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An ABC News story shows how strange “going viral” can be

The ABC had an unexpected viral hit last month. AAP

ABC News has now firmly established itself as the nation’s third most visited online news source, according to data from the Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX). But one specific ABC News story shows social media’s power to reach large and unexpected audiences.

A republication of a Conversation article exploring what the bible really has to say about same-sex marriage accounted for some 9,000 shares on the 24th of August, and nearly 16,000 for the entire month. ABC News saw 18,700 tweets in total on the 24th, which is nearly twice the number they can expect on an ordinary day.

But the story doesn’t end there. Some 15,200 of the tweets linking to this story are due to a single post written in Korean and retweeted widely. From an Australian marriage equality survey, to an Irish-based bible scholar to going viral in Korea, news on Twitter can sometimes travel in mysterious, roundabout ways.

Meanwhile, the version of this article published on The Conversation itself received only 300 shares on Twitter.

Australian Twitter News Index, Aug. 2017. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

Because of its paywall, The Australian’s articles are not usually widely shared on Twitter. But from mid-August onwards, a story on the role of Donald Trump’s alleged mafia links in the rejection of his 1987 Sydney casino bid was shared some 17,500 times. This amounts to 21% of all the tweets linking to The Australian throughout the month.

Here, too, we can observe several interesting developments in the redistribution of the story. From its local origins Australian users forwarded it to a variety of US-based political commentators, who shared the article in their own right. It’s a clear indication of how symbiotic the relationship between journalism and social media has now become: news outlets publish their stories, but social media users boost their visibility by circulating them through their own networks.

Australian Twitter News Index, Aug. 2017. Axel Bruns / QUT Digital Media Research Centre

But moving away from these viral stories, the other leading stories in August diverged notably.

In addition to its republished Conversation article, ABC News received a substantial number of Twitter shares for original content addressing topics as diverse as former Liberal minister Bruce Billson’s failure to disclose a lobby group salary during his time in parliament (3,200 tweets), a Radio National Background Briefing on the role of the Pine Gap installation in U.S. battlefield operations (2,000 tweets), medical findings suggesting that vitamin B3 supplements can prevent miscarriages (1,400 tweets), and the belated disclosure of free Foxtel subscriptions by senior federal politicians (1,400 tweets).

At the Sydney Morning Herald, meanwhile, the focus of the most tweeted stories is a great deal more narrow, largely revolving around refugee policy and the same-sex marriage survey. Here, the prominent stories include early reporting on the government’s cancellation of income support for asylum seekers (3,600 tweets), the federal immigration minister’s labelling of asylum seekers’ lawyers as “un-Australian” (2,500 tweets), the Catholic church’s threat to dismiss staff entering into same-sex marriages (1,800 tweets), former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs’s attack on the “post-truths” peddled by the government (1,700 tweets), and the lack of regulations against malicious campaign material in the lead-up to the marriage equality postal survey (1,600 tweets).

Whether it is deliberately driven by news editors or determined by social media users voting with their tweets, we see in this a gradual diversification of these outlets’ roles in the social media news landscape. ABC News remains the news generalist while the Sydney Morning Herald becomes a specialist for the coverage of federal politics. Whether this arrangement persists only while specific issues and debates are prominent remains to be seen.

Total visits to selected Australian news and opinion sites, Aug. 2017. Data courtesy of Hitwise, a division of Connexity.

Beyond social media, however, online news readership trends do not mirror these patterns. Here, continues to reign supreme and the Sydney Morning Herald leads the best of the rest. ABC News has now firmly established itself as the third most visited Australian news site.

According to the Hitwise data on total site visits per month (as you can see in the chart above), ABC News pulled ahead of Nine News for the first time in June this year and has remained in a solid third place since.

This shift is unrelated to any short-term viral news trends. This dataset counts only site visits from Australian users, so the unexpected Korean audience for ABC News’ bible story would not figure here. And even major viral stories would account only for a small subset of the total number of visits to a news site.

Total visits to selected Australian news and opinion sites, Aug. 2017. Data courtesy of Hitwise, a division of Connexity.

This makes ABC News’ upward trajectory all the more remarkable. In fact, even though the online news market in Australia is relatively stable, what we see here is a genuine flow of online audiences towards the ABC in recent months. Time will tell whether this is as high as ABC News can go – or whether eventually even the Sydney Morning Herald might come into reach.

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