Report

PEJ New Media Index: In Social Media, Zombies and Cocaine are the Hot Topics

  • August 27, 2009

In a week when the mainstream press focused on health care reform, the economy and the war in Afghanistan, the conversation on both Twitter and blogs was dominated by a very different set of problems-zombie attacks and cocaine on U.S. currency.

For the week of August 17-21, the top story for bloggers was about Canadian researchers who conducted a mathematical exercise to see if a zombie attack would lead to the collapse of civilization. One-third (33%) of the top news-related links from blogs were to a single BBC story about the study, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The same story was the No. 3 subject on Twitter last week, receiving 14% of the news-related links from tweets.

The study authors claimed a serious purpose, saying a zombie "plague" might resemble a lethal spreading infection that could help scientists model what such a disease would look like. And while much of the online commentary was critical of the research, and even sarcastic, the attention to the topic seems to reflect an ongoing interest in social media in what might be called, for want of a better phrase, weird science. Over the past month, for example, some of the most linked-to stories by bloggers included an article about a meat-eating plant, research about the healing powers of blue dye found in M&Ms, and scientists who discovered that some cats have learned to manipulate their owners' emotions.

Another study that attracted social media attention last week came from a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who discovered that 90% of U.S. paper money contained traces of cocaine. The amount of the drug found on most bills was not enough to cause health problems, but the prevalence surprised many observers. This was the No. 1 story last week on Twitter with 19% of the week's links. And it was the sixth-largest story on blogs with 6% of their links.

Beyond the zombie study, the second-largest story on blogs (with 17% of the links) was the health care debate—the topic that dominated the mainstream media last week. Most of that attention focused on an August 16 Washington Post column by Rick Perlstein who compared the outrage expressed by opponents of health care reform to other historical examples of "right-wing rage."

Read the full report In Social Media, Zombies and Cocaine are the Hot Topics on the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.