The ever-expanding British phone hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch's media empire grabbed the attention of the Twitter universe last week in a way very few stories have. And they offered virtually no sympathy to the beleaguered Australian magnate.
For the week of July 4-8, fully 53% of the news links on Twitter were about the scandal, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. This was more attention in a single week than any topic on Twitter in the past 10 months. And it registered the sixth-biggest subject overall since PEJ began monitoring Twitter in July 2009.
The episode unfolded when employees of Murdoch's News of the World tabloid were accused of hacking the cell phones of a number of people including the victims of terrorist attacks, dead soldiers, and a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and killed. Amid a political outcry and the launching of investigations, Murdoch quickly shuttered that paper and on July 13 with the scandal widening, his News Corp. dropped its $12 billion bid to take over British Sky Broadcasting.
Twitter users followed a number of different aspects of the story last week, from the accusations that the tabloid hacked the phones of the families of victims of the July 7, 2005 subway attacks in London to the word that the News of the World was closing in response to the scandal. As with most subjects on Twitter, the majority of posts simply linked to a relevant news article without comment. However, a number of people added remarks criticizing the paper and the Murdoch news empire in general.
"How about people boycott the NOTW [News of the World] indefinitely?" tweeted Ian Roullier. "It's not like anyone will learn any less by not having it in their lives."
The tabloid controversy registered as the No. 3 story in the mainstream press last week (6% of the newshole according to PEJ's News Coverage Index). But that was far from the intensity seen on Twitter.
In the blogosphere, the No. 1 subject last week-at almost a quarter of the news links on blogs, 24%-was the Iraq war. Bloggers focused on a report that the White House was preparing to keep as many as 10,000 troops in that country after the end of the year in order to prevent violence that might result from a complete withdrawal. Previously, President Obama said he would abide by a 2008 agreement that only about 200 troops would remain in Iraq after 2011 as advisors.
Iraq has been of significant interest to bloggers in recent weeks, even as it has fallen under the radar of most other media. Last week marked the second time in less than a month that the war was the top subject on blogs. From June 13-17, the outrage over the discovery that billions of dollars intended for the country's post-war reconstruction were missing was the leading subject, generating a whopping 54% of the links.
This past week, bloggers disagreed about whether the decision to keep troops in Iraq was the correct move. But most of the comments came from conservatives who criticized President Obama for breaking his pledge to withdraw all troops by the end of 2011.
News of the World Hacking Scandal
On Wednesday, July 6, the day before the six-year anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in Great Britain, the BBC reported that the News of the World tabloid may have hacked phones belonging to bombing victims. This news, coming on the heels of the revelation that News of the World hacked the phone of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, resulted in an overwhelming response on Twitter.
Users overwhelmingly disparaged the actions attributed to the paper.
"NotW phonehacking scandal continues: 7/7 victims said to have been targeted...Really, where do they draw the line?" wondered Tiffany Phan.*
"Soon nothing will surprise me by what NOTW have done and that's a very bad place to be," admitted Emma Haslem."
"In the most foetid nook of the ninth circle of Hell, there's a chemical toilet reserved for an editor's head," added Chris Miller.
After the British paper The Independent summarized the growing crisis facing the tabloid and Rupert Murdoch's entire media empire, Twitterers turned their ire toward the prominent mogul himself.
"Looks like Mr Murdoch is not having a great time!" cheered Clayton J. White.
"Hopefully this is the beginning of the end for Murdoch!" applauded Mad Masked Maiden.
"Wrong to enjoy and exploit another families misery. But since the #NoW has done it 2 so many, I'm making an exception," wrote Spencer G.
And the news that the paper was closing did not pacify these social media users.
"News of the World to close amid hacking scandal...good riddance to bad rubbish!" wished Donna Abberley.
"If those allegations of hacking are true, this is just a disgrace to #journalism," pronounced Micha Tobia.
A number of people also linked to a Reuters column that quoted a lawyer, Mark Stephens, speculating that if Murdoch's tabloid is shut down, the company may not be obligated to retain documents related to criminal claims-even in cases that have already begun. If the tabloid is liquidated, Stephens claimed, it might be a victory for Murdoch because his company could destroy evidence that might further incriminate them.
This possibility led to even more outrage.
"Genius! By killing #NOTW Murdoch can legally destroy evidence of other potential crimes," responded Aymeric Beep.
"Wow. Is the whole NOTW closure just a way to destroy the evidence? Orchestrated 'win' for us actually a win for Murdoch?" wondered Neville Doyle.
Finally, a significant amount of attention was paid to a CNET story where Kevin Mitnick, a security consultant who previously spent time in jail for hacking, demonstrated how easy it is to hack someone's phone, an activity known as "phreaking."
This tech-angle of the News of the World story led tweeters to warn others that this could happen to them.
"Do you phreak? That's what they call hacking into cell phones. Why is it so easy?" questioned Celeste Headlee.
"Hacking legend Kevin Mitnick's suggestion: change your mobile phone settings to require a PIN when checking voice mail," conveyed FC Research.
"Are your security policies keeping up with the latest threats?...Phreaking can be prevented with simple security steps," warned Jeff Kramer.
Rest of the News on Twitter
Last week was an unusual one on Twitter. Instead of technology which often dominates, the top four stories dealt with international affairs-including the British tabloid episode.
The No. 2 story was another British-focused issue, albeit one of a much different tone. The debate over the costs of social services in England received 8% of the news links.
Users highlighted two specific BBC articles, one about a report by Labour MP Graham Allen which concluded that unless more money is spent to help children from deprived backgrounds, society will suffer "immense penalties." The other covered an independent report recommending individuals not have to pay more than £35,000 in their lifetime for social care, support given to the elderly and people with disabilities. Any costs over that amount, the report suggests, should be covered by the government.
The No. 3 story (4%) was a Time magazine article about how Chilean President Sebastián Piñera-best known for his role in the rescue of 33 trapped miners last October-has lost popularity in recent months due largely to problems with the nation's education system.
The execution of Mexican national Humberto Leal in Texas, despite attempts by the White House and Mexican authorities to get a last-minute reprieve, was the fourth-biggest story, at 3%. Leal had been convicted of raping and killing a girl in 1995.
Only the No. 5 story, a report about how Facebook and Microsoft are working together to compete with Google (3%), involved social media and technology.
A Los Angeles Times report indicating that the White House is preparing to keep as many as 10,000 troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year generated a strong reaction in the blogosphere.
Some felt that a continued presence there was the right thing.
"Frankly, I've always felt that keeping a permanent force in Iraq made sense and would protect US interests in the region," wrote Silvio Canto Jr.
Others, even some who admitted to supporting the Iraq War when it began in 2003, questioned the current mission.
"What we have today is a war-torn country that we are rebuilding. What we have is a country that we are pushing democracy on," explained Josh Arrowood. "Our foreign policy needs to be built completely on what is best for the United States...I am not sure leaving troops indefinitely and rebuilding does that."
Most of the commentary, however, came from bloggers who chided the president for breaking a campaign pledge.
"Obama promised to remove ALL troops from Iraq by the end of 2011?" wrote Gregor Mendel. "It was just another convenient lie...I think it shows just how much of a rookie Obama was and is. Experienced people would never make such a stupid and rash statement. But you fools did elect him."
"Why would anyone believe anything he said?" asked Bill Roberts at Daily Brisk.
"Every statement Obama makes has an expiration date," concluded Rob Port at Say Anything Blog.
The Rest of the Week on Blogs
Beyond the debate over troop strength in Iraq, bloggers focused on a variety of domestic issues last week.
A government warning about the threat of terrorists surgically implanting explosives into people in an attempt to circumvent TSA screening procedures was the second-largest story, at 11%. Bloggers mocked the news as a ridiculous example of overreach by security officials.
"Granny, if you thought your diaper was a problem, just wait," warned MaxRedline. "This is an agency that needs to be eliminated-they aren't pro-active, they're reactive. And to the detriment of all."
"My country has gone absolutely, spectacularly, stark-raving mad, assaulting law-abiding travelers under the guise of protecting them," agreed Jennifer Abel at Ravings of a Feral Genius.
The financial troubles facing the campaign of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich were third, at 8%.
Fourth, at 6%, was the cleanup of an Exxon Mobile oil spill in Montana's Yellowstone River.
And news that the Secret Service will investigate the hacking of Fox News' Twitter account that resulted in false postings that President Obama had been assassinated was fifth, at 4%.
The video, posted by Russia Today, shows a giant wall of dust which dramatically reduced visibility and grounded a number of airplanes. While sandstorms are not uncommon in Arizona this time of year, the size of this particular one was highly unusual.
The No. 2 video featured the dramatic conclusion of the Casey Anthony murder trial, which was the second-largest news story in the mainstream media last week. The ABC News footage focused on Casey and her reaction while the verdicts were read by the trial clerk. Anthony was found not guilty on the most serious charge, first degree murder, which surprised many observers.
Most Viewed News
& Politics Videos on YouTube
1. Video of the July 5 sandstorm moving through the city of Phoenix, Arizona
2. Florida jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her daughter on July 5
3. Video showing city mayor Duterte punching the sheriff of the Davao Regional Trial court over the demolition of shanties in Davao City, Philippines
4. A French-language news video showing French president Sarkozy being assaulted during a June 30 appearance in Lot-et-Garrone, France
5. BBC video showing the Labour leader Ed Miliband repeatedly expressing his disapproval over the strikes by public sector workers around the UK
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.
Paul Hitlin and Sovini Tan, PEJ