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A mental health bill in Georgia shows how conspiracy theories are affecting politics

A file photo of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. In a sign of the growing influence of conspiracy theories, a bipartisan mental health bill was almost derailed by unfounded accusations.
Megan Varner
Getty Images
A file photo of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. In a sign of the growing influence of conspiracy theories, a bipartisan mental health bill was almost derailed by unfounded accusations.

Updated April 20, 2022 at 1:06 PM ET

On its surface, there wasn't supposed to be anything controversial about Georgia's Mental Health Parity Act introduced earlier this year.

In a time where Democrats and Republicans don't agree on much, the issue of mental health reform was top of mind when Georgia lawmakers crafted a bill that had the backing of experts, advocates and both political parties. Both Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and his likely Democratic challenger in the fall, Stacey Abrams, backed the bill.

"Now I'm going to give Republicans credit," Abrams said at a campaign stop in March. "This is a conversation we've been trying to have in Georgia for more than a decade."

After years of ranking near the bottom in access to mental health care, Georgia's House Bill 1013 would require insurance companies to cover mental health the same way they do physical health. Only three lawmakers voted against the original bill in the state House, citing concerns over inclusion of language already used to define existing issues and provide care.

But before the bill could advance further, its opponents connected the legislation to hot-button cultural issues, especially around sexual identity, and nearly derailed it. The fact that Democrats also supported the bill raised suspicion among some Republicans.

Rep. Philip Singleton, a leader of the legislature's far-right state Freedom Caucus, claimed the bill would "massively expand government in the style of ObamaCare," and enable "back door gun-grabbing."

Then he went even further in a speech before the Georgia state House. "Under this language, treatment for things such as gender dysphoria and pedophilia are automatically included and would therefore be required to be covered, the cost of which will be spread out amongst all Georgians," he said.

From there, opposition snowballed. A nonprofit called "Truth in Education" put out a flyer falsely alleging that Georgia was set to use the law to take guns away from citizens and that pedophilia would no longer be illegal, but rather a health diagnosis. Dozens of mostly older citizens flooded committee hearings with signs attacking Abrams and decrying things that the bill didn't even do.

And at a recent Trump rally, Patrick Witt, a fringe candidate for insurance commissioner, elicited boos when he made the false claim the government would take over mental health care, guided by the World Health Organization.

"It is the biggest government takeover of health care since Obamacare, and it's being pushed by your Republican insurance commissioner," he said. "It would mandate that insurance companies cover any mental health treatment as defined by the World Health Organization – which no surprise will include gender reassignment surgery, hormone blockers for kids and potentially even therapy for pedophiles."

The original language of the bill defined "mental health or substance use disorder" as a condition included in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - also known as DSM-5, or the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases. Ultimately, lawmakers tweaked language to appease the critics without substantially altering the bill's purpose. But some lawmakers were still concerned the measure was straying from its stated goal. "I just wonder if this weakens the original intent of the parity section of the bill," Democratic state Sen. Michelle Au, an anesthesiologist, said during a hearing.

The episode in Georgia is another sign of how disinformation's grasp on American politics is becoming stronger. Right-wing figures have lately started to use the term "groomers," to apply to opponents of their agenda rolling back LGBTQ rights, such as Florida's new law limiting discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms.

"Groomer" is a term that implies child sexual abuse and has a history steeped in homophobia. There is no evidence that LGBTQ people abuse children at any greater rate than the rest of the population.

Increasingly, outspoken Republican members of Congress, like Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, are also adopting these slurs. "The Democrats are the party of pedophiles," Greene said in a recent interview on a fringe media outlet. "The Democrats are the party of princess predators from Disney."

None of these things are true. But Jennifer Mercieca, an expert in political rhetoric who teaches at Texas A&M University, said that's beside the point, because messaging like this evokes feelings of fear instead of facts.

"There's a lot of research about fear appeals and why they work on the brain," she said. "And here you have a fear appeal, an outrage appeal and a conspiracy theory all wrapped into one."

Name-calling in politics is nothing new - but using such harsh, absolutist language is meant to deliberately whip voters into a frenzy. And in political debates, that leads to more extreme positions and less compromise.

That kind of language is "used to dehumanize people," Mercieca said. "They're no longer people, but they are instead 'pedophiles' or 'groomers.' They're not even human. You, of course, don't try to negotiate or find consensus with an enemy who cheats. That's not the goal, the goal is only to destroy them."

Ultimately the tactics didn't work in Georgia – this time.

Gov. Brian Kemp signed the Mental Health Parity Act into law on April 4th flanked by Republicans and Democrats, advocates and activists with much fanfare – after the final bill passed with unanimous support.

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.