19 May 2022
As part of our research for the Mosaic Project, ISD researchers used a conspiracy theory about the World Economic Forum (WEF) and its Great Reset initiative as a small case study of how conspiracy theory narratives are playing out in the context of the Australian federal election in 2022.
Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, we analysed how candidates in the election have made references to the WEF and Great Reset on Facebook and Twitter. These references are likely to be understood by some audiences as references to the transnational ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy narrative which is discussed in detail in part one of this two-part Dispatch.
This research does not make any claims as to the personal beliefs or intentions of any individuals. Instead, it provides an evidence-based analysis of publicly available comments and social media activity.
- Housing policy was the primary news hook for WEF and ‘Great Reset’ narratives in the election cycle
Prior to the election, housing policy was not a prominent component of the ‘Great Reset’ narratives in Australia.
As mentioned in the previous Dispatch, initially the focus of those propagating these narratives appeared to be turning towards the theme of pushback against digital identity legislation. However, despite efforts by minor parties and some major party candidates, this issue appears to have failed to gain significant traction.
This appears to have prompted the political actors seeking to wield this narrative to change tack towards a topic which reliably generates real anxiety amongst the Australian public: housing.
For example, on 11 April, a day after the election was called, the main United Australia Party (UAP) (formerly Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party) Facebook page posted a video (Image 1). The text accompanying the post connected a supposed, upcoming “market house crash” with the ‘Great Reset’. This reflects that the narrative link between housing, the ‘Great Reset’ and the election has been present from the very first days of the campaign.
However, the most significant example of Australian politicians linking housing policy to narratives about the ‘Great Reset’ during the election period came from One Nation leader Pauline Hanson. On 2 May Hanson posted a media release in which she used the ‘Great Reset’ as a narrative frame for attacking Labor’s housing policy (Image 2).
Hanson’s post was shared directly over 5000 times on Facebook, and screenshots and other indirect forms of sharing appear to be in wide circulation (this form of sharing is difficult to track precisely).
Hanson’s post was also reported by the Daily Mail as a news story (which failed to mention the conspiratorial implications of the ‘Great Reset’ narrative). The article was sent over 7,300 times via Facebook and the link was shared on the platform 395 times, garnering 1,235 reactions and 625 comments.
Among public Facebook pages and groups, the story was shared primarily by right-wing, anti-lockdown or conspiracy theory pages with relatively small followings of a few thousand users. These shares did not gain a significant amount of interactions.
The story was also shared by a small number of One Nation candidates, most notably George Christensen. Christensen has a large Facebook audience of over 117,000 and his post of the article garnered over 4,800 comments and 899 shares.
It was also shared by the Daily Mail’s own account, which has 4.2 million page likes, and its Australian video page Only in Australia (85k page likes). Data shows, however, that these two accounts only received a combined total of 357 interactions with this story. Given their large followings, this does not necessarily mean that only a small number of people saw it.
The link which minor party political figures have drawn between Labor’s housing policy and the ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy narratives have been picked up by parts of the Australian anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine and conspiracy community. This has moved back into the political ecosystem, as it is apparent that at least some minor party candidates are actively engaging with this content, for example liking and commenting on posts promoting those views (see Image 3). A number of minor party candidates have also appeared in online interviews and videos alongside high profile anti-lockdown influencers to promote their campaigns.
This dynamic is significant, because it highlights that the relationship between parts of the Australian political system and the online conspiracy theory ecosystem is interactive – narratives flow both ways.
- Among the minor parties, UAP candidates were the most frequent posters of WEF narratives but One Nation were the most widely shared and engaged with on social media
We applied a keyword search related to the WEF conspiracy theory narratives to our monitoring of 341 Facebook and 231 Twitter profiles of candidates and politicians from both major and minor parties, along with independents. Our analysis started on 10 April, when the election was called, and ran until 8 May.
On Twitter we identified 113 tweets or retweets containing WEF related keywords stemming from 20 unique authors affiliated with the UAP (96 posts), One Nation (13 posts) or the Liberal Democrats (4 posts). UAP accounts were the most active among the minor parties in posting WEF and ‘Great Reset’ related content. The five accounts which posted the most on the topic were: Sean Conway (33 tweets/retweets), Elvis Sinosic (16), Geraldine Hoogland (11), Linda Daniel (10), and Lisa Khoury (7).
Some UAP candidates were also running paid Facebook advertisements about the WEF, for example the below ad run by UAP candidate Christian Fayad.
A remarkably similar ad appears to have been authorised by anti-lockdown activist and independent Senate candidate Monica Smit. One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts subsequently shared a photograph of this on Facebook to encourage his followers to vote for One Nation.
One Nation-linked Twitter accounts had more impact with their WEF-related posts, despite employing these less often than their UAP counterparts. This is likely due to the relatively higher profiles and larger social media followings of the One Nation candidates, including Pauline Hanson, Malcolm Roberts and George Christensen. Among UAP accounts, only party leader Craig Kelly gained more traction than One Nation accounts with this type of content. The 10 most widely shared posts originated from: Pauline Hanson (748 retweets), Craig Kelly (377), Malcolm Roberts (209), Malcolm Roberts (208), Craig Kelly (173), Scott McCamish (UAP) (64), George Christensen (58), Malcolm Roberts (40), Malcolm Roberts (38), Malcolm Roberts (25).
Some candidates have used WEF-related conspiracy narratives to attempt to arouse suspicion about their opponents, through associating them with the WEF. For example, UAP’s candidate for Parramatta, Julian Fayad, has been running Facebook ads in which he accuses his Labor opponent Andrew Charlton of being linked to the WEF (Image 6).
On Facebook we identified 117 posts from 45 unique authors among politicians and candidates. One Nation-affiliated accounts were far more active on Facebook, and accounted for the five most active posters in this data collection: Faye Aspiotis (10 posts), Malcolm Roberts (9), George Christensen (6), Julie Hall (6), Cindi Marr (6).
We also identified individual posts by UAP and Liberal Democrat candidates, as well as by independent Senate candidate and anti-lockdown activist Morgan Jonas. Jonas’ content was relatively successful, obtaining a high number of shares. The most widely shared posts on Facebook predominantly came from One Nation accounts: Pauline Hanson (5.1K shares); Morgan C Jonas (1.5K); Malcolm Roberts (1.4K); Malcolm Roberts (1K); Malcolm Roberts (940); George Christensen (892); Malcolm Roberts (493); George Christensen (481); George Christensen (454); Malcolm Roberts (382).
The higher levels of engagement for One Nation candidates posting about the WEF and ‘Great Reset’ is almost certainly related to their higher public profiles. Senators Hanson and Roberts, and former MP Christensen, have all had long public careers and are well-known in right-wing Australian politics, as well as in anti-lockdown and conspiracy theory communities. By comparison, the majority of UAP candidates are relatively unknown to the public and have only small social media followings.
- Major parties, major platform
Although our data reflects that the narratives around the WEF and ‘Great Reset’ during the election have been primarily driven by minor party politicians and candidates, some members of major parties have also played a role in amplifying suspicion and mistrust of the WEF. The higher online profiles of these politicians means their content reaches wider audiences.
On 29 March, in the days leading up to the election being called, Liberal Senator Alex Antic delivered a speech to the Senate in which he described the WEF as “steeped in authoritarianism and Marxist ideology”, and an organisation “seek[ing] to subvert Western values and political processes.” He implicitly associated the WEF with Nazi Germany and 1984, linking the ‘Great Reset’ with the phrase “You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy” with “Work makes you free” (which infamously appeared above the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps) and “Ignorance is strength” (a slogan from George Orwell’s novel 1984). Antic claimed that “Australians deserve to know the extent of the World Economic Forum’s influence and infiltration of our country, and we’re going to find out”.
As this speech took place so close to the beginning of the election campaign, we made the decision to include it in our analysis of the WEF narrative in the election. Videos and clips of this speech were shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, including in international anti-vaccine and conspiracy communities. The video of Antic’s speech uploaded to his own Facebook page has been viewed over 219,000 times at the time of writing. To put this in context, another video of Antic speaking in the Senate on the same day has been viewed less than 20,000 times (although even this is a very high view count for a Senate speech clip).
We identified references to Antic’s speech in 10,526 Twitter mentions (tweets & retweets) attributed to 9,108 unique authors. On Facebook, we identified 638 such original posts, which were shared 26,722 times.
To capture the spread of this video, we took two key metrics into consideration: who the most prolific amplifiers of content related to Antic’s speech were (i.e. posts or retweets by accounts with the largest follower counts), and which posts were most widely shared on each platform.
The speech was circulated by several accounts with tens of thousands of followers, with a few in the hundreds of thousands. These accounts were located across the Anglosphere and Europe, with an understandable emphasis on Australia, and their content focussed on either right-wing politics or vaccine scepticism. This contributed to a significant potential global audience for Antic’s speech.
Examining the most widely shared posts on Facebook and Twitter provided us with insights as to who created the most interest in the speech on social media. On Twitter, the 10 most widely shared tweets came from accounts located in Australia (5), the Netherlands (1), Canada (1), the UK (1), Italy (1) and Poland (1). The most widely shared tweet, by a significant margin, was from an account located in Australia. It garnered 8.2k retweets; by comparison, the second most shared tweet was retweeted 1.2k times.
On Facebook, the most widely shared posts all came from accounts located in the Anglosphere or the Netherlands. The 3 most shared posts were all from accounts located in Australia. The most shared post was Antic’s own post sharing the video. Of the 10 most widely shared posts, 5 came from accounts located in Australia, Canada (2), the Netherlands (2) and Ireland (1).
It is highly unusual for speeches to the Australian Senate to spread internationally in this way. It would appear the majority of this transnational sharing activity emanated from domestic and transnational conspiracy theory communities (although there is no intention to claim that all of those sharing the speech are motivated by conspiracy theories).
A qualitative assessment of the posts and comments about Antic’s speech suggests that these communities were motivated to share it so widely not because of its content (which is fairly tame on the scale of ‘Great Reset’ rhetoric available online), but because it was being said by a member of the Australian government in the Australian Senate chamber. This was perceived to confer a level of legitimacy and official confirmation to the narrative.
Top 10 most widely shared posts on Twitter:
|Forum voor Democratie||1.2k||Netherlands|
Top 10 most widely shared posts on Facebook:
|Account||Post shares||Geographic Focus|
|Senator Alex Antic||15.7k||Australia|
|Senator Alex Antic||1.2k||Australia|
|Vrijheid & Waarheid (1)||495||Netherlands|
The growth of conspiracy narratives and a conspiratorial mindset within formal political systems is damaging on multiple levels. As we have seen around the world, most prominently in the US with figures like former President Donald Trump and Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, politicians who endorse or dog-whistle to conspiracy theories have an enormous power to amplify these narratives. In doing so, they drive social division, undermine faith in democratic processes and ultimately corrode public consensus around a shared, fact-based reality.
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions and hardships which came with it propelled the rise of highly transnational conspiracy movements. These movements are now beginning to exert an influence on the political systems of many nations. Australia is no exception to this.
Australia is not in the same situation as some other countries, where mainstream and influential politicians are openly endorsing baseless conspiracy theories. Instead, our research suggests that in Australia’s election, references to conspiracy theories are primarily coming from political candidates from minor parties who are unlikely to win many seats.
What is concerning, however, is the way in which influential minor party figures such as Senator Hanson, and minor parties with enormous advertising reach such as the UAP, have sought to weave references to the WEF and the ‘Great Reset’ into their election campaigns. Equally concerning is the willingness of some Australian politicians to use the Parliament as a platform for amplifying statements which are open to interpretation by some as legitimising conspiracy theories.