The theory of Alarmist Gatekeeping, developed in the context of abortion discourse in Australia for my doctoral degree is currently proving its worth in framing other ideological and controversial topics. It describes a process within which exists a single acceptable perspective on an issue, how this domination occurs and is perpetuated, and more importantly the very real and very negative consequences for society.
The theory was developed through analysis of thousands of data incidents including interviews, political documents, media articles, professional body policies and statements and social media. Alarmist Gatekeeping is a complexly interwoven process of alarmist recruitment and perspective gatekeeping. The process recruits people to the 'cause' through alarm and disinformation, silences dissenters, and maintains dominance through subsequent self-censorship. The process developed over time with abortion discourse, however seems to be very effective much more quickly today on issues of gender ideology, domestic violence, climate change and others.
Recruitment entails ensuring an agreeable general cause, often accompanied by alarmist statements which are either greatly exaggerated or even fabricated. In abortion discourse people are recruited on the basis of human rights or women's freedom and bodily autonomy. Alarmist disinformation is used to discourage dissent. "Do you want women to die because they can't get an abortion?"
Few people are prepared to say 'no' to the recruitment statements and many simply believe the alarmist disinformation, particularly when it is repeated so often across many different platforms. In the case of abortion, the same or similar messaging is pervasive appearing across media, professional bodies, educational institutes, political discussion and many more.
Disinformation is rife and it is almost impossible for the general public to know what the facts are when those labeled 'experts' perpetuate it. We see community surveys which appear to suggest majority support for abortion which is used to support legislation to increase abortion access and decrease protections for women and for girls. Yet such surveys have usually consisted of general recruitment questions asked of people subject to limited information. The information that dominates is that which eases any discomfort individuals may experience. One example is that of late term abortion, with the majority of people not supporting freely available access in later gestations, and especially not for non medical reasons.
Disinformation presented by experts both in the media and as submissions to governmental processes include that later gestation abortion is rare, or doesn't happen, or as one 'expert' states:
Late-term abortions are a tiny percentage of terminations and are almost always the result of a tragic turn in a much-wanted pregnancy – either a threat to the mother’s life or such serious malformation of the fetus as to be incompatible with life. Caro, J.
For people concerned about late term abortion, this is a comforting statement and they are more likely to state their agreement that abortion should be available in such circumstances. However, this statement is blatantly false and is easily refuted with the governments own statistics which demonstrate that, for example, in Victoria around half of all post 20wk abortions are undertaken for psycho-social reasons: healthy mothers carrying healthy babies, but in adverse circumstances of some sort.
When such information is made available, it is often refuted as false, whether evidence is offered or not, or the person who delivers the information is discredited professionally or personally. These two strategies combined have the effect of both confusing those who are trying to discern fact, and silence others who might have spoken up in support.
The other interesting psychological phenomena that occurs is that when two conflicting ideas or pieces of information are presented to someone which create discomfort, that person is more likely to decide to accept the one that is more prevalent, more familiar and therefore more comfortable and reject the alternative.
The most significant effect of Alarmist Gatekeeping is the self-censorship it generates among the general population as well as those charged with the provision of information or education to stakeholders; in this research, practitioners interacting with women on the issue of abortion. Ideological awareness or positioning only changes the reason people self-censor, not the fact they almost invariably all do so.
A range of factors ensure easy recruitment of people:
- ensuring public perception is that MOST people think and believe in the cause (we all want to belong)
- discrediting of evidence that may threaten the cause (most people aren't really supportive of late term abortion for less than the most serious reasons and information that late term abortion occurs for non-serious reasons is often denied, even when evidence is provided)
- discrediting of people who dissent
- legislation that prevents dissent
My upcoming book describes the process of Alarmist Gatekeeping and provides examples of the process at work in Australian discourse raising important questions about how it is that we allow such domination to grow in such power and generate so much harm. After twenty years of challenging abortion discourse, I thought I understood it. I had no idea how pervasive and powerful it is nor how much it was controlling all of us.
Perhaps once the majority are more aware of what is happening, there may be power in a collective dissent. My hope is that this explanation of how the dominant discourse controls and manipulates not just the thinking of people but also their actions, that more might stop and think about what it is that is really true and what consequences they are prepared to sit by and watch.