Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Once Again, Interrogation and Torture Drive the Online Debate

PEJ New Media Index May 11-15, 2009

The polarizing issue of what defines torture dominated social media last week, marking the third time since the beginning of April that the subject has been among the top-two weekly stories in the blogosphere. From May 11-15, almost a quarter of the links (23%) on blogs and social media sites related to the  debate over harsh interrogation techniques, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The commentary online spread across two main areas of debate: Whether harsh interrogation techniques help keep the country safe, as former Vice President Dick Cheney has repeatedly suggested in a series of media interviews, and whether President Obama should release photographs of reported abuse of prisoners.

In the latter case, Obama experienced somewhat rare criticism from left-leaning bloggers who were disappointed with his decision to not release photographs involving U.S. soldiers and their prisoners.

Beyond the issue of torture, last week’s most discussed topics online were a diverse mix ranging from remarks by a Saudi judge to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to health care reform.

The second largest story online, with 11% of the links, was a CNN report that quoted a  Saudi Arabian judge saying it was okay for husbands to slap their wives if they spend too lavishly. The comment was universally condemned online with many bloggers connecting it to other examples of the mistreatment of women in that country.

The third most linked to story took a somewhat lighter tone, the May 9 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner (10%) where President Obama performed his first comedic monologue as Commander-in-Chief to mostly positive reviews. Some bloggers, however, felt Obama had reacted inappropriately to controversial jokes told by the mistress of ceremonies, comedienne Wanda Sykes.

Fourth (at 8%) was a report on about the Andersons, a family living in Chicago that decided to only patronize black-owned businesses for a year as an “Empowerment Experiment.”

Health care policy and Obama’s May 11 health care summit rounded out the top five (7% of links). Some of the discussion revolved around a May 10 New York Times column by Paul Krugman applauding insurance companies’ willingness to participate in discussions about reforming the system. Social media also focused on a May 8 report in the Los Angeles Times that claimed the Obama administration was threatening to rescind stimulus money earmarked for California if wage cuts to unionized health care workers were not restored.

Two of the week’s top-five stories matched up in both the traditional press and social media-terrorism and interrogation techniques (22% in the mainstream press) and health care policy (6%). The other top stories in the mainstream press were the economic crisis (at 12% of the newshole), further troubles for the U.S. car manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler (5%), and continued developments in the war in Afghanistan (4%).

These are some of the findings of the PEJ’s New Media Index for the week of May 11-15, an effort to monitor the content appearing in new media platforms. The full methodology is described below, but this week, due to recurring technical problems with Technorati, the data comes primarily from Icerocket. (Data from Technorati was only available Monday, May 11, and Tuesday, May 12. The page was not functioning properly for the remainder of the week.)

Torture and Interrogation

The discussion among bloggers of U.S. interrogation techniques evolved with the story last week.

One focus was a Washington Post story on May 10 that included a suggestion that the Obama administration might declassify a 2004 CIA report. According to sources, the secret report detailed apparent excesses in interrogation procedures used against some prisoners who were not withholding information.

Some bloggers contrasted the Post report with statements made by former Vice President Dick Cheney who previously called for the release of other classified documents which he claimed would prove that harsh interrogations helped protect the country.

“Despite Richard Cheney’s rather bizarre reemergence-after being wrong about almost everything, he is now expects us to believe him about how to protect ourselves-the best evidence appears to be that torture gave the U.S. little good intelligence, and very little that might not have been gained through other methods,” wrote Doug Bandow.

“So, according to a report by the Inspector General of the CIA…” seconded Jim Johnson at (Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography,  “the torture policies that Dick Cheney desperately is trying to defend as both legally defensible and efficacious (in terms of generating ‘intelligence’ that proved useful in making Americans more secure–whatever that means) turn out to have been neither. No surprise there.”

Even more online commentary ensued after Obama announced on May 13 that he had reversed his decision and would no longer support the release of photographs that showed U.S. prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq. The President found himself in unfamiliar territory as many liberal bloggers expressed outrage at the move.

“It’s always disappointing to see someone you like do something you don’t like,” declared Poljunk. “As much as I like President Obama, I voted for him knowing full well that he would occasionally disappoint…For the moment, the decision to try to withhold the photos makes the Obama Administration a sort of passive co-conspirator with the Bush Administration in an attempt to keep the truth in the dark.”

“Refusing to release the rest of the prison abuse photos is the probably the first big dissappointment Obama’s delivered,” added Nik at Gheby. “These were actions by the US government, and by extension the US people, and I for one want to know what was done in my name.”*

Conservative bloggers felt the specific decision was the right one, although they still criticized the White House for changing positions, or as it often called, flip-flopping.

“President Obama appears to be flipping on whether the White House will release the pictures of ‘abuse’ that they have been threatening for weeks,” wrote Neoavatara. “Someone, apparently one of the few adults in the administration, realized that this would endanger our servicemen overseas. Well, duh. Right wing pundits have been screaming this for months.”

“This adoption of Bush policies opposed by Obama on the campaign trail appears to be a developing habit,” argued John Allison, III at America, You Asked For It! “Keep your fingers crossed and maybe he’ll adopt one more and keep Gitmo open since no other country seems to want the abused terror suspects and we certainly don’t want them here. Okay, that may be too much wishful thinking.”

Saudi Judge Comment

On May 10, issued a report about a story in the Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily newspaper, which quoted a Saudi judge as saying that a husband could slap their wives if they spent too lavishly. The judge, according to the paper, used a hypothetical example of a husband giving money to his wife to purchase an abaya-a  black cover that women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear-only to have the wife spend more than the husband had intended. The remark quickly circulated among bloggers, sparking widespread condemnation.

“So, to put a value on how much a woman can spend on an item of clothing she’s required to wear and give her husband carte blanche to decide it’s frivolous is beyond whacked out to me,” suggested Chele Neisler at Moms Love Shopping. “I hope that someday all women of the world will be given the same rights as their male companions and at the very least be treated with respect and valued.”

“Isn’t it ironic that a woman can be punished for spending too much money on a garment that they are forced to wear to authenticate their status as secondary citizens in a patriarchal society,” pointed out Womanist Musings.

Obama and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

When Obama tried his hand at humor at the May 9 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he generated a number of positive, even gushing, reviews.

“America’s premier entertainer-in-chief Barack Obama did not disappoint at Washington’s annual Nerd Prom also known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this past Saturday night,” critiqued Democralypse Now. “There, this strange man calling himself Barack Obama and claiming to be the president, brought the 2,500-3,000-strong (depending on who you ask) journalist-and-celeb-filled house down with wit, charm, and enough zingers to go around.”

“He’s got better writers than John Stewart,” complimented Vox Popoli.

The President’s laughter at Wanda Sykes’ attack on conservative radio talkmaster Rush Limbaugh, which included her professed desire to see his kidneys fail, received a much more mixed reaction.

“What a low class way to behave,” disapproved BluegrassBulletin. “Then again, what should we expect from a second rate community organizer from the south side of Chicago.”

“Since when are comedians or anybody else suppose to tiptoe around Limbaugh?” asked Talking Stuff. “Especially after all the hate he spews towards others? Do they bitch and moan about his everyday routine on the radio including his mocking of Michael J. Fox?”

Top YouTube Videos

The PEJ New Media Index also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week. And last week clips of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner overwhelmed all other news videos.

The top five most viewed clips last week were all from that event. In many ways, this was reminiscent of the 2006, when comedian Stephen Colbert’s performance there became an enormously popular online sensation. The clips of the Colbert’s routine were viewed on YouTube a reported half-million times before C-SPAN ordered the clips removed.

The various excerpts of the performances by Obama and Sykes were viewed approximately 3 million times in the week following the dinner, demonstrating both the interest in the event and the viral nature of online videos.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

May 9 – 15, 2009

1. Part one of Obama’s comedic speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as aired on MSNBC

2. Part one of Sykes’ speech as aired on C-SPAN

3. Excerpt of Sykes’ monologue that includes the controversial jokes about Limbaugh

4. Part two of Sykes’ speech as aired on C-SPAN

5. Part two of Obama’s speech as aired on MSNBC


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 has launched the New Media Index as 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.

Two prominent Web tracking sites, Technorati and Icerocket, monitor more than 100 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of social media, using 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 (50 stories in all 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. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Technorati and Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press.

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.

While the News Coverage Index is comprised of primarily U.S.-based media outlets, the aggregators of blogs and other social media include both U.S. and non-U.S. blogs. In addition, stories that are linked to can be from non-U.S. sources. However, according to PEJ’s research over the last four months, the only non-U.S. news stories included in the top lists for Technorati and Icerocket have been the BBC (whose Web site is part of the News Coverage Index) and the Guardian.

The Project also tracks the most popular news video 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.

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information