Drama Drive the Online Conversation

PEJ New Media Index October 12-16

Two stories gripped the social media last week unlike any other in the past few months. An article questioning the theory of global warming dominated the conversation on blogs while the saga of the six-year-old who came to be known as "balloon boy" did the same for Twitter users.

For the week of October 12-16, 50% of the links to news-related stories from blogs were to one BBC report about global warming, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That equaled the fourth-largest total for any story this year, and represented the most attention to a subject since the political unrest in Iran made up 63% of the links the week of June 15-19.

The October 9 BBC story, headlined "What Happened to Global Warming?" noted that global temperatures had not increased over the last 11 years and quoted several scientists who claimed that man-made climate change is not occurring. The blogosphere was dominated by those who cited the story as evidence to support their skepticism about global warming and criticized those warning of the dangers of rising temperatures.

The second-largest story in blogs was the same story that led among Twitter users and was also among the top subjects in the mainstream press as well. The tale of the free-floating balloon thought to be carrying six-year-old Falcon Heene-an event carried live on cable news the afternoon of October 15-made up 10% of the news links on blogs.

Bloggers’ reactions tracked with those of many observers who at first feared for the safety of the boy, only to be upset when subsequent reports claimed the episode had been a hoax. A few bloggers began to suspect the scene was not as it appeared even before authorities made such claims while some criticized the media for overplaying the story.

On Twitter last week, the balloon boy story overwhelmed all other subjects as users monitored developments in real-time. According to the tracking site Tweetmeme, fully 55% of the Twitter links to news stories were about that subject,[1] making it the most dominant story since the post-election protests in Iran made up 96% of the links the week of June 15-19.

In the mainstream media last week, the balloon drama was the No. 3 story at 8% of the newshole measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. But in the period from October 15 through October 18, it was the top story at 19% of the newshole.

The other top subjects in the blogosphere last week included the death of legendary professional wrestling figure Captain Lou Albano, the No. 3 story with 7% of the links. Fourth, at 5%, was the story of 16-year-old Babar Ali of West Bengal, nicknamed the "youngest headmaster in the world," because he shares lessons he learns in school with poor children from his village. And fifth, at 4%, was a story suggesting that the users of the social networking site Facebook tend to be more affluent than those on MySpace.

Most of the top stories on Twitter other than the balloon drama were focused on technology. Various stories about Apple, including rumors of the production of new Macs, were second at 12%. Right behind that, at 11%, was news that Finland was the first country to declare that broadband Internet access was a legal right, while the fourth-largest story (6%) was about an outage to Facebook that affected about 150,000 users.

The No. 5 story (3%) was a CNN report about a justice of the peace in Louisiana who sparked outrage when he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple.

Balloon Boy

As the balloon believed to be carrying six-year-old Falcon Heene was still floating across the Colorado sky on October 15, Twitter users were already voicing concern.

"poor little boy! i hope they find him well & alive," wrote Manda Clark.*

"Hope the Balloon Boy just let the balloon fly away (without getting in) and comes home soon," seconded Mallika Chopra.

After the boy was discovered hiding in his house rather than in the balloon, a number of people expressed relief, along with some doubts that maybe the story was a bit fishy.

"Wow, the Balloon Boy was found in his attic…in a box? What does that mean? Was he hiding or was he put there? Weird," wrote Morning Toast.

A number of bloggers also followed the situation closely, expressing similar sentiments as those posting on Twitter. And once the dust settled and the boy was found unharmed, some began putting together pieces of the puzzle.

"Not to jump to conclusions here, but could this whole thing have been a hoax?" posited Brett Singer at Stroller Derby. "The Heene family is all over YouTube, having appeared on the 100th episode of the ABC show ‘Wife Swap.’ They also are storm-chasers and self-described ‘science detectives’…you can watch some of their kooky videos on FameCrawler…Dad says it wasn’t a hoax, and so far the local authorities are saying the same thing, according to various sources. To quote Dana Carvey’s impression of Johnny Carson, this is weird, wild stuff."

Several bloggers highlighted a clip from an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when Falcon Heene said to his parents, "You guys said we did this for the show." And for many, the real story was the role the media played in the affair.

"CNN was the first to break the story, originally declaring that the helium balloon, floating high above Colorado, had a child inside," stated Jess at Jess & Josh. "This is what sparked the maelstrom of national attention. A 6 year old helpless and trapped in a balloon that could crash at any moment? This is cable news’ dream."

"What’s striking me as a bit inappropriate is the constant news coverage that has continued the last 24 hours since he has been found," wrote Tasha at Brown Miller Communications, Inc. "Stories from his disappearance being a hoax to the child getting sick on live TV. News is important and should be informative, keeping the public aware of what is happening. But when does news cross the point and become pointless and unnecessary?"

Global Warming

Many of those who have been skeptical about the existence and dangers of global warming viewed the October 9 BBC report raising questions about climate change as vindication.

"I always knew that man-made global warming was a scam-and now the truth is out. For the last 11 years there has been no increase in global temperatures at all. In fact, the warmest year recorded globally was back in 1998!" declared The Sovereign Life Blog. "I don’t want to go into why it’s a scam…suffice to say that the politicisation of this issue was the vital clue to the nature of the ‘beast’."

"I can’t believe that any rational intelligent person can still believe in Global warming," wrote Alaphiah at Creating Orwellian World-View. "The proponents of this fallacy even changed the name of Global warming to Climate Change to obfuscate the fact that the Earth really wasn’t warming and the Carbon induced warming which they original claimed would destroy the world was all based on false science."

"Could it possibly be that the phenomenon never existed anywhere but in the minds of deranged liberals like Al Gore?" asked Seaspook. "Or could it be these liberals while still deranged knew it was a bunch of crap all along and were using it as a political tool?"

While skeptics dominated the commentary, a few supporters of global warming science questioned the evidence in the story.

"The globe is warming, still," responded Rap at Prose and Doggerel. "The idiot who wrote the BBC story, the idiots who are quoted in the story, that idiot Matt Drudge, they all have no idea how to analyze systems that fluctuate. They should all take Statistics 101."

"The BBC should know better," added Bob Cesca. "It’s [the article] based around a global warming myth that has been repeatedly debunked…the BBC article uses the flagrantly disingenuous argument that global warming ended in 1998-the ‘warmest year on record.’ Real climate scientists agree that it was the second warmest only because of El Nino activity. Besides, climate trends are measured in terms of decades and the current warming trend exceeds anything in recorded history…I’m constantly amazed at the right’s ability to deliberately deceive its own people."

YouTube

The most viewed news videos on YouTube last week were a mix of topics that were largely ignored by the mainstream press.

The top video was a speech by pop singer Lady Gaga at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. on October 11. She vowed to fight discrimination in the music industry and implored the crowd to work for gay rights.

The fifth most viewed video related to the topic that was the main focus of the blogs-global warming. It was a piece produced by the MacIver Institute, a Wisconsin-based conservative think tank, about film director Phelim McAleer who went to the conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists to question former Vice President Al Gore. After a brief exchange about whether polar bears were actually extinct, organizers cut McAleer off from asking more questions. The video also included an interview with McAleer where he demands that scientists question "big environment" the same way they question other entities like big business.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

For the Week of October 10-16, 2009

1. Pop singer Lady Gaga speaks at the October 11 National Equality March

2. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi makes a gaffe during a speech claiming he had spent millions of euros on "judges"

3. The Young Turks, a Web-based talk show, discuss a man who was arrested for asking his daughter for sex through Facebook

4. President Obama Dances at the October 13 Fiesta Latina with Mexican pop singer Thalia

5. Film director Phelim McAleer gets cut off from asking Al Gore questions about global warming at a conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists



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.

A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket which, monitors millions of blogs, 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 Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press.  Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati’s and Icerocket’s daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati’s site has been down with no indication of when it might resume. 

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.


[1] Due to a technical error, Twitter links from October 12 are not included in this week’s sample.