How News Corp. revived the Anzacs — by giving them Facebook accounts

Justin Lees writes on a News Corp experiment that combined social media, artificial intelligence and one of Australia’s historical obsessions.

A post by soldier Archie Barwick detailing his impressions of Cairo. Image: Facebook

A post by soldier Archie Barwick detailing his impressions of Cairo. Image: Facebook/News Corp.

It’s a typical Facebook post from a young Aussie overseas — his take on the wonders and squalor he encounters wandering round a foreign city, complete with photo.

Mates on the same trip chime in, while followers back home ask questions and tease the traveller with quips about the town’s notoriously seedy nightlife.

So far, so usual: except our young Australian, and his mates, are World War One Anzacs posting from Cairo, one hundred years ago — and chatting about it, in real time, with followers in Australia, today.

This is AnzacLive: a conversation across time and continents, connecting Australians in 2016 with real people who lived, loved and fought through this crucial stage of our nation’s history. From the innocent excitement of joining up, through the reality check of Gallipoli, to the muddy fields of France, the men and women of AnzacLive have taken thousands of followers on an intimate, engaging journey.

Launched by News Corp. Australia to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in April 2015, the key concept of AnzacLive was simple: Ten men and women from WWI would effectively come back to life again, through their words and images, on Facebook — posting updates, sharing pictures and chatting with followers just as most Australians do, most days.

A wonderful thing has happened. I am really and truly in love.

— Alice Ross-King, a WWI nurse

Alice Ross-King, the nurse whose personal pursuit of love and laughter clashes with her rigid sense of duty; Archie Barwick, the larrikin raconteur and chillingly effective fighting machine; Ellis Silas, the artistic soul and lady-charmer driven to join up but plagued by self-doubt every step of the way. They’re just three examples of the characters and their very different stories.

Theirs is not the big-picture view of the war taught in schools and remembered every Anzac Day; it is highly personal and deeply emotional. And that was exactly what News Corp. wanted alongside our traditional reportage as we prepared to mark this crucial anniversary — a different way to tell the Anzac story, for an audience as comfortable with social media as with printed pages and TV.

The words came from a trove of detailed WW1 diaries and letters, accessed from a partnership with the State Library of New South Wales and via the Australian War Memorial.

An excerpt from the journal of field medic, Arthur James Adams. Image: Facebook.

An excerpt from the journal of field medic, Arthur James Adams. Image: Facebook/News Corp.

Those journals, overflowing with personality, drove home the realisation — often obscured by traditional historical storytelling — that their authors were just like us: normal people with normal hopes, fears, strengths and frailties, living through a time that was anything but normal. They inspired the question: what would it be like to talk to them and share their experiences? Experiences that they doggedly recorded on pen and paper, almost every day, even in the hell of the trenches.

It becomes easy to believe after just a few moments in the company of their words that if alive today, they would have ditched diaries for social media. And that’s how AnzacLive was born: We would use social media to tell their stories, and allow for a two-way conversation.

Facebook was the obvious main platform — perfect for words, images and video — while we had supporting accounts on Instagram and Twitter.

Characters were given voice by News Corp. journalists who knew their stories intimately and curated their Facebook pages. A narrator page acted as the AnzacLive framework, holding the characters’ stories together and providing supporting content.

“Some of our officers are absolute pigs.”

—Charles Laseron

Characters’ descendants were not just supportive, many became passionately involved — helping us with research and more. In just one of many examples, we enabled British crime novelist Sarah Hilary to discover the personal writings of her great-uncle Arthur James Adams — one of our characters, yet a man whose story was thought lost by his family after his life ended at Pozieres.

“It is so moving, so full of emotion. It brings Arthur to life as vividly as anything I’ve seen or heard,” she said of the project.

The 86-year-old daughter of another character — Bert Reynolds — joined Facebook just to connect with her father, and told us she was “especially touched by readers’ heartfelt comments of concern for his welfare.”

Many relatives of AnzacLive characters interacted with the project. Image: Facebook/News Corp.

Many relatives of AnzacLive characters interacted with the project. Image: Facebook/News Corp.

The project was endorsed by leading historians and key institutions. Brendan Nelson, director of the AWM, said: “The temptation in all of us is to settle for headlines and broad brushstrokes of our history. Yet it is the story of individual men and women who gave their all – often their lives, for us that most informs our history.

“AnzacLive brings them and their stories to life, sparking within us the imaginative capacity to see the world through their eyes. In doing so it is a powerful tool of commemoration and memory of those who gave us what we have and made us who we are.”

Meanwhile the public embraced the concept — engaging heavily and sharing their own stories, leading to an overwhelmingly positive impact across social. Trolling, which we had prepared for as a precaution, was almost non-existent.

AnzacLive was launched a month before Anzac Day on April 25; within weeks it had more than 49,000 dedicated followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; the hashtag #AnzacLive was seen more than 50 million times by 15 million people; and individual posts went viral. It has been featured on TV, radio and in non-News Corp. press; and it continued through 2016, adding new followers daily who tracked the Anzacs as they moved from post-Gallipoli rest to the Western Front.

It has won a Mumbrella award, a News Corporation award and was shortlisted for a PANPA award.

In July 2016 it spawned another first: News Corp. Australia’s first chatbot. To mark the centenary of the crucial battle of Pozieres, we launched a bot version of character Archie Barwick, who was there. The bot, hosted on Facebook Messenger, served up even more detailed diary entries to subscribers and allowed for entirely instant answers to questions.

We had our challenges, but none that proved insurmountable.

Finding images of our characters was not always easy. While we had at least one for each, 1915 was hardly an era of selfies, so at times we had to be creative.

Another disappointment was the fact that Facebook is blocked in many schools, which meant the student audience was harder to reach — even though many of our most enthusiastic early adopters were teachers. We addressed that with some special off-Facebook events, such as live blogs with historians on the News Corp mastheads.

The final challenge was, as so often, business as usual. Our journalist custodians invested enormous amounts of time and emotional effort. And while strongly supported by their editors, they still had to combine AnzacLive with their other responsibilities. As the months rolled on it was not always easy to sustain. Our solution was to have more than one custodian for each character and to back them up from the central “HQ” team.

Social media has seen third-person historical accounts and fictional historical characters. AnzacLive goes way beyond these, for the first time, using social media for real-time interaction with the words of real people from the past. As a result, the user experience is entirely unique.

“Some of our men got cut off and died fighting to the last.”

—Archie Barwick

It created a passionate online community, and for the journalists involved, this was a project like no other. The levels of emotional investment were extreme — it saw friendships blossom across the world and, so the story goes, may even have sparked a real-life romance (#AnzacLove?!).

Which takes us back to that self-doubting ladies’ man Ellis Silas. As the team at AnzacLive make plans for 1917, 1918, 2017 and 2018, we will leave you with the uncannily prophetic words he penned while recuperating from his injuries.

“Whether or not this record of my experiences during the first terrible year of the Great War will be of interest, time alone can prove. When the din of battle has faded into the realm of the past, and the country is strewn with memorials paying tribute to those Great Heroes who gave their lives so gamely for the Cause; these little sidelights on the lives of those that were at Anzac, keeping fresh the glorious tradition of a Great Empire, perhaps may be of value.”

A quote from the journal of Ellis Silas. Image: Facebook/News Corp.

A quote from the journal of Ellis Silas. Image: Facebook/News Corp.

Justin Lees is editor of AnzacLive and Premium Content at News Corp. Australia: justin.lees@news.com.au.