News State NSW News How anti-abortion campaigners are winning the fight in cyberspace

How anti-abortion campaigners are winning the fight in cyberspace

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There are more than double the number of Facebook pages opposing the NSW abortion bill. Photo: ABC
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While politicians in NSW debate a controversial bill that would decriminalise abortion, opponents of the new laws have been winning the fight in cyberspace.

The bill, proposed by Independent MP Alex Greenwich, was last week debated in the Upper House and is set to be voted on next month.

An ABC analysis of the top 15 Facebook communities from both sides of the abortion debate — excluding pages belonging to politicians — found those against the bill have 10 times the share of voice and activity of their opponents.

The analysis found more than double the number of active Facebook groups fighting the bill than those supporting it.

Pages opposing the bill have 10 times the number of followers than those backing it.

Debate has spilled outside the halls of Macquarie Street, with about 13,000 written public submissions pouring in on the proposed legislation.

Both supporters and opponents of abortion have also been urging followers on social media to vote in online polls on the subject, as well as encouraging participation at rallies at parliament.

Administrators on some of the anti-abortion Facebook pages have been urging people who live outside NSW to make public submissions against the bill.

The groups have also been used to fundraise for screenings of the anti-abortion film “Unplanned” in eight NSW cinemas.

On one event page for a “Stand for Life” rally, a campaigner emphasised the need to ramp up the fight.

“We need to create a concerted social media effort in order to kill this bill,” she said.

“For politicians social media sentiment is gospel.

“We change the social media narrative, we can change the minds of those politicians who don’t have a hard-and-fast stand.”

anti-abortion laws
Pro-abortion supporters outside NSW State Parliament. Photo: ABC

While anti-abortion campaigners have had some successes online, they have also had setbacks.

South Australian senator Cory Bernardi’s decision to deregister his Australian Conservatives political party in June has left a digital vacuum.

Several figures associated with the Australian Conservatives — mainly religious leaders, who had been influential in campaigning against same-sex marriage — were left without a platform after the Australian Conservatives’ Facebook pages were deleted.

A larger online presence does not necessarily equate to a successful campaign, either.

An analysis of digital strategies during the same-sex marriage campaign in 2017 found the conservative digital base had grown an astonishing 254 per cent in the lead up to the vote compared to their progressive counterparts, who grew 40 per cent in the same period.

The abortion bill is expected to pass the NSW Upper House, and a recent Essential Poll showed only 17 per cent of voters in NSW are opposed to decriminalising abortion.

Experts claim there has been misinformation about several arguments used against the bill including that women would be able to terminate their pregnancies based on gender and that abortion rates would rise if the bill passed.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce also warned the bill could lead to terminations one day before birth.

But Family Planning NSW medical director Deborah Bateson said the proposal was based on Queensland laws that were drafted following an extensive review by its Law Reform Commission, and based on medical science.

“They’re very rare these abortions after 20 weeks, they’re often for foetal abnormalities,” she said.

Opponents taken by suprise

The bill that would decriminalise abortion in NSW has been called many things this week: “a woman’s right”, “a farce” — one minister even described it as a “crisis of Government”.

When Mr Greenwich introduced the bill earlier this month, many considered it long overdue.

But those opposed were blindsided.

For weeks, those driving the bill worked quietly behind closed doors, sussing out only a handful of MPs who they considered undecided.

This tight-lipped approach was a deliberate attempt to delay conservative MPs and religious leaders from mobilising.

On Sunday, June 28, they surprised parliamentarians and anti-abortion campaigners by announcing they would soon table the bill and would aim to have it enshrined in law by August 8 — a tight timeframe by political standards.

Those against the bill were scrambling.

Protesters picketed at NSW Parliament House, a light plane wrote “Choose life” in the sky over Sydney and Mr Joyce unleashed robocalls in some electorates urging people to lobby their MP.

But by the time much of that campaigning was underway, the bill had already passed the Lower House.

Mark Latham MLC said the proponents of the bill had been “sneaky” and “dictatorial”.

“They met in secret, didn’t invite comment from the public, and didn’t involve the full range of experts and have denied themselves two very important qualities on a sensitive and divisive issue like this, and that’s credibility and legitimacy,” he said.

But Mr Greenwich said he would not apologise for people who had not been paying attention.

“Members knew this bill was coming back in March … it was flagged that this was an issue the Government would consider,” he said.

He said the amendment process had not been curtailed, with some MPs speaking 10 to 12 times, and said medical and legal experts had been on call to answer MPs’ questions.

But after relentless requests from within her own party to slow things down, Premier Gladys Berejiklian caved to the pressure and made an 11th-hour decision to delay the vote in the Upper House.

Amendments will now be considered when Parliament sits again in three weeks time, meaning the earliest a vote will take place is mid-September.

As the debate and acrimony has played out, the Premier has repeatedly pointed out it isn’t a Government bill.

But there are plenty of Coalition fingerprints on it — Health Minister Brad Hazzard was involved and took control of the amendment debate in the Lower House.

The Premier was kept at arm’s length but she was in the loop.

Her moves to quell tension appear to have worked, and angry Ministers have retreated from publicly attacking her.

It remains to be seen if the powerful social media campaign launched by those fighting the bill will have an impact before it goes to the vote.