In Australian ‘Voice’ referendum, door-knockers battle misinformation

SYDNEY — The man in the “Yes” shirt was tall with broad shoulders built by years moving cargo at the Port of Darwin. But as Thomas Mayo canvassed the Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt, he was careful to knock gently on each door and speak calmly about the cause to which he’d devoted the past six years: the cause of changing Australia’s constitution to recognize Indigenous people like him, and to give them a “Voice,” or advisory body, to Parliament.

“G’day, mate, sorry to interrupt. My name is Thomas and I’m here with the Yes campaign for the referendum that is coming up,” Mayo said at the first door that opened. “Have you made a decision about your vote yet?”

The resident, a South Asian immigrant, happily said he’d be voting yes. Mayo pumped his fist and handed the man an information sheet.

At the next door, however, a White woman cut him off and closed the door in his face. It wasn’t a new experience for Mayo, who has been targeted with conspiracy theories and racist caricatures and even threats of violence.

The Oct. 14 referendum was supposed to be straightforward. It was the first thing the center-left prime minister, Anthony Albanese, committed to on election night last year, when polls showed around two-thirds of Australians supported the idea.

But opposition parties objected, claiming the proposal’s wording was too vague, the time frame too short, the consequences too uncertain.

The “No” campaign flooded social media with videos claiming that the problem wasn’t decades of discrimination Down Under, it was the proposal itself, which they said was divisive.

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Viral videos falsely warned farmers that if the proposal passed, Aboriginal people would take their land. Spurious messages told immigrant parents that Indigenous kids would occupy their children’s spots in school. Even Indigenous people were targeted with misinformation claiming the Voice would undermine — not aid — pursuit of a treaty.

In Australia, proposed changes to the constitution must win a “double majority” by prevailing in the overall vote and in at least four of its six states. Polls show the Yes vote well below 50 percent.

Early voting began this week, and Yes campaigners are still trying to drum up support in working-class melting pots like Mount Druitt. Could old-fashioned door-knocking compete with a torrent of social media misinformation?

Mayo thanked the woman as she shut the door and kept walking. Down a lane he found Lynette Sowden, smoking a Double Happiness cigarette and sipping coffee from a Hot Wheels mug. The 58-year-old had been up all night cleaning an office building. Mayo wished her a good morning and asked how she was going to vote.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I haven’t made up my mind.”

Sowden, who is White, had Aboriginal relatives who were voting yes. But her friends were all voting no. And her social media feeds were filled with posts claiming the Voice was a takeover by the World Economic Forum or the “New World Order.”

Mayo handed her a flier and, sensing her hesitation, tried to reassure her.

“It’s just to recognize Indigenous people in the constitution,” he said.

“Well, I agree with that,” she replied.

“And the Voice part is just an advisory committee,” he continued. “The No campaign has been trying to tell people that this is something that will take something away from someone. But it’s just advice, nothing more than that.”

“Okay,” she said, less assuredly.

“I hope you can support us,” he said, leaving Sowden to decide whether she trusted the man with the soft voice standing in front of her, or the frantic warnings in her Facebook feed.

“It’s at the doors that we’re going to win this,” Mayo had urged roughly three dozen volunteers gathered in a park earlier that morning, “having conversations with people that haven’t heard about it before.”

Yet, increasingly, the problem was that many people had heard about the referendum — and what they’d heard was often wrong.

The Yes campaign, including Mayo’s Yes23 organization, had galvanized 40,000 volunteers. It had also outspent the opposition on advertising, with a “History is Calling” tagline and stirring television ads appealing to Australians’ better angels.

Online, however, what appeared to be working was fear.

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Fin Duggan, a 30-year-old Yes23 volunteer, had made pro-Voice videos that had garnered thousands of views on TikTok. But they were no match for an algorithm that appeared to favor No videos, even though many were misleading, and some were outright false. Almost all of them had co-opted the Yes campaign’s Yes23 hashtag.

“It’s a U.S. thing,” she said. “They call it ‘flooding the zone.’”

She opened TikTok on her phone and searched for Yes23. All but one of the top videos were by the main No group, Fair Australia. Some featured Indigenous people calling the Voice “divisive.” Others used misleadingly edited video clips to paint Mayo as a communist who would use the Voice to pursue a secret, radical agenda.

Mayo, a union organizer, got involved in 2017, when a historic summit of more than 250 Indigenous community leaders had produced a powerful declaration called the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It sought to enshrine the Voice to Parliament in the constitution and later to create a commission to supervise truth-telling and treaty-making.

Mayo, one of the signatories, has been advocating for the Voice, and that has made him a target. Conservative columnists have questioned his Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestry. Pictures of his parents have been circulated and scrutinized online. In July, Fair Australia ran a newspaper ad depicting Mayo as a communist dancing for corporate donations.

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Mayo had experienced discrimination since he was a boy, but the caricature — which seemed to tap into racist stereotypes — had stung. It was a “national expression of degradation,” he said.

What Mayo worried about most was that the misinformation would lead to violence. He’d seen an uptick in online vitriol since May, when opposition leader Peter Dutton claimed that the Voice would “permanently divide us by race” and “have an Orwellian effect where all Australians are equal, but some Australians are more equal than others.”

It didn’t take long while door-knocking to find Australians struggling to sort fact from fiction.

A Maori man originally from New Zealand said he’d been deluged with social media posts featuring Indigenous people against the Voice, which had left him leaning toward voting no.

A White grandmother told Mayo she didn’t need any more information: She got plenty from Rumble, a YouTube rival popular with conservatives where a video calling the Voice a “secret communist plot” had thousands of views.

And then there was Sowden. After Mayo left, she sat at the kitchen table, wondering how to reconcile the stories she’d heard on social media with what she’d heard from him.

Her son was voting no, she said. So, too, were her friends, but they didn’t know any Indigenous people. Sowden did. She’d adopted an Aboriginal teenager after the girl’s mother had died. When Mayo had mentioned the disadvantages facing Indigenous people, Sowden had agreed because she’d seen it herself.

And yet, there were the videos on her phone, pulling her in another direction, playing on her fears.

“If you’re a homeowner, landowner or farmer or anything and you vote yes, for the Voice, you’ve just killed this country completely,” one warned.

“If we say yes to this referendum, we’re essentially giving away our sovereignty as a nation,” said another.

Sowden set her phone down. She wasn’t sure she agreed, but the videos had stirred her darkest anxieties, and soon she, too, was echoing conspiracy theories.

“People are a bit worried,” she began, “because why should somebody be able to come in and take your land away from you when they haven’t even lived on it themselves?”

A few blocks away, the Yes campaigners had reconvened at the park. Mayo reclined on the grass — a moment’s rest before heading to the airport and then to Adelaide, then Melbourne, then back to Sydney. He’d only seen his family one weekend in the past three months.

Sometimes, Mayo said, it seemed like the truth didn’t matter anymore.

He rose. He had a flight to catch: 13 more days to try to cut through the misinformation, one conversation at a time.

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