Aliens Overtake the Social Media Agenda
PEJ New Media Index April 26-30, 2010
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans."
That was the warning issued by renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking as part of his new Discovery Channel television series in which he cautions humans against making contact with aliens. Hawking’s remarks triggered a lively conversation in both the blogosphere and on Twitter last week-ranking in the top five storylines for each despite virtually no attention in the traditional media.
The No.1 subject in the blogosphere was the controversial immigration law recently passed in Arizona. For the week of April 26-30, 22% of the news links on blogs were about the controversy according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Bloggers argued passionately over the merits of the bill with most of the conversation focused on dueling Washington Post columns.
However, the debate over aliens was the only news item to receive significant attention on both blogs and Twitter, capturing the imagination of social media users. The story was the third largest on blogs last week, with 16% of the links, and the fourth largest on Twitter, at 6%-the only top Twitter subject that wasn’t technology related.
Off-beat science news has tended to generate interest in social media. Just in 2009 such stories as the discovery of a meat-eating plant, the possibility that a blue dye found in M&M’s could help with spine injuries, and a computer simulation of a worldwide zombie attack made the weekly lists.
Hawking’s warning that it is rational to believe intelligent life exists elsewhere and that aliens might raid the earth for its resources set off a mostly serious online conversation. Some agreed that humans should avoid interaction with such life forms because it is a risk not worth taking. Others, however, felt that Hawking was making too many assumptions about the nature of alien life.
The No. 2 story in the blogosphere last week, narrowly ahead of the Hawking conversation, was the economy, at 17%. The conversation stemmed from some positive news of a 27 percent increase in home sales during March.
The fourth-biggest topic, at 15%, was a campaign gaffe by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown, whose Labour Party is struggling in the election, apologized after he was caught saying that a voter he had just spoken to was a "bigoted woman."
The fifth-largest story (at 11%) was a USA Today article about a Christian research firm’s survey that showed 72% of people ages 18 to 29 consider themselves "more spiritual than religious."
On Twitter, the other top stories last week, beyond the issue of aliens, were all technology focused.
Apple dominated the discussion as it has quite often with 32% of the news links. Last week, the focus was almost entirely on the investigation of Jason Chen, the editor of the popular tech blog Gizmodo, and his possible role in the purchase of a lost Apple iPhone prototype.
This marks the second week in a row that Apple topped the list on Twitter and the sixth time in the last eight weeks that the company’s products have been among the top five news subjects.
Stories about Google were second at 10% including a report that Microsoft publicly claimed that Google’s Android operating system infringes on its intellectual property.
News that Hewlett-Packard purchased the smartphone maker Palm was third at 8%. That was followed by the discussion of alien beings at 6% and a story (also at 6%) that the Web site MyPunchbowl, an all-in-one party planning platform, signed a licensing agreement with Oriental Trading Company, one of the country’s largest direct merchants of party supplies.
The April 25 BBC report that quoted Stephen Hawking’s warning about contact with aliens created a firestorm of online conversation. The online community wrestled with the possibility of life beyond Earth, what interactions with aliens would be like, and even human nature itself.
Some bloggers took Hawking’s concerns very seriously.
"Sounds about right," agreed Sean Carroll at Discover Magazine’s blog. "If aliens were sufficiently enlightened to be utterly peace-loving and generous, it would be great to have back-and-forth contact with them. But it’s also possible that they would simply wipe us out…almost without noticing…So how do you judge the risk?"
"At the rate the social evolution is going, Professor Hawking is probably right," concurred Javier Ortega at Ghost Theory. "If an alien being was to observe our everyday life, they would probably conclude that we are just creatures with destructive habits. We would be seem as savages with no real appreciation of life or Earth."*
"Since I grew up with a steady diet of science fiction books, I believe that there are other forms of intelligent life not located on the planet Earth," wrote Debsweb. "How do I know they are intelligent? Because they haven’t revealed themselves to us. It only takes a brief scan of the news for one to realize that humans are a pretty violent species and at the same time we are afraid of our own shadows."
The majority of bloggers, however, did not appear to share Hawking’s perspective.
"Prof Stephen Hawking is making a huge assumption here," decried Dee Kay Dot As Gee. "He is assuming that the Alien civilization are nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach. He assume that earth has the resource that they need…I’m sure Prof Stephen Hawking has lots of credential. But I can’t help but wonder why is everyone publishing his huge assumption which has no proof at all."
"Aliens are going to be, well, alien compared to us," argued Joseph Shoer. "They will have completely different evolutionary and cultural histories from us. They probably care about entirely different things than we do…So, I’m not comfortable making any statements about how aliens are likely to behave-even given human history as an example."
"The assumption that an intelligent, alien race would be as primitively hostile as we have been is based entirely on us looking at ourselves in retrospect, not on tangible, scientific data," concluded Patrick Mylund Nielsen. "Urging us to just hide-at this point-doesn’t seem very constructive. We just won’t know before we’ve made contact, and trying to hide is only going to delay that a little."
On Twitter, hundreds of users focused on a CNET story about the same subject. Most of the tweets included nothing except the headline of the story ("Stephen Hawking: Aliens might hate us") along with a link.
A select few, though, did add brief comments.
"Stephen Hawking describes other beings in our galaxy by using the same plot from every alien invasion movie ever made," tweeted Jordan Von Tress.
"Dear Stephen Hawking, you are correct. Aliens hate us. It’s why we haven’t found any yet. Maybe leave ‘em some cookies?" joked Doug Schmidt.
Much of the online discussion surrounding the controversial Arizona immigration law cited two conflicting Washington Post op-ed columns. On Tuesday, April 27, Eugene Robinson called the new law an "abomination" and said that those responsible for the law caved to "xenophobic pressures."
Some bloggers agreed.
"The recent Immigration law just passed into law in Arizona is full of hypocrisy," determined japete at Common Gun Sense. "Suddenly it’s O.K. for law enforcement to stop people to ask for their papers? These measures are reminiscent of Nazi-like measures against the Jews during World War II."
Many focused on Robinson’s criticism of the Tea Party protestors which should have, in his opinion, also been opposing this legislation.
"Isn’t the Tea Party supposed to be all about freedom and liberty-keeping the grabby hands of government out of our pockets and lives?" asked Espuelas. "So when Arizona passes a law that will give unprecedented, sweeping powers to the police…and create a system of legalized racial profiling-where is the Tea Party to defend traditional notions of American Liberty? Nowhere to be seen."
Others, however, thought Robinson had misread the law.
"Contrary to Mr. Robinson’s assertions, Arizona authorities will not be conducting Gestapo-like midnight raids on innocent victims," posted Scripsit Ghettoputer at The Gormogons. "The Arizona statute requires that there be a ‘lawful contact’ with the person, and that the officer have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ of that person’s illegal presence in the United States. This is hardly onerous."
"By making these bogus claims, the progressives hope to curry favor with Hispanics, one of the fastest growing voting blocks," decried The Strident Conservative. "It’s behind their call for ‘immigration reform’ (which is code for amnesty for illegals) and is nothing more than political posturing - plain and simple."
On Wednesday, April 28, George Will published a piece in support of the law arguing that the Arizona decision is a "worthwhile experiment" to see if a state can deal with the problem that the federal government has been ineffective or unwilling to confront.
While some bloggers who linked to Will’s column agreed with him, most objected to his characterization of Hispanics. They were particularly offended by Will’s assertion that "Arizonans should not be judged disdainfully and from a distance by people whose closest contacts with Hispanics are with fine men and women who trim their lawns…not with illegal immigrants passing through their back yards at 3 a.m."
"So, if I have this right, the real racists aren’t the Arizonans who decided on state-wide racial profiling as the solution to the immigration problem; they know plenty of Hispanics and thus can’t be racist!" responded Jamelle Bouie. "No, the real racists are the…liberals who don’t even really know Hispanics, aside from the ones that plant their flowers and wash their dishes."
"Listen up, George: I lived for ten years in New Mexico, a place which has areas where no English is spoken at all and where families have lived for centuries, long before your forebears stepped off the boat from Southampton," declared A Spork in the Drawer. "So don’t lecture me."
On YouTube, it was a week of reruns. Four of the five most popular news videos concerned subjects already on the list in prior weeks.
The first- and fifth-most popular videos both included raw footage from the site of the plane crash that killed Polish President Kaczynski on April 10. Part of what renewed this interest may be tied to theories circulating on the Web that the crash was not an accident as officially reported, but was the responsibility of a group aimed at getting rid of Kaczynski.
The second video focused on Tea Party protestors and came from the liberal activist group New Left Media. This is now the third of their videos to make it into the top five. This week’s production was of unflattering interviews with Tea Party protestors at the April 15 Tax Day rallies. The interviews as conducted find the protesters uninformed about many current issues.
In March, New Left Media produced a similar video of protestors participating at anti-health care reform rallies and last November, the group posted one that included interviews of people waiting in line at a Sarah Palin book signing.
The fourth video was an April 19 story by ITN reporter John Irvine as he flew a helicopter over the Icelandic volcano whose ash had caused numerous inconveniences and travel delays throughout much of Europe. Footage of the same volcano had been the top YouTube video one week earlier.
Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
1. Raw footage from the site where the plane carrying Polish President Kaczynski crashed on April 10
2. A collection of interviews produced by New Left Media with Tea Party protestors taking part in the April 15 Tax Day rallies
3. Friends of Colombian television personality and model Lina Marulanda talk to the press following her April 22 death
4. An April 19 story from ITN reporter John Irvine as he flies in a helicopter above the Icelandic volcano spewing ash
5. Another video of raw footage from the site where the Polish President Kaczynski’s plane crashed
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, uses 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 (25 stories 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.