On Wednesday, August 4, U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that California's ban on same-sex marriages, otherwise known as Proposition 8, was unconstitutional. This marked the first time a U.S. judge had made such a declaration under federal rather than state law.
Online, the ruling prompted a blizzard of commentary among bloggers, who overwhelmingly cheered the news. It also demonstrated how people coalesced around a single issue can create a significant and influential voice in social media.
For the week of August 2-6, more than a quarter (27%) of the news links on blogs were about the same-sex marriage ruling, according to the New Media Index produced by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Most bloggers commenting on the story celebrated the decision as a victory for equal rights, and some made personal connections to their own lives. A few voices, however, objected to the ruling, often arguing that it was unfairly overturning the will of the people of California.
The issue of gay rights has been a frequent subject of discussion in the blogosphere as measured by PEJ's Index. For example, the week of March 1-5, the issue of gay rights and the Catholic Church was the top story, representing 16% of the news links in blogs studied. The month before, February 1-5, gay rights issues, including the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell," were also a major subject of discussion finishing third with 13%. Overall, last week marks the seventh time the subject finished in the top five since PEJ began its New Media Index in January 2009.
And on most of those occasions, the majority of commentary has been from those supportive of expanding gay rights.
The second-biggest story on blogs last week, accounting for 20% of news links, was the controversy over the website WikiLeaks which had released more than 90,000 secret documents related to the war in Afghanistan. Interest was sparked by a strongly-worded Washington Post column by Marc Thiessen that declared WikiLeaks a "criminal enterprise." Bloggers overwhelmingly came to WikiLeaks' defense, many of them arguing the website had performed an important watchdog role by releasing information the government did not want public.
The relationship between blogs and the mainstream press is often dynamic and complicated. But in regard to the WikiLeaks controversy, bloggers were about a week behind the traditional press in drawing attention to it, reacting as much to the debate about the story as the story itself.
During the week of July 26-August 1, when the news of the leaked documents first broke, the topic was a major subject in the mainstream press, finishing as the No. 2 story that week and filling 13% of the newshole studied, according to PEJ's News Coverage Index. Much of the focus was on its findings suggesting that the U.S. was facing a difficult challenge in Afghanistan. That same week, social media did not address the issue as significantly. The subject was not among the top subjects discussed on blogs or Twitter.
This past week, however, bloggers engaged with the WikiLeaks controversy enough to make it the second-largest story in social media. In the traditional press, by contrast, the subject had fallen to the point that it was not among the top ten subjects discussed.
The next three biggest subjects on blogs last week were all hot political issues.
At No. 3, with 13% of the links, was a USA TODAY/Gallup poll showing waning support for President Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan.
The subject of the Bush tax cuts which are set to expire at the end of the year was No. 4, also at 13%. Bloggers highlighted two Washington Post pieces on the subject: a story by William G. Gale, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which described five common myths about the tax cuts, and a column by Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria advocating for letting the tax cuts expire.
Fifth, at 10%, was a Los Angeles Times column by conservative writer David Klinghoffer, which bemoans the shift of the conservative political movement from visionaries and intellectuals to one that now leans toward "demagoguery and hucksterism."
On the social networking site Twitter, a wide variety of stories from around the globe garnered attention. And though the leading topic roster on Twitter is often heavily weighted toward technology subjects, this week only one of the five top stories fell into that category.
With 21% of the week's links, the top Twitter subject was news that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett had convinced 40 of America's billionaires to give away as much as half of their wealth to various charities. Most of the comments on Twitter were supportive of the perceived generosity, although a few skeptics voiced doubt.
Second, at 16%, was a short story from the Associated Press about a Mexican newborn that was declared dead, only to be discovered alive after her parents heard noises coming from inside the tiny casket during her wake.
Stories that Google had announced it was stopping development of Google Wave, a real-time collaboration tool, were third at 9%. That was followed by a BBC report saying that the meat from the offspring of a cloned cow had become part of the British food chain last year, at 7%. The fifth-biggest story, at 5%, was the news that musician Wyclef Jean had announced his bid to become president of Haiti. Most Twitterers were supportive of the star's political aspirations.
Prop 8 Overturned
The majority of bloggers who discussed the judge's ruling overturning California's Prop 8 cited coverage from the Los Angeles Times as a primary news source, whether it was an article reporting the judge's decision, or excerpts from that ruling published on the Times' site.
The consensus online was clear; most bloggers cheered the announcement.
"The alleged moral superiority of one American citizen can not be a rational basis to discriminate against another American citizen: that's why they call it the Equal Protection clause," cheered Faithful Progressive. "It is especially gratifying to see the ruling come from a Republican appointee."*
"I have only contempt for those who would take away the civil rights of others out of pure hatred and spite," added Emote Control. "The court battle isn't over, and it'll probably go to the supreme court, but this is certainly a milestone."
"Loving Couples 1--Bedroom Police 0," proclaimed funnygurusdca.
Some bloggers personalized the news.
"I saw the headline when I got back from lunch, and I got a little bit teary," shared theletterkae. "California will regain its reputation for being a crazy liberal place, and I can hold my head up again in front of Iowa. Most importantly, my two gay uncles (one on each side) have the right to marry."
While in the minority, a few objected to the decision.
"Judge Walker's ruling says that California ‘has no interest in differentiating between same-sex and opposite-sex unions.' If that were true, there would have been no possibility for Proposition 8 to have passed. Yet it did pass," argued Mark Heuring at True North. "If a federal judge can decide that the people of California don't know their own minds, we are at a point where the will of the people means nothing."
"To my knowledge, no culture has ever recognized gay marriage prior to the last decade or so," wrote RKBentley at A Sure Word. "In other words, heterosexual marriage is the assumed model... It's the gay marriage crowd that wants to change the laws and allow the thing that has never existed in history past."
Marc Thiessen's Washington Post column condemning WikiLeaks for releasing secret documents about Afghanistan was widely criticized online.
"Suffice it to say that the publication of classified U.S. government documents about the floundering imperial effort in Afghanistan illustrates the value of the Website/organization and its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange," declared Disloyal Opposition. "Private watchdog efforts like WikiLeaks are absolutely vital, and you better believe I support them in any conflict they may ever have with a government."
"But we, the public, deserve to know the truth about what's being done in our name, and not just because we're funding these wars and it involves soldiers from our communities," pronounced the site pakiwiki.blogspot.com. "It was the lack of transparency that pushed us into Iraq and destabilised Afghanistan even further."
"I remain a bit perplexed that the mainstream media establishment has not come out in support of WikiLeaks," admitted Anthony Moretti, Ph.D. "Perhaps they remain more than a bit miffed that their credibility is deemed to be in sufficient question that an angry, misguided military man would turn to a media outsider to vent his fury."
The Billionaires' Pledge
Most of the response on Twitter to the news that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were among 40 American billionaires promising to give significant portions of their wealth to charity was positive.
"Even the worlds richest people have discovered that it's far better to give than to receive!" tweeted Brayden Sutton.
"Simply share the news about the billionaires new Network launch with everyone you know, before someone else does," added Debbie Yoerg.
There were, however, a few who expressed skepticism.
"Yeah the billionaires are giving away half there money to bad it won't go to help anyone that's starving or sick in this country," expressed Melvin Horner.
"40 billionaires rob the middle class into non-existence and give it away to the poor. Probably the same people," declared NoThxAA.
Sometimes Internet stars get born out of unexpected circumstances.
Last week, Alabama resident Antoine Dodson went from the subject of a local news report to a viral video star almost overnight. Two of the five most viewed video clips on YouTube featured Dodson.
On the evening of July 28, a suspect broke into Dodson's apartment and tried to attack his sister. Dodson rushed into the room and the suspect fled. A local television station, WAFF, produced a story on the incident that featured an animated interview with Dodson who warned his neighbors about a rapist on the loose and threatened the unknown perpetrator. (To see the original unedited news report, click here.)
Within hours, the clip became a social media phenomenon as it received thousands of views on YouTube and Facebook. Many found Dodson's demeanor and exaggerated warnings comical, and a number of parody videos followed.
The No. 1 news clip on YouTube last week was one such parody as the Gregory Brothers, a musical group best known for producing a series of viral videos called "Auto-tune the News," created a music video that turned Dodson's words into a catchy song.
The fifth video was a follow-up news report about Dodson's new-found celebrity by WAFF television. The report mentions that Dodson's fame had already resulted in a Facebook page, a line of t-shirts, and even a cell phone ring tone.
Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
1. An "auto-tune" musical parody produced by the Gregory Brothers of an interview featuring Antoine Dodson
2. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) angrily criticizes Republicans on the floor of the House during the debate over a health care bill for 9/11 responders.
3. Leaked raw footage from 2008 of CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric mocking the names of Sarah Palin's children
4. Footage of a bus sinking into a Paris river after it rolled off a curb
5. A follow-up news report about Antoine Dodson's new-found celebrity by WAFF television
Note: Due to a capturing error, the lists from Monday, August 2, were not included in this week's sample.
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 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 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.