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Once Again, Interrogation and Torture Drive the Online Debate

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 Foxnews.com 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.)

Once Again, Interrogation and Torture Drive the Online Debate