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Campaigning in an era of conspiracy

03 May 2022

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This federal election, Australians should be careful that the promises and polemics of today don’t become the problems of tomorrow, James Mortensen writes.

Election campaigns are full of promises, ‘gotchas’, attacks, and evasions. Getting elected seems to require the right mix of policy pronouncements, photo opportunities, and criticism of the competition.

As a result, elections can test politics’ already strained relationship with the truth, as spin comes out in full swing. It’s a fact of life – for the moment at least – but candidates should consider how their promises and polemics might shape the security challenges they’ll face if they’re elected.

As well as floods, fires, and a pandemic in recent years, Australia has also faced a growing risk from conspiracy – the ideas, movements, and individuals who support them. Security threats from conspiracists have quickly become a point of focus for our domestic security agencies, as Qanoners, ‘sovereign citizens,’ and others have mobilised in Australia and around the world.

Like the fires and virus variants, the threat of conspiracy theorists is yet to feature prominently in the election narrative – most likely because people are more than happy to leave them in the past. However, conspiracy thinking is still bubbling away under the radar. And while political spin won’t make the next bushfire worse – at least not directly – it can have a real effect on the risk factors of conspiracy.

What the government, officials, and political leaders say and how they say it can make a real difference to the prevalence and power of conspiracy thinking.

Of course, the rise in conspiracy thinking has been facilitated by myriad factors. Social media and the Internet has provided a fertile medium in which to propagate communities of conspiracy. The increased exposure to novel technologies such as microwave communication, messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines and energy weapons have increased anxieties and fears.

Added to this, the use of conspiracy narratives in mis- and disinformation campaigns by domestic and foreign political agents has certainly added fuel to the conspiracy fire, and raised the potency of its threat.

But while these factors have certainly helped conspiracy thinking to grow, they are – for now, at least – largely facts of life. While policymakers should make efforts to curb their effects, there are far more immediate steps they can take to ensure that the impact of conspiracy thinking is minimised.

If Australia is to curb the risks of conspiracy thinking, its policymakers need to prevent the unnecessary escalation of conspiracy theories, and address the systemic factors that allow those theories to take hold. Both of these points are on show during an election campaign.

Preventing the escalation of conspiracy relies on careful and responsible messaging. Ill-conceived or poorly considered communication can exacerbate conspiracy concerns, with economic reform, vaccine mandates, and emergency power legislation being key examples in recent years.

To avoid making the problem worse, it is important to carefully consider both the audience and the ‘trigger points’ of conspiracy when messaging citizens. It is not necessary to muzzle leaders or coddle conspiracy theorists – it simply requires people to be more aware of the fact that certain topics and actions have increased an effect on conspiracy and to tailor their messaging accordingly.

Of course, prevention is better than cure, so Australian policymakers must also address the key concerns of conspiracy: trust, transparency, and support.

Evidence shows that conspiracy is more likely to take hold in the vulnerable sections of our community, and a lack of visibility and engagement in the political life of the community is a key part of conspiracy thinking.

Most concerningly, there is a growing lack of trust in government, and a growing sense of cynicism toward political actors and politics in general. It is critical that these trends are reversed, because trust and transparency are not political ‘nice-to-haves’, they are key to the delivery of security.

While Australians might be keen to look to a more positive future – and our political leaders might be keen to sell such a future to us – it is critical to keep in mind the risks we carry forward. Campaigns, debates and disagreements are a fundamental part of our democracy. However, elections bring out promises and polemics in equal measure, and both can have a tenuous relationship to the truth.

Conspiracy is a greater risk to our community than it ever has been. As such, political candidates, government officials, and everyday citizens should be wary, so that the exaggerations and spin of today do not become the security risks of tomorrow.

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Updated:  7 October 2022/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team