The disjointed nature of the "yes" campaign selling the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament is under fire, with an analysis of the high-spending campaign showing 33 different messages, compared to the more targeted, "if you don't know, vote no" argument of the "no' campaign.
Prominent "no" politicians such as Pauline Hanson, Barnaby Joyce and Keith Pitt have also been found successfully leveraging, and sometimes refocusing or twisting news stories about the October 14 referendum and significantly boosting them through practised engagement on social media.
It comes in the wake of the release of the "yes" campaign's stirring You're the Voice advertisement and after Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie berated the Albanese Labor government for doing a "rotten job" of selling the Voice as it "looks like it's going to go down."
But The Canberra Times understands, from unnamed "yes" figures so they could speak freely, that the "yes" message will sharpen soon "when it counts" and that they are battling "horrific" racist bots on social media, making it virtually impossible to engage.
While "yes" has deeper pockets, one "yes" figure told this masthead that the case for change is hard to sell "when you're dragged in the sandpit addressing lies".
"So much effort is spent responding to bullshit," they said.
"We were caught off guard. This should have been a bipartisan proposal as it was so modest in nature."
"They have got the algorithm. They just have a simple message to scare."
It is not hard to find scores of examples of social media attacks on Indigenous leaders. Prominent Indigenous academic and Voice co-designer Marcia Langton this week said the levels of abuse against the "yes" campaign includes death threats, daily published insults and abuse. "It takes a toll," the professor said.
The "yes" side insists it is a different story on the ground as people are now engaging and "it is not difficult" to move a distrustful "no" voter once concerns are unpacked, particularly when it is pointed out that "no" people are politicians.
But seasoned political campaigners who support the Voice are frustrated by "terrible" messaging and logistics. They question the tactic to wait for a late push on voters and propose that the messaging should focus on inclusion.
"You see the 'Vote Yes' corflutes," one said. "It says it all. There's no narrative. Why vote yes?"
"They ['no'] can say all these things without constraint, while 'yes' is constrained by the constitution and restricted to the facts."
Another said the counter to the "no" argument needs more work, "People don't understand why [the Voice] is needed because they don't understand entrenched disadvantage."
Polling from the Yes23 campaign points to around 40 per cent of voters being "undecided," but that window is closing. There's just over five weeks to go in the heated campaign to enshrine an Indigenous advisory body in the constitution.
A team of political scientists - Simon Jackman, Andrea Carson, and Max Gromping - are digging into the state of the two "yes" and "no" campaigns until polling day through mainstream news, social media, blog sites, online ads and opinion polls. There are over 150,000 outlets in the database.
Currently, their estimate of the pooling of the national polls has the "yes" vote at about 46 and "no" at 54 (with a margin of error of 2.9 per cent).
"The 'yes' messaging has been very disjointed to date. There's been a lot of experimentation in that space. We counted 33 different messages that were going under the banner of 'yes' advertising," Professor Carson from La Trobe University told The Canberra Times.
"Part of that, I guess, is to be expected because this isn't an apex campaign like you would see with a political party at the top essentially controlling the messaging. There's lots of different actors involved and they're all going about it in quite different ways.
"If it's to have greater effect it needs more coordination and consolidation of those messages."
Like-minded company directors, with a hefty war chest, also recently called on the "yes" campaign to sharpen its message for voters about the benefits. Some of the "yes" messages include, "Listening makes lives better," "History is calling," and now, "You're the Voice", while Professor Carson said there are seven main negative messages.
There are various, cooperating "yes" groups, including Yes23, the Uluru Dialogue, From the Heart, Uphold and Recognise, Allies for Uluru, and Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition. There's also the push from the Albanese government and all state and territory leaders, although there is an acceptance that when the Voice "goes to Canberra" the proposition gets "belted."
The Prime Minister told caucus colleagues this week that the Voice was essentially: "Recognition through listening will give us better results."
On the other hand, the basic "no" message is fear.
"There are exceptions to that," Professor Carson said. "Obama, for example, was very good on using hope with the "Yes we can" campaign, but quite often political advertising and messaging is driven by negativity."
"Keeping it pretty simple such as "If you don't know, vote no", is an effective way to be able to share that message."
It is understood that, beyond the stirring John Farnham You're the Voice advertisement, the "yes" messaging will shortly sharpen with simpler messages around unity and bringing people together, and the campaign will be more targeted in specific local government areas.
The face-to-face ground game is picking up, with the expectation there will be 50,000 volunteers by polling day. They will be front and centre at polling stations on referendum day.
The "yes" social media spend is taking off. Yes23 spent more than $150,000 on almost 2000 Facebook and Instagram ads in the last week alone, outspending the Australian Electoral Commission and Greenpeace Australia. It is not far off cracking half a million dollars for the past month and a million dollars for the whole time it has existed.
The highest "no" spend on the same platforms over the past 7 days, according to the Facebook Ad Library, was Advance Australia at $8378 for a variety of opposing ads.
But it is not just the official ads that are having significant reach. It is the conservative politicians who have been curating social media audiences for years, now advocating "no" and coming up in the top five stories in the last three months in terms of reach and engagement.
"Conservative politicians are using Twitter and Facebook to great effect, taking Sky News stories and in particular, stories from News Corp, and then reposting them on to their socials and finding quite a big audience for those," Professor Carson said.
"They're very dialogic in the way they interact with them. So they keep that engagement going on. They don't just broadcast out through social media. They engage in conversations and it keeps them coming back."
The "yes" side has not spent the time building up the same audience, but it is not that simple. Social media is not a safe place for many Indigenous figures. Prominent "no" figure Warren Mundine has been calling out abuse for months.
"When you look at my social media page, you'll see the abuse and everything that's coming through from 'yes' people. If they keep on doing that it's working against them," Mr Mundine told this masthead.
The "yes" side is calling out the use of racist bots that are spewing out "horrific", "toxic" attacks which have led to the turning off of comments and reducing the prospects of real engagement.
"The 'no' side can say anything they like. They are not accountable," a "yes" figure said.
Another notable, according to Professor Carson, is looking at the public ad spend from "no" politicians including Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Mr Pitt and Senator Alex Antic.
"I'm not seeing that equivalent on the 'yes' [side] of politicians putting the same level of funding into the 'yes' campaign," she said.
The focus next for the political scientists is to look at the effects of the Farnham Voice ad, as well as the attacks on the integrity of the Australian Electoral Commission, including the recent debate over how crosses don't count as "no."
"From a researcher point of view, this seems to be something that is an upward trend from the 2022 federal election, and it's a really concerning one, when people are attacking the integrity of the AEC," she said.
The Voice to Parliament proposition stands on a precipice with decades of dogged advocacy, preparation and planning up in the air.
"I think the debate will change so radically, if the no vote succeeds, that our advocacy will be seen as ineffectual," Professor Langton told the National Press Club.
"I fear that a 'no' vote will be interpreted and falsely, I should say, as a mandate for governments to do nothing, and to make our lives worse. I think that's the greatest danger."
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