The ‘No’ case is leading the social media campaign over the Voice. While there is little evidence of bots being used, there is a co-ordinated approach and an increase in hate speech. By Mike Seccombe.

Social media versus the Voice

A man wearing glasses and a badge of the Australian Aboriginal flag speaks on a panel.
James Blackwell during his appearance on Q+A.
Credit: ABC

James Blackwell says the abuse began as soon as the ABC announced he would be a guest on last Monday’s Q+A. A day before he had even appeared on the program, people began finding him on social media and sending him racist posts.

Blackwell, a Wiradyuri man and research fellow in Indigenous diplomacy at the Australian National University, called it out on air. He blamed the Liberal and National parties for having fomented it with their comments about the Indigenous Voice. After the show, the flow of abuse only increased.

The thing that surprised him, Blackwell tells The Saturday Paper, was that many of the people harassing him were doing so under their own names.

“The ones who use hidden accounts with grey profile pictures, or Aussie flags in them – there’s always been those people,” he says. “But a fair number of them were folks who, if you googled them, were treasurer of the Liberal Party branch of X or secretary of National Party branch of Y.”

Some, he says, proudly put their party affiliation in the bio. “Like, they’re not hiding.”

By lunchtime on Tuesday, Blackwell decided he could not stand any more abuse. “I had someone purge my social media for me … to basically go through my Twitter, block and delete everything. I didn’t have to see it. It took them a full hour.”

Blackwell only went back on Twitter about four or five months ago, after more than a year away from it. He says the platform has changed noticeably in that time. “It has become so much worse,” he says. “Oh my God, is it worse.”

Blackwell has now locked his social media accounts. His Instagram account is not under his name, nor is his Facebook. He says there is an “endless barrage of hate” on platforms.

“They’re attacking your character or your family,” he says.

“I can completely see why Stan Grant had to step back for a while from Q+A. You need rest, you need recovery, you need to reground yourself … Rest is resistance, because they want to wear us down.”

In spite of his personal experience and his knowledge of the experiences of other prominent proponents of the Voice, however, he does not believe Australians have become more racist.

Rather, he thinks current circumstances have emboldened people to express it. He uses a term from his studies of political science to explain this: the Overton window.

The concept is that political discourse can only occur within an acceptable range. If proponents of a particular policy or view can persuade the public to tolerate policies or ideas that were previously unacceptable, they are said to have expanded the Overton window.

Blackwell points to the most obvious example, former United States president Donald Trump, who by making “wildly outrageous” and often false statements effectively gave permission for others to do likewise.

Throw into the mix the realisation by social media companies that conflict drives traffic – and the new ownership of Twitter by free speech absolutist Elon Musk – and you have a situation where some people feel they have “a licence to go crazy”, says Blackwell.

He thinks that in the context of the Voice, even though Australian politicians have been less extreme than the likes of Trump, they have nonetheless expanded that Overton window.

“I think even minor comments push it in the same direction,” he says. “Peter Dutton’s minor comments or other people’s minor comments make really outrageous things seem less outrageous because they’re edging open the Overton window.”

As to how many people have gone through that window, how much more racist abuse and disinformation is out there, it’s hard to quantify. It depends on whom you ask.

Australia’s media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, is of no help. In response to questions from The Saturday Paper, an emailed response from a spokesperson said the authority was “aware of concerns about misinformation related to the Voice to Parliament referendum”.

However, the authority said its role was limited to overseeing a voluntary industry code and “liaising with platforms about the steps they are taking to protect Australian users from referendum mis- and disinformation”.

The statement noted that ACMA “does not have a role in monitoring content on platforms and it is the responsibility of platforms to assess individual pieces of content on their services”.

It suggested those with complaints should go to the online platforms themselves or take their concerns about “harmful content” to the eSafety Commissioner.

eSafety suggested the number of complaints of online racial abuse had not grown significantly since the Voice debate was started last year. Before the announcement of the Voice referendum, 5 per cent of reports, or about 150 a year, concerned Indigenous Australians. That had ticked up only slightly, to about 5.6 per cent.

It is likely these figures are incomplete. Many of those targeted, like Blackwell, do not complain.

The Australian Electoral Commission, which will run the referendum, is certainly aware of a great deal of abuse and disinformation, not least because it has been a target.

In a lengthy response, it noted the “volume of AEC-tagged social media commentary” around the referendum was far higher than it was at roughly the same point before the last federal election.

It cited evidence given on May 23 to a senate estimates committee by electoral commissioner Tom Rogers, who said the AEC was seeing “an increase in disinformation on social media and a regrettable increase in threatening commentary”.

He provided no hard numbers, nor any suggestion as to who was behind it, other than to say he had seen nothing to suggest foreign interference.

Perhaps the best measure to date of where the hate is coming from is provided by research from the Queensland University of Technology, first reported this week. Dr Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer in digital media, analysed 56,742 tweets referring to the referendum between May 1 and May 25, from 11,592 unique accounts.

He found people opposed to the Voice were more active, more likely to post anonymously and much nastier.

Sixty-one per cent of the tweets were from the “No” side, and among the 20 most active accounts, only three were “Yes” supporters. The top 10 accounts pushing the “No” case were all anonymous, compared with four on the “Yes” side.

When Graham ran the tweets through a program called HateSonar, it identified 327 tweets on the “No” side containing hate speech, compared with 63 tweets from “Yes” supporters.

Interestingly, Graham found little use of computerised bots. While the online abuse and hate speech cuts both ways – albeit much worse from the “No” side – it does not appear to be organised.

Chris Cooper, senior campaign director at Purpose, a social impact consultancy that monitors online activity, says the “No” case is well organised online, if covertly.

He points to an organisation called Advance Australia, set up in 2018 as a conservative equivalent of progressive lobby group GetUp!, and closely connected to the Liberal Party.

“Advance Australia is a sophisticated and opaque entity with enormous resources,” Cooper says.

The group, he says, seeks to influence public opinion on a variety of issues, including the Voice, but also by spreading “climate disinformation, transphobia and other far-right messages across multiple pages and online entities”.

Apart from Advance Australia, there are three other spin-offs specific to the Voice, all related, all funded largely by a few wealthy right-wing individuals, all using the same PR firms to run their advertising but targeting different audiences.

Fair Australia and Advance Australia run the straight “No” case. Another group named Referendum News is devoted to recirculating negative stories from mainstream media, while a fourth, called Not Enough, targets those inclined to vote against the referendum because they think it an inadequate response to the problems of Indigenous Australia.

Collectively, says Cooper, citing data from Facebook’s parent company, Meta, these four spent more than $100,000 in the three months to May 23, spreading their disparate messages.

Of the four, Not Enough’s campaign initially seems the most counterintuitive. It can be explained, however, by the fact that a substantial number of people on the political right initially supported the Voice.

Many in the so-called freedom movement, which grew rapidly during the pandemic lockdown period, and others in the sovereign citizens movement, were inclined to see Indigenous Australians – or “originals”, as they were sometimes called in their chat groups – as having been oppressed by the same “elites” they resented, says Dr Kaz Ross, a long-time researcher into the extreme right.

It became important for Voice opponents to find a way to corral these people to the “No” side. Thus the wording of this Not Enough Facebook ad: “First nations people deserve self-determination, reparations, repatriation of stolen goods, and an end to oppressive incarceration and abduction of our children. The Voice only perpetuates and legitimises systems of oppression.”

Andre Oboler, and honorary associate in  the La Trobe law school and chief executive of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, says the campaign against the Voice referendum follows the long-established game plan that the political right has used ever since they tried to convince Australians that Mabo threatened property rights.

It doesn’t matter if the arguments don’t accord with any type of reality, he says: the main game is spreading doubt and confusion.

“You don’t need to convince people to vote ‘No’,” says Oboler. “In order to win that vote, you just need to convince them that there’s a risk in voting ‘Yes’.”

The trauma this inflicts on the likes of James Blackwell and so many others, well, that’s just collateral damage.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Posts racist".

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