Politics Opinion

Voice Referendum doomed by Coalition's digital manipulation

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The Coalition set Labor up to fail after laying the foundation for the Voice to Parliament and then sabotaging the Referendum with a destructive media campaign. John Haly and Dr Martha Knox-Haly report.

THE FAILURE of the Coalition’s Voice to Parliament has been an unusual congruence of events.

No doubt some of you will think we made a mistake in that first sentence. The Uluru page was created in 2017, during the Coalition Government’s tenure. The now resigned Coalition Minister, Ken Wyatt, as Indigenous Affairs Minister, submitted a final report in July 2021 to the Morrison Government, which designed and funded the Voice with $7.3 million.

The Morrison Government, under former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg‘s direction, subsequently included $160 million in the 2019 Budget for the Voice Referendum, assuring Australia a referendum within three years.

Frydenberg openly supported the Voice and expressed confidence that it would succeed:

“There is a willingness to enter into the debate to ensure our Indigenous Australians – our First Australians – get the recognition and the outcome that they deserve.”

The Coalition Government was not in power in 2023 and so the Labor Party took up the baton the Morrison Government handed over, in what looked initially like a carte blanche endorsement of this as a constitutional change. And yet, with the shattering defeat of the Referendum, the Labor Party appears to have either dropped the baton, or it was knocked out of their hands. How did the 60% support, which had been reasonably stable for a number of years, plummet in just five months?

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton announced that he would actively campaign against the Voice by 5 April 2023. In April 2023, the No campaign launched a ferocious media blitz through Advance Australia. The impact on Indigenous mental health would be devastating, according to 13Yarn tabling data, where calls reporting racism and abuse increased from 1,286 in 2022 to 2,124 in the current year to September 2023. Suicide calls and requests for assistance have surged.

Digital campaigners observed social media activity patterns never seen in an Australian political context. So, what precisely were these activists witnessing?

On 27 September, Alice Dawkins, the executive director of Reset.Tech (a non-profit organisation that advocates for stricter restrictions on digital threats to democracy), reported that a small number of new accounts distributing repurposed information content received an overwhelming amount of shares in their first days of operation.

Dawkins expressed concern that users of X could no longer select politics to identify falsehood in tweets. This could only be intentional, allowing X to continually reject the AEC’s attempts to remove tweets marked as disinformation encouraging a No vote. The comparable and repeated misconceptions across these tweets, according to Ed Coper, director of Populares, are a “telltale clue that these are organised networks”.

Associate Professor Timothy Graham’s research demonstrates the amazing distributional potential of the X social media platform. Graham, an associate professor of digital media at Queensland University of Technology, studied 246,000 Voice-related tweets between March 2023 and May 2023. A highly concentrated number of accounts generated No campaign content, with the top 100 accounts sending out one out of every ten tweets regarding the Referendum.

Yes campaigners attempted to counter falsehoods in the early months but found themselves in a digital tarpit attracting more views of the No campaign material. The top No campaign tweets were highlighted by disinformation regarding the proposed constitutional amendment’s provisions, as well as a focus on racism and racial divisiveness in order to instil fear about the Voice. As the Referendum date approached, the number of accounts advocating for a No vote climbed substantially faster than those advocating for a Yes vote.

Digital manipulation was also seen on non-English social media like WeChat. The Conversation examined Chinese voter’s WeChat habits. One user, Yamie Chew, started posting No campaign clips instead of pet photos at the end of September. Within 24 hours, the initial video had 10,000 reposts and 1,800 likes. In contrast, the AEC video garnered 25 views. Concerns about the Voice’s impact on Australia’s Constitution by No vote propaganda included racial apartheid, indigenous privilege, racial inequity, Chinese voters losing their homes and additional taxation to fund the Voice.

It is currently impossible to determine who the genuine proprietors of these personas and accounts were, and there would have been multiple stakeholders spreading misinformation. However, a review of the official No campaign organisation is instructive.

The AEC penalised Advance (the principal organisation for the No campaign) in 2019 for misrepresenting Independent candidate Zalli Steggall. According to Dr Jeremy Walker, Advance is funded by conservative think tanks such as the Institute for Public Affairs, Liberty Works, CPAC and the Centre for Independent Studies, as well as the Atlas Network. Beyond what Dr Walker wrote in Independent Australia, he wrote a far more extensive report in UTS ePRESS that can also be found on ResearchGate.

Dr Walker stated that the No campaign ‘shares characteristics, aims and methods of the long-standing Atlas Network backed disinformation campaign on climate change, motivated by fear that this will strengthen the capacity of indigenous communities and parliamentary democracy’.

The Atlas Network’s purpose is to create think tanks that generate a constant stream of disinformation. The overarching goals are to further capital’s political goals, abolish wage arbitration and unions, create climate disinformation and policy obstruction, delegitimise Indigenous self-determination consensus, and blame this on social welfare and collective land title. The Atlas think tanks advocate harsher penalties for climate change campaigners while opposing elections as a means of undermining democracy.

Mathew Sheahan, Vicki Dunne and Laura Bradley are Advance’s three directors. They are also directors of Australians for Unity, which featured Warren Mundine and Senator Jacinta Price as joint spokesmen for the No campaign, according to ASIC documents. Price formerly worked for Advance. Advance’s website claims that they are not a charity and do not take government support, despite the fact that they are registered with the Charities Regulator and have accepted the Government’s offer of tax-deductible donations.

Official No campaign organiser Advance was helped by Whitestone Strategic and RJ Dunham & Co, digital businesses. Whitestone registered former Australian Christian Lobby head Lyle Shelton’s website and worked for Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party.

According to its website, Texas-based RJ Dunham & Co helps Christian non-profit ministries with marketing and fundraising. The Australian Christian Lobby, the Bethel Church in California (which prayed for the resurrection of a two-year-old kid and claimed online prayer could treat COVID symptoms), and the Prestonwood Pregnancy Centre in Texas were all former clients. These consultants were part of the environment that influenced evangelical Americans to support Donald Trump.

Advance’s campaigns are reminiscent of an Atlas Network think tank. These included strategies that exaggerated differences between groups (for example, inner-city educated elites versus the rest of the country), fueling the perception of disunity within Indigenous communities (Jacinta Price was featured opposing Professor Marcia Langton, who was instrumental in developing the Uluru Statement from the Heart).

A common tactic by Advance was to raise doubt on the integrity of the electoral system. We witnessed this personally when a No campaigner in Hurstville, Sydney agreed with an older White male voter that postal voting and amending the Constitution were unconstitutional.

The material from the No campaign has been described as misinformation. However, the No campaign tactics are consistent with the Atlas Network’s objectives, meaning that the campaign was established on purposeful coordinated plans to misinform voters. For decades, the Australian Atlas Organisations have worked with the American Atlas Organisations to undermine climate science’s legitimacy and create the impression that there is a lack of scientific consensus on climate science, even though 97% of scientists agree on the role of dirty fossil fuels in global warming.

Advance Australia sponsored two distinct Facebook campaigns: Referendum News, which featured Right-wing commentary masquerading as neutral news and Not Enough, which was directed at progressives. The Advance campaign included Jacinta Price (as Fair Australia’s voice) and Warren Mundine, while the progressive campaign featured Senator Lidia Thorpe.

By supporting extreme conservative and progressive perspectives, the objective was to deplete support for the middle-of-the-road option based on incremental change and to create the perception of a division among the Indigenous population. Price and Mundine’s continued presentation by Advance as representatives equal to the 250 Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander leaders who had consultatively worked for a decade to craft the Uluru Statement from the Heart was breathtaking and callous.

Walker asserted that restrictive disclosure laws conceal Australian Atlas Network funders. He highlights fossil fuel companies like Exxon, Santos and Western Mines provided foundation funding for the Atlas Campaign:

‘The No campaign can be safely assumed as being conducted by proxy on behalf of fossil-fuel corporations and their allies, whose efforts to mislead the public on life-and-death matters reach back over half a century.’

The top ten contributors, who provide 30% of Advance’s funding, have no publicly available fossil fuel ties.

However, the source of 70% of No campaign funding remains unknown. One thing to note is that Dutton’s decision to campaign against the Voice mirrored the West Australian Liberals’ approach in a state dominated by the mining industry.

The pattern of digital platform manipulation shows a coordinated disinformation campaign and that the baton was definitely knocked from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s grasp. It implies that Australia should follow in the footsteps of the British and American governments, which conducted extensive investigations into the names and culpability of digital consultancies during the 2016 hotbeds of radical Right populism represented by American presidential elections and Brexit.

John Haly is a freelance writer who manages a freelance business, Halyucinations Studios in Sydney. Dr Martha Knox-Haly is a psychologist, researcher and author.

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