December 10, 2009

A Minaret Ban and “Climate-gate” Stir Online Discussions

PEJ New Media Index November 30-December 4, 2009

Two distinct controversies drove the online commentary last week. A decision by voters in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets, distinctive structures associated with Islamic mosques, earned the most attention in the blogosphere. And in the run-up to the climate summit in Copenhagen, global warming skeptics continued to dominate the blogosphere debate. Last week, that subject also gained major traction on Twitter.

From November 30-December 4, 17% of the links in blogs were about the Swiss referendum, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. While a few commentators applauded the vote as a stand against radical Islam, most expressed disappointment that the country would support a move they perceived as intolerant and divisive.

Registering right behind the minarets controversy, at 16% of the news links, was global warming-a topic that recently has received considerably more attention in social media than in the mainstream press. Among blogs, this is the fourth week in the past two months when global warming has been among the top four subjects.

In the week of November 23-27, the No. 4 topic on blogs was news of the "Climate-gate" controversy-hacked emails from a British climate change research unit that skeptics saw as evidence of flawed science behind global warming. This past week, several different reports on the eve of the Copenhagen summit spurred further commentary, again largely from those who question the scientific evidence. Twitter users also joined in, making it the second most linked-to news topic of the week within that social platform. 

Although the mainstream media devoted some attention to the global warming controversy last week (2% of the newshole from November 30-December 6), they have lagged behind the blogosphere in focusing on the issue. In the past two months, when that topic has repeatedly been among the leading blogosphere stories, it has accounted for only about 1% of the coverage tracked in the News Coverage Index.

The third-largest subject in the blogosphere (at 11%) was the topic that received the most attention in the mainstream press last week-President Obama’s plan to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Bloggers were mixed on the issue of whether Obama had made the correct decision in sending an additional 30,000 troops to the war zone.

A debate over a rule at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania that prevents obese students  from graduating finished fourth, also with 11%. And a report about problems with the new Windows 7 operating system came in fifth at 7%.

Among Twitter users, the most popular news link was to an unfortunate error in using social media to publicize local media. A TV station in Mobile, Alabama, advertised on a billboard that featured pictures of three of their anchors and a real-time Twitter feed of breaking events. Unfortunately, that created an embarrassing juxtaposition as one passerby took a photo of the billboard at a time when the text read, "3 Accused of Gang Rape in Monroeville." The CNET.com story about the sign received 20% of the Twitter news links last week.

Global warming was the second-largest topic on Twitter at 16%, featuring more of a mix of skeptics and global warming believers than was evident in the conversation on blogs.

A story about Microsoft’s efforts to encourage users of its eight-year-old Web browser Internet Explorer 6 to upgrade was third at 10%. Fourth (at 8%) were several stories about the manhunt for Maurice Clemmons, the suspect in the killing of four police officers near Seattle, Washington, who was himself killed by a policeman several days later. And a story and video of an orchestra at the University of Michigan using iPhones to perform music finished fifth at 5%.

Swiss Ban

On November 29, 57% of the voters in Switzerland approved a ban on the construction of Muslim minarets. Supporters of the ban claimed that minarets are a sign of "Islamisation" and would represent the growth of an ideology incompatible with Swiss democracy.

The significance of the ban-primarily among those who saw the act as a demonstration of intolerance-drew the attention of bloggers far outside Swiss borders.

"Do we not want to live in a Europe where minorities are protected from discrimination?" asked the British blog The Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist. "The big danger with democracy, as I’m sure we all know, is to avoid a tyranny of the majority. That is exactly what we have in this situation…As it is, this is nothing more than poorly-disguised xenophobia."

"But banning minrets is no different from banning churchs, synagogues, or temples," wrote Mark Daniels at Better Living.  "Unless all people are free to practice the religion of their choice, no choice they make will have any meaning…Christians should have no part in repressing people in any way…Banning minarets in Switzerland, or anywhere else, can never come to a good end."*

"It’s a blow for religious tolerance in the country; I’m interested to see what will happen with Switzerland’s image abroad and whether the federal government can do anything about it," added nhi-nhi.

While in the minority, a few bloggers supported the ban.

"All cultures are not relatively equal, nor should we pretend that they are," proclaimed George Kenney at Electric Politics. "The Swiss are perfectly justified in wanting to keep what they’ve got, just as are the French in banning headscarves from classrooms, and as are various international efforts to ban the burqa. Instead of meekly accepting cultural practices we don’t like we should remind ourselves that they can, and do, evolve."

Others suggested there were better ways to challenge the perceived threat of fundamentalism.

"This also seems like an odd way to express concern about Islamic encroachment," decided Reality Check. "If they are concerned about the growth of fundamentalist Muslims in their country, they should restrict immigration and work on deporting existing ones. This measure, like banning Islamic headscarves, looks like a symbolic measure to me."

Global Warming

Skeptics of global warming, this time both in blogs and on Twitter, continued to strongly voice their dissent last week, spurred on largely by two Fox News stories and the summit in Copenhagen.

On Monday, November 30, Fox News reported on a paper delivered two years ago at a meeting of the United Nations Environmental Program. The authors of the paper argued that environmental concerns should be at "the center of political and economic decision-making" processes. Some online commentators saw an ulterior motive behind the worldwide push to fight climate change.

"Well, at least they’re no longer hiding their intent," warned Madoc. "Oh, they’re still couching it in politically correct terms but that intent is mighty clear-Environmentalism must trump all else and it is only the UN which will arbitrate what is correct environmentalism."

A Tuesday Washington Post story on the resignation of Phil Jones, director of the British climate research unit that was at the center of the Climate-gate controversy, generated more commentary from the critics.

"As the world powers get ready to meet on the topic of Climate Change the theory itself of carbon emissions as the culprit is being shown in it’s true light ….. it’s all a fraud," determined West Coast Catholic. "Complete with dirty emails and elite money hungry scientist and well just about everyone with a hand in the cookie jar, the truth is becoming more and more evident."

"The whole Climate Change circus was driven by one-world-government seekers hoping to find a vehicle by which to command other nations … and their citizens. Genuine science was never involved," added Common Folk Using Common Sense.

And after Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart ran a segment discussing Climate-gate, a Fox News report claimed the satirical fake news show had "scooped" the major TV networks on the story.

"What is sad…is the fact a comedian is discussing a scandal BEFORE ABC, CBS, or NBC news have even mentioned it. How does a scandal, that involves a scientific theory driving government policy decisions all over the world, get ignored by a major news organization?" asked Politics and Pigskins.

Many Twitter users also linked to the same Fox News report accompanied with a joke from Stewart himself: "Poor Al Gore. Global warming completely debunked via the very Internet you invented. Oh, oh, the irony!"

Even a Thursday story in the British Daily Mail about California Governor Schwarzenegger’s climate change map that showed devastating effects of global warming on his home state received healthy doses of skepticism.

"Someone needs to tell Arnold the myth has been busted. Then again, if he’s right SF might be better underwater :)" added Jason Manibog.

Believers in the science behind global warming were not nearly as vocal last week. Those who commented did so by pointing to articles that supported their point of view. One was a debate in the Guardian between an academic and author who agreed that climate change was a real danger, but disagreed whether the Copenhagen summit would yield any positive results.

Another story, explaining the dangers of global warning, appeared on the technology news site Ars Technica with the title "Five things you should know about climate change."

"Your ‘Five things you should know about climate change’ is my go to when asked about climate," tweeted Michael Bauer.

YouTube

On the video sharing site YouTube, pop star Lady Gaga has proven to be a unique sensation with a strong following, not only for her music videos, but also for her appearances in other settings. For the second time in six weeks, the singer was the subject of the most-viewed news video on YouTube. The week of October 12-16, a speech Gaga gave at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. was the most-viewed video.

This past week, an interview on the November 27 edition of the Ellen DeGeneres Show gained the top spot and was viewed more than 700,000 times. The host and Gaga discussed, among other things, her unique fashion sense and the relationship with her fans.

"The whole point of what I do…the music, the performance art aspect of it-I want to create a space for my fans where they can feel free and they can celebrate because I didn’t fit in in high school and I felt like a freak. So I like to create this atmosphere for my fans where they feel like they have a freak in me to hang out with and they don’t feel alone," the singer explained.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

For the Week of November 28-December 4, 2009

1. Singer Lady Gaga appears on the November 27 edition of the Ellen DeGeneres Show

2. British writer and comedian Pat Condell defends his "aggressive atheism"

3. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews says President Obama went to the "enemy camp" when he delivered his December 1 speech about Afghanistan at West Point

4. Alessandra Mussolini, politician and granddaughter of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, discusses rumors of a sex video

5. A video ridiculing a segment on the Fox News show, Fox & Friends, that discussed atheism and a controversy in a Pennsylvania town



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.