19 May 2022
In recent years, the world has witnessed the profound damage that conspiracy theories and conspiratorial mindsets can do when they become entrenched into formal political structures. The ‘Big Lie’ of the US 2020 election has caused widespread damage to Americans’ faith in their democracy, and continues to generate ripples which are likely to continue – and even grow – between now and the next Presidential election in 2024. It has caused profound ruptures in American society, and even contributed to the Capitol attack on 6 January 2021.
There are signs that conspiratorial thinking and narratives are making inroads into the Australian political system. Although the context, fervour and scale of conspiracy movements in Australia differ from their US counterparts, this is nonetheless a concerning development which deserves attention.
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, and references which could be interpreted as such, 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.
This is the first piece of a two-part Dispatch. It will lay out the background to Great Reset conspiracy narratives, and explain how they were used in Australian politics in the lead up to the calling of the election on 10 April. The second piece will then analyse how the narrative has been used in the election campaign itself.
It is important to note that as with all political rhetoric, narratives such as this can be intended and received differently by different speakers and different audiences. This research does not make any claims as to the personal beliefs or intentions of any individuals. Instead, it makes an evidence-based analysis of publicly available social media posts containing mentions of the WEF and Great Reset, which are likely to be understood by some as references to conspiracy theories related to those terms.
Background to the Great Reset and World Economic Forum conspiracy theories
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying global rise in conspiracy movements, one of the most common transnational conspiracy narratives to emerge has been linked to the Great Reset, the WEF and its founder Klaus Schwab.
The ‘Great Reset’ is not so much a single conspiracy theory as a loose grouping of conspiracy theories which differ in their details and are adapted to their time and context – less conspiracy theory and more “conspiracy smoothie”, as one writer put it.
The core theme, however, is that Schwab and the WEF are acting as a Machiavellian hidden hand, orchestrating COVID-19 lockdowns and other public health measures in order to achieve their own sinister goals. These purported goals differ somewhat in different versions of the conspiracy theory. In some cases it’s about bringing about economic collapse, in others about establishing Marxist rule, and in others still it is linked to a vision of corporate capitalist surveillance dystopia.
As with many conspiracy theories, this family of conspiracy narratives begins with a grain of truth. The “Great Reset” is a phrase which has been used by Schwab and the WEF since June 2020 to describe their vision for a post-pandemic transformation of global capitalism. The broad, vague goals of this vision appear to have been fertile soil for the conspiracy theory to grow.
It was also spurred on by the way in which the language of a ‘reset’ was adopted by leaders such as US President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and others who supported stronger action on COVID-19. These leaders were already a target of hostility for many in transnational conspiracy communities. Anything supported by these leaders has therefore been treated as suspicious and potentially nefarious.
Fringe and mainstream right-wing media, particularly in the US, played a key role in propelling these conspiracy theories during 2020 and into 2021. The spread of Great Reset conspiracies was rapid and transnational. The nebulous, and therefore highly adaptable, nature of the conspiratorial narrative allowed it to find traction with a wide array of fringe communities, from anti-vaccine activists (who claimed the WEF would impose forced vaccinations) to QAnon followers (who wove it into their existing narratives of a Deep State paedophile cabal), to the far-right and neo-Nazis (who considered it a Jewish plot).
This flexibility has also allowed the Great Reset conspiracy strains to evolve with the times. As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease in many parts of the world, the focus of conspiracy theorists’ suspicion has begun to pivot away from lockdowns and restrictions to other issues, such as linking the ‘Great Reset’ to culture war issues or confabulating about a supposed coming ‘cyber pandemic’, food crisis, climate-lockdowns and a range of other scenarios.
Background to the ‘Great Reset’ in Australian politics
Great Reset conspiracy narratives began circulating in Australian anti-lockdown and COVID-19 conspiracy communities on social media in mid-2020.
Similarly to the US, right-wing media coverage in Australia played a key role in propelling the spread of conspiracy narratives about the Great Reset and the WEF – in particular, commentators on Sky After Dark and Sky News’ Outsiders program. In August 2020, for example, Sky News published an op-ed titled “Dangerous Marxist leaders call for ‘The Great Reset’ to destroy capitalism.” The “dangerous Marxist leaders” referred to the WEF, which is famous for being a gathering of many of the world’s richest capitalists.
Subsequent coverage by Sky News alleged that the Great Reset initiative presaged an attempt to use pandemic restrictions and lockdowns to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Host Rowan Dean described the WEF as “a hardcore leftist eco-horror show replete with quasi fascism”, and the Great Reset as “a program designed to strip us all of our fundamental democratic rights in favour of a new form of society as dictated by the elite”.
Sky News reaches a relatively small audience in Australia but has become popular for its coverage and commentary amongst COVID-sceptic, anti-vaccine and conspiracy theorist communities (Sky News’ own Youtube channel was suspended for a week in 2021 for airing COVID-19 misinformation).
Sky News also wields significant political influence on the right of Australian politics. One Sky News host is a former Coalition Senator, another a former Chief of Staff to a Coalition Prime Minister. Politicians from the Coalition and minor right-wing parties are regular guests on Sky News shows. Over the course of the pandemic, this came to include a small group of elected politicians who opposed COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates, and in some cases also personally attended anti-lockdown protests and promoted COVID-19 misinformation. This includes members of the Coalition and One Nation, as well as former Coalition MP and current United Australia Party (UAP) leader Craig Kelly.
This intersection between Sky News and One Nation appears to have played a role in the introduction of the Great Reset narrative into formal Australian politics. On 19 October 2020, One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson shared a Facebook video of Sky’s Rowan Dean talking about the Great Reset. In the post Hanson wrote that Australia “should have nothing to do with this so-called Great Reset”.
Weeks later, on 11 November, Senator Hanson introduced a Motion to the Senate which asserted that “adopting the policies of the World Economic Forum’s proposed ‘Great Reset’ would have a devastating impact on the economic wellbeing and individual freedoms of Australians”. Hanson called on the government to boycott the WEF in protest of the ‘Great Reset’ agenda.
The motion was defeated 2-37. The two votes were Hanson and her fellow One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts. Hanson promptly appeared on Sky News to discuss the failed motion and warn against the “globalist agenda” behind the Great Reset.
Throughout 2021 and into 2022, multiple federal politicians including One Nation Senators; Coalition Senators; former Coalition MP and current One Nation candidate George Christensen and former Coalition MP and current leader of the UAP Craig Kelly have continued to share content relating to the Great Reset and WEF via their social media channels, and occasionally also made reference to it in the Parliamentary chamber.
In the same way that other strains of the Great Reset conspiracy narratives have adapted to their context and the roll-back of pandemic restrictions, in Australia the focus has begun to shift towards other issues. In the second of this two-part Dispatch, we will analyse how narratives about the WEF and Great Reset have been used by political candidates during the 2022 election campaign. We reveal that linking the WEF and Great Reset to Labor’s housing policy appears to have been the primary hook used to tie this narrative into the election news cycle – but not the only one.