Who has the loudest voice on social media?

| September 1, 2023

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed the Voice to Parliament referendum will take place on Saturday October 14.

This is a critical moment in the referendum’s outcome. The “yes” and “no” campaigns for a Voice to Parliament are about to be supercharged as both sides begin a six-week countdown to voting day.

To give you an idea of what that might look like, a team of political scientists has come together at The Conversation to provide fortnightly updates on various indicators of the state of the two campaigns until polling day.

This includes the key messages that are getting the most public attention – in the news, social media, online ads and opinion polls.

To win, “yes” needs to get a majority of voters in a majority of states. Currently our 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%).

There are too few state polls to apply the same analysis, but earlier individual polls such as YouGov suggested Victoria and NSW were more supportive than other states.

Mainstream news

Working with mainstream (print, radio and TV) and social media data from Meltwater, a global media monitoring company, our keyword analytics show that on average the referendum debate is attracting about 5,500 mentions across all media a day since January 1, 2023.

This week it is averaging 7,184 mentions, showing how attention to the debate is slowly building since the start of the year.

To date, public engagement through media and social media posts is more likely to be piqued by criticism of the Voice than support for it.

What’s trending on social media?

An analysis of X (formerly Twitter) data shows key events attracting the most public attention this year were Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s decision not to support the Voice to Parliament, and the subsequent party resignations of Liberals Ken Wyatt, Noel Pearson and Fred Chaney on April 6.

Source: Meltwater, using X (formerly Twitter) data to track public engagement with Voice stories during 2023.

When we look at who and what is getting public attention on Facebook and X, it is most often conservative figures and politicians sharing Sky News reports critical of the Voice.

In the past three months, the top five items that have had the most interactions – tens of thousands of shares each and reaching more than 6 million viewers collectively – on X and Facebook, are:

  1. Gina Rinehart being named “Western Australian of the Year”. This was along with Ken Wyatt, who was awarded the “Wesfarmers Aboriginal Award”, which describes him as “a strong advocate for an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament”
  2. A critical Sky News Australia story accusing RMIT Fact Lab of working with Meta (the owner of Facebook) to “censor Voice debate”
  3. One Nation MP Pauline Hanson commenting on a Sky News story featuring Peta Credlin criticising the Voice agenda
  4. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce complaining about the mechanics of voting on the AEC website
  5. Nationals MP Keith Pitt referencing a Sky News report to link the Voice to implications for WA Heritage Laws.

These snapshots are concerning because some stories contain misleading information such as Pitt linking the Voice to state laws. But they also show the power of negative stories to attract attention, and the reach of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News TV stories beyond its paywall.

Online advertising

The “Yes23” campaign is outpacing all other paid referendum campaign groups in its spending.

In three months, most of the “Yes23” campaign’s ads are reinforcing their affirmative message in more supportive states: New South Wales ($176,952) and Victoria ($168,024); followed by ads to the more oppositional states of Queensland ($156,011) and Western Australia ($98,025). About 14% of ad spending is reserved for elsewhere, namely South Australia ($73,528) and Tasmania ($26,739).

Source: Meta Ad Library: Voice to Parliament ad spend over last 3 months.

However, Yes23’s core messages are more disparate than the “no” ads paid for by Advance Australia for the “Fair Australia” campaign. The “no” ad spend focuses on its stronghold states in Queensland ($33,652) and Western Australia ($27,234), and the possible flip-state South Australia ($16,6712).

While there are many more “yes”(1,009) than “no” (164) ads circulating, the “yes” message is dispersed across 33 different themes, some align (about “listening” and “unity”) but are distinctive enough to be separately categorised.

In comparison, the “no” advertisements cover just seven themes and all are negative. The top three most used messages by both sides – as judged by the number of advertisements – are summarised in Table 1 and overlap in their use of the theme of “unity”, but in opposite ways.

Opinion polls

Finally, if we look at how the polls are tracking by pooling together the major polling companies’ data, Professor Simon Jackman finds a loss of 20% in voter support for the “yes” campaign over the past 12 months.

Data from 36 polls and 8 pollsters over the last 12 months shows a steady decline in support for The Voice.

In looking at the key messages, the ad spend, and the polls, we can provide a snapshot of the state of the two campaigns so far.

It is not an exhaustive view of the many actors contributing to the campaign, but it does tell us the “yes” campaign has a lot of ground to cover in the next six weeks if it’s going to succeed.

As with any voting campaign, much can change as public attention sharpens as polling day looms. Until then, we will bring you updates every fortnight.

This article was written by Andrea Carson, a Professor of Political Communication at La Trobe University; Max Grömping, a Senior Lecturer at Griffith University; and Simon Jackman, a Professor at the University of Sydney. It was published by published by The Conversation.