A Melbourne cryptocurrency trader running his own campaign opposing the Indigenous voice to parliament has defended the use of AI-generated ads, after they were referred to on the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
Phillip Mobbs, a businessman behind the Constitutional Equality group, said he did not intend for the artificial intelligence advertisements to depict an Indigenous person and that he planned to publish more campaign ads featuring other characters and different languages soon.
Speaking on Insiders, the SBS and NITV journalist John Paul Janke raised concerns about voice opponents using artificial intelligence to create online ads.
“Online, the no campaign have multiple social media pages. Some of them are now using AI with a black Indigenous character to try to look like it is an Indigenous person supporting the no campaign,” Janke said.
Fair Australia, the main campaign group advocating for a no vote, strongly distanced itself from such claims.
The federal opposition spokesperson on Indigenous Australians and a leader of the Fair Australia campaign, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, said: “Of all the racist, offensive, inaccurate things that have been said about the no campaign, this is probably the worst.
“According to the ABC, the no campaign, Fair Australia, has created AI fake Indigenous Australians who are voting no. A complete and utter lie!”
Fair Australia is a project of Advance, the conservative lobby group. It is one arm of Australians for Unity, recognised as the official no campaign after being granted tax-deductible donation status by the federal government.
Warren Mundine, another leader of the no campaign, shared the video on Twitter with the comment: “This a lie. How low can [Insiders] and the yes campaign sink!”
The ABC on Sunday published a clarification online, noting “the campaign coordinated by Warren Mundine and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price – Australians for Unity – is not affiliated with the videos being referred to”.
Guardian Australia can reveal Mobbs and his Constitutional Equality page have used AI to create at least three ads on Facebook featuring a male character with brown skin who voices scripts casting doubt on the referendum.
“Think for yourself what you want for the future of Australia,” the character says in one ad. The text accompanying another AI-generated ad, which raises concerns over the definition of Aboriginality, claims that “over time we are granting a constitutional power to frauds”.
The AI-generated ads have reached up to 210,000 Facebook users, according to Meta’s ad library tool, and have been boosted with about $2,000 spent. The Constitutional Equality page has spent about $16,000 in total on paid ads.
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Mobbs told Guardian Australia he was a cryptocurrency trader and was largely self-funding his campaign, which had no links or financial ties to the official no campaigns. He said he had tried to reach out to the no campaign, and supported its cause, but had received no funds or communication from Fair Australia or Australians for Unity.
“Constitutional Equality is an independent movement of the no campaign, we have no formal or informal ties with the no campaign,” Mobbs said.
In an interview with Crikey in June, Mobbs was reported as saying: “I believe that I should support Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine and those running the no campaign.”
He denied that he had attempted to portray an Indigenous person in the ad, and said he did not intend to mislead voters with the AI-generated campaign, but said he intentionally chose a non-white character.
Why does the Indigenous community need a special process? Why can’t it just lobby? – The voice AMA
“Our society is made up of a rich tapestry of people from nearly every corner of the world, people of colour are effectively the audience that makes up Australia,” Mobbs said.
“My view is, just because I used a person of colour, doesn’t mean it was an Aboriginal person. I found it perplexing they assume it was an Aboriginal person … it never crossed my mind, I wanted to communicate to the majority of Australians by reflecting a multicultural society.
“Anyone who can observe the avatar would not readily conclude that this was an Indigenous person.”
Mobbs said his campaign was receiving some donations, but that he created AI-generated ads because they were cheap and easy. He said the voice ads were created using an online service with a $140-a-month subscription.
He said he would soon publish new ads with different characters, and translated into different languages, to reach multicultural voters.
“We can’t afford actors, movie scenes, lights, graphic designers, sets. This was an affordable mechanism and innovative to be able to communicate the risks of changing the constitution,” Mobbs said.
An SBS spokesperson said Janke’s statement on Insiders “called out some of the questionable activity that is taking place on social media by those campaigning ‘no’ [and] highlight the important discussion needed around the nature of such campaign techniques”.
“We support John Paul for continuing to raise awareness and understanding of the nature of what he and the NITV team are seeing and experiencing on social media, and the impact of this on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” they said in a statement.