26 September 2023

Enforcement agencies advised to think mental

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Australian law enforcement agencies are being urged by university researchers to develop mental health capabilities to assess social trust and fear when dealing with conspiracists.

In a paper entitled Stopping the spread: Conspiracy theory and security practice, lecturer at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, James Mortensen and Research Systems Manager at ANU, Andrew Gibson said conspiracist thinking was continuing to rise in Australia, along with a corresponding fear of Government.

“This fear is most prevalent in reaction to Government responses to security crises,” Drs Mortensen and Gibson said.

“Security measures deployed against conspiracy believers can have unintended negative security impacts, exacerbating adherence to conspiracy theories and corresponding extremist behaviour,” they said.

“Australian Federal, State and Territory Government Agencies should consider social psychological indicators such as fear and trust when formulating security responses to people at risk of conspiracist thinking.”

The pair said the pandemic had not only provided opportunities for conspiracies to grow, but had also necessitated security responses that further antagonised conspiracy thinkers.

They said the social isolation experienced during lockdown, fear of sickness and medical interventions, and general crisis conditions had increased mental health risk factors associated with conspiracy and anti-social behaviour.

“Beyond the difficulty conspiracy thinking poses for representative democracy and evidence-based policymaking, it can serve as a catalyst for extremism and politically motivated violence,” they said.

“To address these risks, Federal and State governments must consider how such thinking spreads, how general mental health may affect public perceptions of policy measures, and how conspiracies challenge the effectiveness of security responses to crisis events.”

Along with the development of in-house mental health capabilities, Dr Mortensen and Dr Gibson recommended law enforcement and security agencies create guidelines to better manage tactical responses to conspiracist-led protests and civil disobedience, and that Government crisis messaging be subject to inter-agency assessments which balanced psychological and security considerations.

Their four-page Paper can be accessed at this PS News link.

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