With public opinion polls showing the American public fairly evenly split on the issue of same-sex marriage, many social media users last week voiced strong support for those unions. On Twitter and blogs last week, statements backing the right of gay couples to marry outnumbered those opposed by more than 2-to-1-continuing a trend that has surfaced before in social media.
For the week of May 7-11, Obama's comment on May 9 in favor of same-sex marriage was the No. 1 topic on blogs and the No. 3 subject on Twitter, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. An examination of the social media conversation reveals that while the president's pronouncement increased the amount of discussion online, it did not appear to alter the overall level of support.
To gauge the views of those on social media, PEJ used computer technology from the media monitoring firm Crimson Hexagon to identify the tone of the conversation on both Twitter and blogs. The examination included the period from May 6-the day that Vice President Joseph Biden voiced his support on Meet the Press-to May 13, five days after North Carolina voted down gay marriage and four days after Obama's statement. The study was not focused solely on Obama's interview, but rather the views related to gay marriage overall.
On blogs, 40% of the conversation featured positive views of same-sex marriage, compared to 14% that was opposed and 45% that was neutral. The Twitter numbers were very similar-41% was positive, 16% was negative and 43% was neutral.
The conversation in the blogosphere about same sex marriage grew by more than 60% following Obama's statement. In the three days prior to the interview, there was an average of around 2,500 statements a day regarding the issue. From May 9-13, that number jumped to more than 4,200 statements a day.
However, the levels of support did not change much at all. Prior to Obama's interview, 40% of the statements were in favor compared to 16% opposed and 44% neutral. In the later period, those numbers were virtually identical-40% in favor, 14% opposed, and 46% neutral.
On Twitter, the increase in discussion was far greater after Obama's statement, although the tone also remained constant. From May 6-8, there was an average of roughly 120,000 statements on Twitter compared to more than 315,000 from May 9 to 13. In both periods, however, the breakdown of that conversation was identical-41% in favor, 16% opposed and 43% neutral.
Same-sex marriage is a hot-button cultural topic that has sparked conversations on social media numerous times over the past few years. Since PEJ began monitoring social media at the beginning of 2009, there have been nine previous weeks when the subject was among the most discussed on blogs or Twitter.
In the past, the online debate has generally been fueled by an event or court ruling, such as the August 2010 decision by a California judge that Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriages in California, was unconstitutional. For the most part, supporters of same-sex marriage have outnumbered foes, although there was an exception in April 2009, when Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean received significant support for her public statements against same-sex marriage.
One likely reason for the level of online support is the younger demographics of social media users. For example, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 60% of adults using Twitter are 35 years old or younger. At the same time, an April 2012 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that younger people are more likely than any other age group to support gay marriage. Millennials, people born in 1981 or later, are the generation most likely to support same-sex marriage as 63% are in favor.
Before Obama's Announcement
Several events brought same-sex marriage to the fore in social media even before Obama's announcement. One was the May 6 statement by Biden that he was "comfortable" with the idea of people of the same gender marrying each other. That was followed the next day by a television appearance by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who indicated he also favored legalization of same-sex marriage.
Another was a May 8 vote in North Carolina on Amendment One, a law to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, civil unions and partnerships. (The measure passed by a 61%-39% margin.)
Supporters of same-sex marriage were cheered by Biden's remarks and voiced their opposition to the North Carolina amendment.
"Vice President supports gay marriage? Good for him for making that statement and backing it up, I am very proud of him!" tweeted Jason Evans.
"I also disagree with the notion that recognizing or legalizing same-sex marriages takes away from the validity of my marriage or threatens it in anyway," shared Emily, a North Carolinian blogger at Beware the Kudzu. "I will be voting against Amendment One this Tuesday."*
A few supporters were hoping that Obama would soon announce that he, too, would support same-sex marriage even though he had publicly opposed the concept.
"Thank you Arne Duncan for your support of Gay Marriage. Please President Obama we need your support," tweeted Chef Art Smith.
"How refreshing would it be to see President Obama set aside political calculation and support gay marriage?" wondered Harvey Freedenberg. "I'm not holding my breath."
But while marriage supporters were in the majority, the opponents spoke out as well.
"I support the [North Carolina] amendment," pronounced Sam Nnadi. "God's definition of marriage in very clear. Any attempt to redefine marriage is a sin."
"In a world where seeking marriage is seeking a community-endorsed way to have sex and bear children, the idea of same-sex marriage is like the idea of a square circle," explained Stephen J. Heaney at The Witherspoon Institute.
A number of Obama's critics focused more on his political positions than the issue itself, and claimed that his stance on the issue was a sign of weakness.
Some highlighted a May 7 article from the Daily Caller, reprinted on the Fox News site, entitled "Obama campaign hits Romney on gay marriage-even though both are against it." Others pointed to an editorial by Philip Klein in The Washington Examiner, also from May 7, called "Obama's marriage cowardice hurts case against Mitt."
After Obama's May 9 Announcement
Although the levels of support for gay marriage did not change after Obama's endorsement of it, the volume of the conversation grew significantly.
Most in the online community cheered the news.
"I'm for gay marriage. If you love somebody you should be allowed to marry them straight, gay whatever :)" tweeted Ayy Dayzers.
"The President made a bold-and I think brilliant move-in coming out in support of gay marriage today," added Lenora Houseworth.
"I have to say I'm really proud of how far my parents & other relatives have come in their tolerance of same-sex marriage," admitted @kissmydaisy.
"For the life of me, I'll never understand why people are so adamantly against Gay marriage. Or why they care. Or why people are so threatened by the very idea of it," declared The World's Beefiest Blog. "The laws of the United States are adjustable exactly because our founders had the foresight to know that times change. They knew that the people writing the laws were human, and could not possibly be expected to be exactly just at all times. They created avenues for course correction."
"So I support gay marriage," wrote a blogger at MoonScape. "And if one 60+ year old woman, brought up in a conservative small town, in a traditional marriage for 40+ years, can come to the conclusion that gay marriage poses no threat to her or to any other straight people who are married, or want to get married....how then can some still be foaming at the mouth?"
Many of those opposing same-sex marriage focused on Obama's motives in changing his position.
"Obama campaigns on gay marriage change, because of there is no hope left for his failed economic change," tweeted Dan Spencer.
"The bottom line on #Obama's flipflop? 1 in every 6 top donors to his campaign ($500K+) are #gay," read the Twitter feed from the National Organization for Marriage.
"Do you really believe his ‘evolving opinion' on the subject was changed because he sat down and thought about it?" asked American Glob. "If you do, I have a bridge to sell you. Obama changed his mind and spoke about it publicly because his base was losing patience with him on the issue and campaign contributions from gay donors were drying up."
Others reasserted their reasons for their opposition.
"I refuse to buck 4000 years of civilization that says marriage is between a man and woman. And now I'm the one who's arrogant?" tweeted Trevin Wax.
"In the Bible homosexuality is unquestionably called sin," noted GuitarWarp. "Seven passages in both the Old and New Testaments label it so and forbid it in any form...Homosexuality is something a loving God forbids. How can this be? He sees the danger even when we can't."
The Rest of the Week's News on Blogs
Elsewhere on blogs last week, two tech stories, an academic controversy and an actor in trouble were the most popular subjects.
The second-biggest story involved new products from Google, a very popular theme on blogs. Last week, Google announced Hangouts on Air for Google+, a way for friends to broadcast their group online conversations. Google also announced improvements for Google+ on mobile devices, and Business Insider reported that Google will clone a key feature of the iPhone for their Android devices that will allow users to connect with others while playing games.
At No. 4 was a blog post by Naomi Schaefer Riley appearing in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece included criticisms of dissertations from various black studies programs, saying they were "a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap." Following a strong backlash to the post, Riley was fired because The Chronicle determined the post did not meet their journalistic standards.
And sexual harassment allegations leveled against actor John Travolta were the No. 5 story.
The Rest of the Week's News on Twitter
On Twitter, the week's news was led by pop stars and a lapse of Twitter security.
Two all-male singing groups, Super Junior and One Direction, tied for first last week as videos and tweets from each band drew significant interest.
News that that 55,000 Twitter usernames and passwords were stolen by anonymous hackers was the fourth topic.
And a video promo for the season finale of the television show The Simpsons featuring an appearance by singer Lady Gaga was No. 5.
International political news dominated YouTube last week with the 2012 Mexican presidential election drawing the most attention. Unfortunately for the candidates, it was a former Playboy model working as a production assistant who stole the show during Mexico's first televised presidential debate on May 6.
At the beginning of the debate, Julia Orayen, who posed for a 2008 Mexican edition of Playboy, appeared on stage in a revealing white dress to hand out cards to the four candidates which determined their order of speaking. Her appearance lasted less than 20 seconds, yet ignited social media interest. The conversation grew so rapidly that the word "Orayen" became a trending topic on Twitter.
The Associated Press reported that her name "jockeyed for third and fourth place throughout the day under Twitter's Mexico City trends."
Alfredo Figueroa, director of the Federal Electoral Institute, which was responsible for organizing the debate, issued an apology to the citizens of Mexico and the candidates.
To see the new methodology for how PEJ arrives at the list of most discussed stories in social media, click here.
This special edition of PEJ's New Media Index utilizes computer technology from the media monitoring firm Crimson Hexagon. Based on an examination of more than 61,000 blog posts and 3.9 million tweets, this report goes beyond the normal methodology of PEJ's index to look at the tone of conversation related to same-sex marriage.
Crimson Hexagon is a software platform that identifies statistical patterns in words used in online texts. Researchers enter key terms using Boolean search logic so the software can identify relevant material to analyze. PEJ draws its analysis samples from several million blogs. Then a researcher trains the software to classify documents using examples from those collected posts. Finally, the software classifies the rest of the online content according to the patterns derived during the training.