Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Mosque Debate Continues to Galvanize the Blogosphere

PEJ New Media Index August 23-27, 2010

To a degree not seen in the mainstream press, the controversy over the lower Manhattan mosque has touched a raw nerve in the social media. Indeed, August 23-27 marked the third straight week that the intersection of politics, religion, terrorism, and 9/11 memories has made the issue one of the top subjects in the blogosphere.

For the week of August 23-27, almost a quarter (23%) of the news links on blogs were about the mosque, making it the No. 1 subject, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That marks the most attention to the topic since the mosque debate emerged among bloggers in early August.

In each of those three weeks, the debate narrative has been somewhat different. The first week was dominated by comments from opponents of building the mosque a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site. The next week, the other side weighed in as mosque supporters led the conversation. And last week, bloggers on both sides of the issue took part in a discussion that was as much about the motives of those having the argument as the mosque itself. Many supporters of the mosque claimed that opponents were motivated by politics or hatred of Islam, while other bloggers suggested that the charges of racism against Muslims were unfair.

The trajectory of the subject in the blogosphere reflects a significantly higher level of attention than in the mainstream press. While the controversy has generated major attention among bloggers for three weeks, the percentage of newshole devoted to the same topic has decreased each week in the traditional press according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

During the first week the controversy erupted as part of the national discourse (August 9-15), the topic filled only 2% of the mainstream press’ newshole. That same week in blogs, however, it was the No. 2 subject, at 18% of the week’s links. The next week, August 16-22, the story jumped to the top of both the agenda of the mainstream press (15% of the newshole) and blogs (14% of the links) as it seemed to consume a large amount of the public discussion that week.

Last week, however, as the story reached a high water mark for bloggers, it fell to 6% in the traditional press.

For those in social media, the challenging issues involved in the mosque controversy-religion, politics and terrorism-all struck passionate chords and contributed to the staying power of the issue online.  

The next top stories on blogs were all domestic issues, most of which had political overtones.

At No. 2, with 15% of the links, was an August 24 Washington Post article about House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-OH) call for a mass firing of the Obama administration’s economic team due to their inability to create jobs.

Third, at 12%, was a USA Today report about how budget cutbacks in some cities have forced local law enforcement agencies to cut back their responses to lesser crimes-to the point where some have asked residents to file their own reports online.

Multiple Washington Post articles previewing talk show host Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on August 28 in DC were fourth at 12%. One was an opinion column by Martin Luther King III contrasting his father’s ideology with that of Beck. The other was a news article saying that the rally will be a test of the Tea Party movement’s political strength.

Two subjects tied for fifth place on blogs with 6% of the week’s links, both of which were among the top stories the previous week. One was an in-depth statistical analysis by the Los Angeles Times that estimated the effectiveness of area school teachers (which was at 13% the previous week).The other subject included several stories about the Obama administration including a Washington Post report about a Pew Research Center poll showing that nearly 20% of the population believes the President is a Muslim-a subject that finished with 13% one week earlier. 

On the social-networking site Twitter, three technology stories were among the most popular topics.

The subject that got the most attention, with 13% of the news links, was the unveiling of Google’s new feature allowing users to make phone calls directly from their Gmail inbox. The reviews in the technical press were mostly positive and while a few Twitterers reported difficulties, the vast majority expressed excitement about the convenience and low cost of the new application.

Second, at 12%, were several stories about the British economy including a BBC report about a study claiming the new coalition government’s first proposed budget featured cuts that would disproportionately impact the country’s poorest families. 

News that the random video chat website, Chatroulette, was launching a “renewed and updated version” came third at 11%.

That was followed at 9% by a CNET article about Apple’s application for a patent that would prevent iPod owners from “jailbreaking” their devices, a technique used to allow users to run applications not approved by Apple. A month earlier, a similar story related to the legal aspects of jailbreaking was an even bigger on social media as it finished second on blogs that week at 10% and fifth on Twitter with 9%

And fifth on Twitter last week, at 6%, was news of a recall of Fruiti Pops frozen fruit bars due to a rare typhoid outbreak.

On YouTube, two international subjects received significant attention: elections in Brazil and the violent end to a hostage crisis in the Philippines.

Mosque Controversy

Karen Hughes, the former counselor to President George W. Bush, weighed into the controversy over the proposed Manhattan mosque with an August 22 op-ed in the Washington Post. Hughes expressed hope that the backers of the center would move it away from Ground Zero out of sensitivity to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Most bloggers who linked to Hughes’ piece disagreed with her view.

“Capitulating on Park51 is the easy thing to do. Nothing worthwhile in life is ever easy,” argued Zandar Versus the Stupid. “Build it. Show those who say that America is full of hate that hate can be conquered through real freedom.”


Some bloggers in favor of building the mosque pointed to other stories as examples of the hatred against Islam being spread by opponents. The Washington Post, for example, ran an article about a proposed Islamic center in Tennessee that was running into opposition from locals.

“One of the most under-reported political stories is the increasingly vehement, nationwide movement-far from Ground Zero-to oppose new mosques and Islamic community centers,” suggested Glenn Greenwald of Salon. “These ugly campaigns are found across the country, in every region, and extend far beyond the warped extremists who are doing things such as sponsoring ‘Burn a Quran Day.’”

Opponents of the mosque, however, felt the attacks on their motives were unfair. Some pointed to a Los Angeles Times column by Jonah Goldberg which used various crime statistics to show that attacks against Muslims are not occurring as often as is portrayed.

[Pew Research Center]

“Americans, far from being anti-Muslim, have treated Muslims in this country remarkably well since the attacks of 9/11,” stated John C. Wohlstetter of Letter from the Capitol. “It is because Americans are, in the main, nice decent people who go about their daily business and wish other people well in their lives. Their opposition to the Ground Zero project is based upon its intrusion on hallowed ground.”

Google’s Calling App

On Wednesday, August 25, Google unveiled its newest application-a chat application that allows users to make VoIP phone calls from their Gmail account or from within iGoogle. Both CNET and Wired published positive reviews of the service which a number of Twitter users linked to.

Many twitterers offered their own assessments of the new product, with the majority being impressed.

“Made my first call with Gmail Voice today,” wrote Andrew Goodale. “Pretty neat. I’m psyched to use this for the endless conference calls I’m often on.”

“Twice now I’ve answered my phone via Gmail’s Google Voice service, and I love how easy it is! Wasn’t expecting this kind of convienence!” admitted Ben Rose.*

“Convergence continues & I’m impressed. Gmail phone calls will be VERY useful for my business & partners,” added Matthew F. Reyes.

A small group reported minor troubles.

“gmail gets voice but I get ‘fatal error 1603’ :(” complained Gurmeet S. Lamba.

“After two days of delightful Gmail phone calls, it failed hard today when Google of all companies tried to call my Google Voice number,” noted Stephen Shankland.

And a few wondered what the application meant for the Google’s business.

“Why did Google add voice capability to Gmail–and what’s next?” asked RiaEnjolie, Inc.

“More on Google…headed straight to being largest telecomm comp in the world,” tweeted jfenderboa.


The top videos on YouTube last week had a distinctly international flavor.

Two of the top five videos were of unusual events related to national elections in Brazil. Finishing No. 1 was a collection of television ads in Portuguese for Tiririca, a clown who is running for Congress in Brazil. Tiririca, whose real name is Francis Everardo Oliveira Silva, dances to a catchy campaign song and asks for viewers to vote for him in the upcoming election.

Many Brazilian comedians and satirists have been protesting a recently passed law that forbids the country’s radio and TV broadcasters from making jokes about the candidates prior to the October 3 election.

The fourth video was a short clip of a prominent Brazilian politician accidentally using a four-letter word on television.

Two of the other top videos were about a much more somber subject: the August 23 hostage crisis in the Philippines that resulted in the death of eight tourists from Hong Kong. Both the second and fifth most-watched videos last week were of the dramatic ending to the standoff when snipers fired on and killed the gunman, a dismissed policeman who had demanded his job back.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of August 21-27, 2010

1. Television campaign ads for Tiririca the clown from Brazil

2. Raw footage from Russia Today of Philippine commandos storming a bus in Manila, ending the 11-hour standoff

3. A first-person video by Philip Defranco where he discusses his opinions on a range of issues such as celebrities and robots (Warning: the video contains crude language)

4. Brazilian presidential candidate José Serra accidentally uses a Portuguese curse word on television 

5. Live television coverage of the end of the Manila standoff from Filipino television

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.

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