July 28, 2011

Bloggers Assess Motives of the Norway Attacker

PEJ New Media Index July 18-22, 2011

The dramatic July 22 attacks in Norway that resulted in the deaths of at least 68 people inspired a vibrant conversation in the blogosphere last week. While sympathy for the victims was significant, more time was devoted to conversations about the killer, Anders Behring Breivik, according to an analysis of social media conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In the six days following the attacks (July 22-27), the largest component of the conversation on blogs (38%) involved passing along breaking news and facts. Bloggers passed along tidbits of information in the hours that followed the two attacks and then continued to share information about the death toll, Breivik’s history and the developments in his prosecution.

But fully 20% of the conversation focused on the motives and ideology of Breivik himself, a 32-year-old Norwegian who admitted he committed the murders in an attempt to “save” Norway and Western Europe from a Muslim takeover.

The most common view about him at 15% of the total conversation was that he was a right-wing extremist. As more details about the shooter emerged, including the text of his 1,500 page manifesto, bloggers attached right-wing extremism to his motivations. A number of bloggers also tied his views to those of conservative political parties in Europe and the United States.

A less common assessment of Breivik’s motives, at 5%, fought back against that classification. These bloggers argued he was not a true Christian or conservative and instead was a follower of another ideology such as socialism.

Sympathy for the victims accounted for 16% of the conversation, as bloggers commiserated with those harmed in the attacks and for the country as a whole.

As is often the case with social media, a significant amount of discussion, 9%, consisted of criticisms of members of the mainstream press. In this instance, bloggers denounced those who jumped to the conclusion that the attacks were part of an Islamic terrorist plot, possibly connected to al Qaeda, before anything certain was known about the suspect. Many condemned journalists such as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin who declared the events should be “a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists.”

Slightly less conversation, 7%, connected the attacks and Islamic terrorism, in some cases defending the early assumption in the media that Islamic terrorists were behind it.

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 computer technology from Crimson Hexagon. Based on almost 52,000 blog posts, this report goes beyond the normal methodology of PEJ’s index of new media to look at the specific themes and tone of conversation on blogs related to the Norway attacks.

(The regular weekly list of most linked-to news stories on blogs and Twitter, and a write-up of the top news videos on YouTube, is available here. The Norway attacks did not appear in the lists of top subjects because it occurred late in the week.)

Breaking News

Minutes after the bomb went off in Oslo, bloggers began sharing what little facts where available.

“News I didn’t expect to read this morning: A huge explosion damaged government buildings in central Oslo on Friday including Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s,” wrote a blogger at epicmind.

As reports soon began surfacing about the subsequent shootings, it became clear the two events were linked. And many blogs, especially those connected with news-gathering organizations, became a source for information even as the details were coming in slowly.

“A Norwegian dressed as a police officer gunned down at least 84 people at an island retreat, police have said,” detailed Crewe Chronicle later. “Investigators are still searching the surrounding waters, where people fled the attack, which followed an explosion in nearby Oslo that killed seven.”

(The death toll was revised downward several days later, although the precise number is still uncertain.)

In the following days, a number of blogs reprinted stories from wire services about the suspect, and how he was going to be dealt with in court. A number of sites, for example, posted the text from a July 25 Reuters story about Breivik telling a Norwegian judge that two more cells existed in his organization.

While there was little new reporting having to do with the attacks themselves on blogs, social media was still a place where users went to convey or receive current information.

Debate over Ideology

Almost immediately after the initial news spread, discussion online turned to motives and speculation about who was responsible. Many bloggers, along with some members of the traditional press, proposed it was an international plot by Muslim extremists.

“We don’t know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today’s events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra,” wrote Thomas Joscelyn at the blog for the Weekly Standard. “Prominent jihadists have already claimed online that the attack is payback for Norway’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan.”

“Naturally, this bombing will no more lead the Norwegian people to reconsider the wisdom of permitting Muslim immigration than the vast increase in the number of rapes committed by Muslim men. But it should,” insisted Vox Popoli. “…it is also a fact that if a nation does not permit Muslims to enter its borders, it is far less likely to ever suffer any such incidents.” (The site updated this post when more details about the assailant became known.)

“Is there any chance this is an incident of internal domestic terror, somewhat like the Oklahoma City bombing?” asked Tom Maguire at Just One Minute. “I suppose there is always a chance, but this 2010 study based on Tweed data of 11,245 European terror incidents covering 1950 to 2004 tells me that Norway has had three such incidents in that time frame.”

However, after Breivik was identified and captured, details about his history-including the text of a 1,500 page manifesto he emailed to about 1,000 people-turned the conversation to his connection to conservative politics.

Many bloggers connected Breivik with right-wing political groups throughout Europe.

“He was a prolific contributor to extremist blogs and had ties to right-wing populists: The murderer from Norway did not, it would seem, come out of nowhere,” summarized Frank Patalong at Spiegel Online. “Rather, he had found an ideological home among those seeking to cleanse Europe of Islam and multi-culturalism.”

“In fact, ironically, it is parties and rhetoric that Breivik would have approved of that are making the most rapid strides in Europe,” added Juan Cole at Common Dreams. “Right wing parties that would once have been pariahs have been power brokers in Sweden and Finland, and Nicolas Sarkozy has borrowed so much rhetoric from the LePens that some accuse him of legitimizing them.”

Some bloggers drew parallels between Breivik’s views and those of American conservatives.

“The only difference between Anders Behring Breivik and the Wingnut Revolution in America is that Breivik acted,” charged Bryan Lambert at You Are Dumb. “Breivik thought Obama was a Marxist. Breivik thought radical Islam was taking over Europe…He hated multiculturalism…He hated communism. He called himself a ‘Christian crusader’. He hated feminism, and even took a shot at the ‘War On Christmas’.”

“There’s no doubt whatsoever that Anders Behring Breivik was seriously influenced by these people [conservative bloggers], and they know it. Their guilty consciences are showing,” concluded Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs.

While not as prevalent, there were some who claimed that Breivik was not actually a conservative or a true Christian. Instead, they insisted, he followed some other ideology.

“Mr. Breivik…is being called everything from a Christian to a war gamer to a neo-nazi to a right wing fanatic. No one is calling him a socialist, but that’s the society in which he grew up. Why deny the biggest influence in his life?” asked Norma at Collecting My Thoughts.

“It turns out, however, that Breivik-far from being a Christian-is a self-confessed apostate,” wrote John Tertullian at Contra Celsum before quoting from Breivik’s manifesto. “Rejecting the Christian faith he is–wait for it–an amoral fundamental Darwinist…Survival is where its at–and Breivik wanted to ensure that cultural secular Christendom (as he defined it) survived in Europe.”*

Sympathy for the Victims

Thoughts and prayers for those harmed by the attacks were widely articulated, especially as bloggers first learned about the tragedy.

“Our thoughts go out to the people of Norway and to the families of those killed. There are no words that can take away the hurt but just know that others in other countries are with you,” wrote Don at Canon Fire.

“Today it is a very terribly sad and incomprehensible day in our beautiful and beloved country, Norway ♥,” shared Norwegian blogger Ellen at ScrappEllen. “Life has, once again, proved to be very unpredictable and unfair! My thoughts go to all those people who are touched by this great tragedy, and I encourage you all to light a candle together with the whole world, and remind all the victims.”

“Today was the first day ever I felt an urge not to be here in California, so far away from the terrible things that struck my brother country Norway earlier today,” shared Perry at Games and the City. “We read 87 dead a few minutes ago. We pray that horrible number will stay like that. Take care everyone and love one another.”

Criticism of the Press

Condemnation of assumptions in the mainstream press and social media that the attack was the work of Muslim terrorists was another key part of the conversation. On blogs, the criticism of the premature speculation was slightly more present than the actual Islam-connection. About 9% of the blogosphere conversation consisted of this charge against the media compared to 7% that made the connection.

James Fallows at the Atlantic received a lot of attention for his critique of Jennifer Rubin’s initial response.

“This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too tedious to reserve judgment about horrifying events rather than instantly turning them into talking points for pre-conceived views,” Fallows wrote.

Others thought that members of the conservative press had ulterior motives.

“As early as a few minutes after the Oslo attacker was arrested by authorities, reports crawled across my twitter timeline claiming that the shooter was a tall blonde man,” recalled Bob Cesca. “We now know that was indeed the case, but that did not prevent virtually the entire Reich-Wing media-sphere from spending the next several hours speculating that it must be the work of Muslim extremists.”

“It’s interesting that almost everybody has stopped calling this a terror attack all of a sudden and media coverage has dropped off considerably. If Anders had turned out to be Muslim, wouldn’t we still be calling it terrorism?” asked Taylor Marsh.

A few bloggers who made an early connection with Islamic terrorism subsequently defended their posts.

“I did not assume this was an act of islamo-terrorism,” wrote Reliapundit at Astute Bloggers. “I accepted the first reports that islamists had taken credit for it at face value. This blog’s first post on it posed it as a question, and only after an islamist group took credit did we jump on the bandwagon. We regret it.”

“Early suspicion that the attacks might have been linked to a jihadist bombing plot in Oslo last year or the recent Norwegian prosecution of an Iraqi terrorist did not bear up,” responded Jennifer Rubin on her Washington Post blog Right Turn. “…at the time I believed the best working theory, given Norway’s recent experiences, was that it was jihadist-related. It nevertheless is a good reminder to all of us including myself that early reports are often wrong.”

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.

To see the results of PEJ’s normal NMI methodology for the week of July 18-22, click here.

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 July 22-27, 2011, which is different than the normal NMI week, Monday through Friday.

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

Norway OR Norwegian OR Breivik OR Oslo OR Utoya

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.