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Conspiracy theories thrive online at the World Economic Forum


NEW YORK –

When some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential people gathered last year at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, sessions on climate change sparked high-level discussions on topics such as finance carbon and sustainable food systems.

But an entirely different narrative unfolded on the internet, where social media users claimed leaders wanted to force people to eat insects instead of meat in the name of saving the environment.

The annual event in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, which opens on Monday, is increasingly the target of bizarre claims from a growing chorus of commentators who believe the forum involves an elite group manipulating events world to their own advantage. Experts say what was once a conspiracy theory found in the underworld of the internet has now reached the mainstream.

“This is not a conspiracy played out in the extreme,” said Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League who studies anti-government extremism. “We see it on mainstream social media platforms shared by ordinary Americans. We were seeing it being aired by mainstream media personalities directly to their prime-time news, to their nightly networks.

The meeting attracts heads of state, business leaders, cultural trendsetters and representatives of international organizations to the luxurious mountain city. While it’s always unclear how many concrete actions will emerge, the meeting is expected to address pressing global issues, from climate change and economic uncertainty to geopolitical instability and public health.

Hundreds of public sessions are planned, but the four-day conference is also known for secret behind-the-scenes meetings and deal-making by business leaders. This discrepancy between what is shown to the public and what happens behind closed doors helps make the meeting a flashpoint for misinformation.

“When we have very high levels of ambiguity, it’s very easy to fill narratives,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and also studies misinformation.

Theories about influential world leaders are not new, she said, but the scrutiny of the forum and its chair, Klaus Schwab, intensified in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, the theme for the annual meeting was “The Great Reset.” The initiative envisioned sweeping changes in the way societies and economies would operate to recover from the pandemic and build a more sustainable future.

Today, in increasingly mainstream corners of the internet and on conservative talk shows, “The Great Reset” has become shorthand for what skeptics say is a reorganization of society, using uncertainty world as a pretext to withdraw rights. Believers argue that measures, including pandemic lockdowns and vaccination mandates, are tools to consolidate power and undermine individual sovereignty.

At a time of growing anxiety, Jamieson says the public has become more susceptible to lies, as conspiracy theories emerge as a tool to cut through the chaos. Researchers who monitor extremism say these beliefs are becoming increasingly popular and of concern.

At a rally held on the grounds of an upstate New York church last fall, a photo of Schwab was displayed in the center of a large screen alongside other accused ‘bad guys’ to threaten American values. The crowd of thousands had gathered in a revivalist tent during a traveling roadshow used as a recruiting tool for an ascendant Christian nationalist movement. Attendees discussed “The Great Reset,” among a host of other theories, as an assault on American foundations.

The phrase was used more than 60 times across all Fox News programs in 2022, according to a tally generated by the Internet Archive’s television news database. That’s up from 30 mentions in 2021 and around 20 in 2020. He was discussed most often on “The Ingraham Angle” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

And in August, amid a libel lawsuit for calling the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack a hoax, Infowars host Alex Jones released a book called “The Great Reset: And The War For the World”. It is described as an analysis of “the international conspiracy of the global elite to enslave humanity and all life on the planet”.

As the World Economic Forum has become embroiled in this narrative, a steady stream of demands has plagued the organization. While some people make legitimate criticisms of the forum – namely that it hosts wealthy executives who fly on business jets spewing out shows – others spread unverified or unsubstantiated information like facts.

For example, a site known for spreading fabricated stories falsely claimed last month that Schwab was publicly promoting the decriminalization of sex between children and adults, using a made-up quote and other baseless claims. Still, it drew tens of thousands of shares on Twitter and Facebook.

Meanwhile, the popular claim that the forum wants people to replace meat with insects is a distorted reference to an article once published on the organization’s website. In another instance, a widely shared post claimed without evidence that the forum had “appointed” US Representative Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House before the actual vote.

The concern, Friedfeld says, is that posts like these could introduce people to more fringe and dangerous conspiracy theories or even result in real-world violence. Yann Zopf, media manager for the forum, says the organization has stepped up its monitoring of this type of online activity and carefully monitors direct threats.

“Creating all that stuff can generate enemies that people believe are responsible for everything that happens in the world,” Friedfeld said. “Once that happens, when you think that things are happening in the world and that a certain person or a certain group of people are responsible for these attacks, all of a sudden the idea of ​​using the violence to resist becomes more plausible.”

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