October 21, 2010

Social Media Debate a Mortgage Mess, Science and Religion

PEJ New Media Index October 11-15, 2010

The home mortgage crisis, fueled recently by charges of fraudulent foreclosure procedures, triggered angry reactions aimed at multiple culprits from bloggers of all political stripes last week.

For the week of October 11-15, fully 22% of the news links on blogs were about economic issues, with the vast majority focused on the housing market. That made it the No. 1 subject on blogs, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Many bloggers aimed their disgust at the banks for their lending practices while others blamed people who obtained mortgages they could not afford. Some, particularly real estate agents, also used their blogs to provide information to those who are buying or selling a foreclosed property.

Bloggers have spotlighted the mortgage situation before. Three weeks earlier, an article accusing some of the nation’s largest mortgage companies of using a single document processor to sign off on foreclosures without having read the paperwork was the No. 5 subject, at 6% of the links.

The No. 2 story last week, also receiving 22% of the links, was a controversial column by Professor Jerry A. Coyne from the University of Chicago which appeared in the October 11 USA Today. Coyne argued that science and faith cannot coexist because each is based on foundations that have irreconcilable differences.

"In the end," Coyne wrote, "science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns."

Bloggers’ reaction to the piece was mixed, as both supporters of Coyne’s view and opponents weighed in. Those who agreed appreciated the directness of his piece while critics claimed that Coyne did not understand the nature of religion.

Religion was also a major topic for bloggers two weeks ago, as they focused on a survey showing that atheists and agnostics were more knowledgeable about religion than followers of major faiths.

The third-biggest topic on blogs, at 18%, involved education, with a heavy emphasis on outgoing Washington D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who recently resigned in the wake of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s defeat in the Democratic primary. Two stories drew attention. One was a Washington Post article about Rhee’s resignation and the other was a manifesto by Rhee and other school leaders suggesting ways to reform American education that involved giving teachers more flexibility and changing the notions of tenure.

A Los Angeles Times story about LA’s first ever CicLAvia event which, for several hours, turned some of Hollywood’s most-trafficked streets into a pathway for pedestrians and bicyclists, was fourth at 9%.

One good-news story that generated major attention in the mainstream media was also a big topic in the online world last week. The October 13 rescue of 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for 69 days was the No. 5 story on blogs (9%). And it dominated among Twitter users, accounting for more than one-third (37%) of the news links.

Twitterers shared images of the rescue-including a photo collection on Boston.com of the dramatic rescues and reuniting of families-and a link to a live video feed from CNN.com (which is no longer active). As with bloggers, Twitterers offered real-time reactions to the dramatic events.

"To cheers and applause, the last rescue worker exits the capsule that brought all 33 miners safely home," tweeted many users.

"Amazing Inspiring Heart Touching Pictures from the Chile Miners," added Sheikh M Shariq. "Glad to see the Smiles everywhere."*

The rest of the top stories on Twitter were all technology-focused.

Second, at 12%, were two stories about Apple on Mashable. One was the news that the company had filed a trademark application for the phrase, "There’s an app for that," while the other was an article about a British jeweler who created a diamond-clad iPhone with a price tag of roughly $8 million.

New features for Facebook were third at 11%, including news that the site had released an option for users to utilize one-time passwords as a security measure on public computers, and speculation that Facebook would soon be adding more options to its communication features including threaded comments and voting.

The No. 4 story, with 7% of the links, involved Twitter itself. A Toronto-based social media analytics company named Sysomos analyzed 1.2 billion tweets over two months and concluded that 71% of them generated no reaction, such as retweets or replies.

And a story and video about Microsoft Windows’ first press release in 1985 was the fifth most linked-to subject at 6%.

"Windows provides unprecedented power to users today and a foundation for hardware and software advancements of the next few years," declared Microsoft chairman Bill Gates at the time. "It is unique software designed for the serious PC user, who places high value on the productivity that a personal computer can bring."

The Mortgage Mess

Three different stories in the Washington Post sparked a vibrant blogosphere conversation about the mortgage crisis.

On October 9, a column by Washington Post staff writer Steven Pearlstein suggested that while both banks and borrowers need to share blame for the problem, a moratorium on foreclosures would have negative consequences for the economy. Then, on October 10, the Post reported that federal officials had been warned for years that the foreclosure system was designed to seize people’s homes quickly, often without regard to homeowners’ rights. Three days later, the Post described how the lack of paperwork associated with foreclosed homes will create uncertainty and harm the economy.

The anger expressed by many bloggers identified a variety of culprits, perhaps illustrating the complexity of the issue. 

"The paperwork problems should not benefit those who have defaulted on their obligations through no fault of the lender," Merv Benson at Prairie Pundit wrote, criticizing people who could not pay their mortgages.

"Indeed, there was fraud at every step of the mortgage process," argued sakerfa at Dprogram.net. "The big banks intentionally signed up borrowers with insufficient income and assets, threw out the documentation because it would prove fraud, racked up loan fees and received short-term payments before all of the new borrowers ran out of money, and then laundered the bad loans into securitized instruments to sell to the suckers."

"What we have is a Treasury Secretary who is deeply embedded in the culture of Wall Street financing and sees and enacts policy from that viewpoint," declared Sky Dancing in a Man’s World. "What we have seen is policy that continually bails out the businesses that put us all into this situation. I cannot get fired up to vote for people that enable robber barons."

Some bloggers offered dire predictions for the future of the economy as a whole.

"Are you ready for some RECESSION!" posted Jake Today. "And y’all thought it was over. It was. Now it may return…Greed won, prudence and fiduciary responsibility were abandoned until recalled by the federal government. Now we have part two of the same greedhead created mortgage mess. Get ready for 1929?"

"We’re already buried by debt that our grandchildren won’t be able to repay. How deep can the hole get, before the sides cave in?" wondered The Life and Times of "Renaissance Ronin" in response to the Post’s coverage.

Some bloggers, however, took a more pragmatic approach and described how the mortgage crisis could impact people buying or selling a foreclosed home.

"How will this affect you as a home owner?" asked Robert Clarke at the Bergen County Real Estate Blog. "If you are in some stage of foreclosure, the proceedings against you will likely be delayed while your lender verifies that all the paperwork they filed is correct…If you are buying a foreclosed property, much of the foreclosed inventory in the country is frozen while the banks conduct their investigations."

Science and Faith

Professor Coyne found some support online for his USA Today column suggesting faith and science could not coexist and that religion weakens our concept of truth.

"Religion underscores the importance of believing," proclaimed Edwardson at Hokum-Balderdash Assay. "In short, science has the methods to mercilessly rid itself of bad ideas. Religion on the other hand has been forced to become a storehouse of untested and untestable ideas, as it continuous to seek refuge in God the Gaps hypotheses."

"When science is applied to religion, disturbing things come to light," added One Furious Llama. "It’s just a crying shame so many people refuse to see what’s right there in front of them."

Many bloggers, however, felt Coyne misunderstood religion and used disingenuous arguments.

"Basically, science only finds truth in things that can be seen, touched, felt, tasted, and quantified," explained Brain of Dane.  "Religion–Christianity, for example-is founded on faith in the unseen, or in some kind of inward feeling rather than a physical sense. I fully believe that my God is the one true God, who never changes, and has always stayed the same. Why? Because the bible tells me so, and because I know it."

"Coyne is a fine example of the operation of what John Henry Newman called ‘antecedent reasons,’" critiqued David Fischler at The Reformed Pastor. "He starts with an unstated, unquestioned, perhaps not even acknowledged assumption: only the material world is real…Yet Coyne doesn’t bother to prove his assumption…He simply makes an assumption, and then proceeds to insult those who disagree based on it."


The most viewed news video on YouTube last week involved a world-renowned actor in an unusual circumstance.

Johnny Depp, in London to film the fourth installment of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, received a letter from a nine-year-old student requesting his help.

"At Meridian on Old Woolwich Road we are all a bunch of budding young pirates. Normally we’re a right handful but we’re having trouble mutinying against the teachers!" wrote Beatrice Delap.

With only a ten-minute warning to the school’s teachers, Depp showed up to meet Beatrice and her classmates, and the video of the encounter turned into a YouTube sensation.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of October 9-15, 2010

1. Actor Johnny Depp makes an unannounced visit to a London school after receiving a letter from one of its students

2. A book is thrown at President Obama during a rally in Pennsylvania

3. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who is running for the U.S. Senate, delivers a poor pitch before a Tampa Bay Rays playoff baseball game

4. A video from the German comedy group Die Aussenseiter

5. Various ABC News reports about a UFO over a Chinese airport

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’s New Media Index is 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. 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 monitors the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Icerocket, PEJ captures 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 list used on Icerocket offers the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

The Project also tracks the most popular news videos 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.