June 30, 2011

By Nearly 3-to-1, Bloggers Criticize Obama’s Withdrawal Plan for Afghanistan

PEJ New Media Index June 20-24, 2011

Bloggers, last week, responded strongly to President Obama’s June 22 speech about the U.S. role in the Afghan war. Reaction to the announcement, which proposed to remove 10,000 troops this year and a total of 33,000 by next September, received 18% of the news links on blogs from June 20-24, making it the No.1 topic, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

And by a margin of almost 3-to-1, the reaction was negative. In a broader examination of more than 11,000 blog posts, utilizing computer technology from Crimson Hexagon, 36% of bloggers’ assessments were negative compared to just 13% that were positive. About half (51%) of the conversation was neutral.

These responses were more critical than public sentiment overall. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and The Washington Post following the speech found that a plurality (44%) of Americans think Obama will remove troops from Afghanistan at about the right pace.

A number of bloggers, including liberals who tend to support the President, wanted Obama to withdraw all troops from the country and declare an end to what they see is an unwinnable war. A different cohort argued that Obama was not committed to doing what is best for American interests-winning the war. Instead, they suggested Obama’s plan to pull out troops goes against the wishes of top military commanders and puts at risk any progress that has been made.

A small minority of bloggers supported Obama’s plan and suggested he had found a centrist strategy that would lead to the end of the war without having the country result in chaos.

These are the results of a special edition of the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, utilizing our regular weekly analysis coupled with computer technology from Crimson Hexagon. This additional analysis examines the tone of the online conversation in reaction to Obama’s plan. (Note: the blog posts examined were from June 23-28, the six days following Obama’s speech, and do not correspond completely with the typical Monday through Friday week of the NMI.)

The War in Afghanistan

The past week marks the first time in nine months that the Afghanistan War has led the conversation on blogs. The inspiration largely stemmed from strong disapproval of Obama’s withdrawal plan, which came in all forms.

The most common criticism was that we should instead pull fully out of the war, ending our presence there altogether.

“i disliked obama’s speech tonight for the same reasons many people did–i don’t want the US staying in afghanistan, policing the world,” wrote Karen Lindsey at Anything & Everything.*

“Given the heavy dependence of foreign spending and the continued power of the opium trade, is there any doubt that the minute we dismount from Afghanistan -whether it is in a year or in a decade-things will revert to the pre-2002 status quo?” asked Marc Eisner at Pileus the day before Obama officially announced his strategy. “My recommendation for the President: Announce an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan to be completed by year’s end (if not sooner).”

“Incremental and gradual drawdowns of troops over many years is not the correct response to a failed war,” declared Jim Wallis at Sojourners. “We needed a pivot to a new policy last night – but we didn’t get it.”

Some who were against war also expressed waning support for Obama.

“I’d love to be singing the man’s praises,” asserted John Aravosis at AMERICA blog. “I did, after all, help elect him. But there are some problems in the way he governs, and he needs to address them, or I fear he may not be governing after 2012.”

Others, primarily on the conservative side, faulted Obama for not doing enough to “win” the war and going against the recommendations of two high-ranking military commanders.

“So place your bets on how long it will be before Mullah Omar’s back in town,” objected Mark Steyn at the National Review after he declared that Obama’s timetable gave the Taliban a chance to rebuild. “And then ask yourself if America will have anything to show for its decade in Afghanistan that it wouldn’t have had if it had just quit two weeks after toppling the Taliban in the fall of 2001 and left the mullahs, warlords, poppy barons, and pederasts to have at each other without the distraction of extravagant NATO reconstruction projects littering their beautiful land of charmingly unspoilt rubble.”

“While the President is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, heeding wise counsel from his most senior military commanders is part of fulfilling that role,” wrote Ericka Anderson at the blog for the Heritage Foundation. “The President is under political pressure from his liberal base to withdraw troops and wind down the Afghan war as next year’s election inches closer. His announcement last week reveals he is basing the Afghan troop decision more on the domestic political calendar than the goal of achieving U.S. objectives there.”

There were some, though, that felt Obama should have stood up more to the military generals.

“What we are witnessing is one more example of failure of leadership, failure to stand up to the people Obama is supposed to be commanding,” concluded Rob Kall at OpEdNews. “Instead, he is, as people now expect him to do, ‘listening to the Generals.’ That’s not what Obama was elected to do. He was elected to make hard decisions.”

While in the distinct minority, a few people applauded Obama’s decision.

“Thank you, President Obama, for announcing that we will be getting out of Afghanistan,” cheered Foster Dickson at Pack Mule for the New School. “It’s pretty hard for ordinary people to wrap our heads around $113,000,000,000, which is what our nation will spend in Afghanistan in 2011.”

A number of bloggers reprinted the text of a June 26 piece by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne who defended Obama’s attempt at taking a practical, middle road.

“Prudence went on vacation during the administration of the second President Bush, but it’s back as the hallmark of President Obama’s approach to foreign policy,” Dionne wrote. “The administration is stuck making a case whose only virtue is that it might turn out to be right. The United States has done what it could to improve the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. We have to decide whether this commitment will end or whether there will be an endless series of ‘fighting seasons’ in which we need to give it one more try.”

The Rest of the Week on Blogs

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, the top stories were a mix of domestic spending issues, global warming, and the release of a renowned artist from prison.

The second-largest story, with 18% of the links, was a study showing that California taxpayers had spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978. The study, conducted by a judge and a law professor, concluded that since there have been 13 executions during that time, the cost works out to $308 million for each one.

For a state that is facing dramatic budget problems, bloggers agreed that this expense was untenable.

“This budget item is sadly impressive,” wrote inner monologue is on speaker. “Unsustainable. California spends more on incarceration than education.”

“There’s no question that California’s death penalty is dysfunctional and that the only thing it’s killing is our economy,” added James Clark, a field worker for the ACLU, on The Huffington Post. “The experts know it, the voters know it, and our elected leaders need to acknowledge it.”

An Associated Press story about Al Gore’s criticism of President Obama for his lack of leadership on the issue of global warming was third, at 10%.

“Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis,” Gore wrote in an essay that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. “He has not defended the science against the ongoing withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community…to bring the reality of the science before the public.”

China’s release of Ai Weiwei, a dissident artist and activist, from prison on bail after being held for two months without formal charges was the No. 4 story at 9%. Weiwei had attracted international attention for his criticism of the Chinese authorities and had been the subject of a segment on PBS’ Frontline in April.

And a Los Angeles Times story about State Controller John Chiang’s decision to deny state lawmakers pay for failing to produce a balanced spending plan was the fifth-biggest story at 8%.


On Twitter, the two largest stories involved the issue of online hacking and security.

Stories about a security breach regarding Dropbox, one of the most popular web sites to share and sync files, were the top subject with 28% of the links. The site admitted that a bug resulted in unfettered access to all of its 25 million customers’ online storage lockers on Sunday, June 19, for a period of four hours.

Twitter users took to the social networking site to warn others about the lapse in security.

“For four hours on Sunday, anyone could get in any of Dropbox’s 25 million accounts using any password,” retweeted a number of Twitterers while linking to the Wired story on the event.

A worldwide hacking group known as LulzSec, which claimed responsibility for hacking large organizations around the world including the U.S. Senate and companies such as Sony, was the second-largest subject at 13%. Many Tweets linked to a story by the British Sun newspaper that announced a “nerdy teenager” named Ryan Cleary was arrested in Essex for supposedly running the operation.

A study by German college students that suggested that the brains of people who live in urban areas are more susceptible to stress than those that live in rural areas was third, at 8%.

At No. 4, with 5%, was a gruesome story about the arrest of a California mother after investigators discovered her baby likely died from burns suffered in a microwave oven.

And a report by Britain’s newspaper The Independent about accusations that the government of Bahrain systematically tortured patients in hospitals that were suspected of participating in anti-government demonstrations was the fifth story, also at 5%.


On the video sharing site YouTube, the June 15 riots in Vancouver, British Columbia, following the loss of the city’s hockey team, the Canucks, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals drew significant attention last week. Four of the top five videos focused on the chaotic events.

The top video, posted by Russia Today, shows angry fans setting cars and garbage on fire, smashing windows, and throwing beer bottles at the plastic shields of Vancouver police.

The No. 3 video shows rioters smashing a mini car and a man attempting to intervene while repeatedly saying, “This is our city.”

The fourth video, titled “Global News – Vancouver riot participant apologizes,” is no longer available because the uploader has closed his/her YouTube account.

And the No. 5 video is footage that aired on CBC News showing a car on fire with voice-over comments on the frenzied situation.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of June 18 – 24, 2011

1. Footage from June 15 of angry Vancouver fans setting cars on fire after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup Finals
2. A video of NBC’s lead-in to the U.S. Open which removed the phrase “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance (The video has since been removed from YouTube)
3. Video of a Vancouver man standing up for his city during the Vancouver riots
4. A clip entitled “Global News – Vancouver riot participant apologizes” which is no longer available
5. More video of the Vancouver riots that aired on CBC news


About the New Media Index

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.

About This Report

This special edition of the NMI adds software technology from Crimson Hexagon to PEJ’s ongoing tracking of most linked-to news stories in social media. Using this software, the Project can examine a much larger mix of social media conversation.

According to Crimson Hexagon: “Our technology analyzes the entire social internet (blog posts, forum messages, Tweets, etc.) by identifying statistical patterns in the words used to express opinions on different topics.”  Information on the tool itself can be found at http://www.crimsonhexagon.com/ and the in depth methodologies can be found here http://www.crimsonhexagon.com/products/whitepapers/.

The time frame for the analysis is June 23-28, 2011, which is different than the normal NMI week, Monday through Friday.

For the analysis of blogs, PEJ used the following keywords in a Boolean search to narrow the universe to relevant posts:

Obama AND Afghanistan