A century ago, Australia faced a truly defining moment in its history of democracy.
In 1916, World War One was in full swing and had already gone on longer than anyone had expected. Thousands of Australian men had been killed on the Western Front and Prime Minister Billy Hughes was under pressure from the British government to supply more troops. With volunteer numbers falling, he proposed introducing conscription as a way to boost ranks.
When his own party did not support him, Prime Minister Hughes took the issue to a plebiscite, confident that the people of Australia would be on his side.
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The debate that erupted split the nation.
Some thought that conscription – the idea that the government could send a man against his will to fight overseas – was horrifying, whilst others saw it as a necessary evil.
Both the vote-yes and vote-no campaigns were intense and drew on people’s emotions, their patriotism their fears* and their notions of morality.
The ‘yes’ voters claimed that to block conscription was to abandon the men at the front line and give Australia up to the Germans.
The ‘no’ voters argued that sending men to their deaths went against all the freedoms they were fighting for. Some also worried that without enough young, strong** men to take care of the country, Australia would fall to pieces.
The campaigners used every tactic available to them to try to persuade the opposition.
The ‘no’ supporters posted memes on Facebook and millions of people liked and shared them. The ‘yes’ campaign posted YouTube footage of the shocking conditions on the Western Front which got 100 000 views on its first day. Others changed their profile pictures to the Union Jack to show support for Britain, whilst the ‘no’ campaign took to Twitter using the hashtag #bloodvote.
Well no. Obviously they didn’t, because it was 1916.
But what if they had?
The passion and the venom present in the propaganda from the time really made me wonder: What would the campaigns have looked like on social media?
Would they have been as effective? Less valid? Reach more people? Persuaded more people? Would the messages have remained the same?
As Victoria Carty notes on page 7 of her eBook, Social Movements and New Technology:
“Activists have always utilized the latest communication device to recruit, distribute information, and mobilize support, whether it be the pen, printing press, telegraph, radio, television, Internet, or highspeed digital technologies.”
The campaigners of the conscription plebiscites handed out brochures and leaflets, attended town meetings, wrote to the newspapers, put up posters, and wore badges. They even wrote poems.
Thinking about it, the movements for and against conscription were using social media – the most social types of media they had available to them.
I’ve talked before about the similarities between the role of the newspaper and the role of the internet in society.
But the highly visual and shareable nature of the internet, the opportunities for networking and two-way communication, would these affordances have enhanced the debate or changed its focus perhaps? Would the visual elements mean more focus on human suffering? Were the people reading newspapers affected by the same confirmation bias that may be shaping our social media feeds?
Would the global community on social media have changed the way volunteers were recruited, and even removed the necessity for the vote altogether?
On the 28th of October 1916, more than 80% of eligible Australians came out to participate in the first plebiscite. They answered the question:
Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?
Scraping by with 51% of the vote, the ‘no’ campaign were successful and the plebiscite was defeated.
In December of the following year, the issue was put to a second plebiscite. After even more debate, it was defeated again, this time by a slightly wider margin and Prime Minister Billy Hughes was forced to drop the issue.
The people of Australia had spoken.
*and also their racism.
** white men (see above)
More information about Conscription in WW1:
- State library NSW: Australia’s conscription debate
- National Archives of Australian: Conscription referendums, 1916 and 1917
- Museum of Australian Democracy: The Conscription debate