The ‘Great Reset’
By Aoife Gallagher and Ciaran O’Connor
Misconceptions around the ‘Great Reset’, a World Economic Forum (WEF) initiative launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, have become a mainstay of conspiracy thinking in recent years, claiming government overreach and tying the proposed plan to other extremist narratives.
Origin of the ‘Great Reset’ and related misconceptions
The Great Reset is the name of a WEF initiative launched in June 2020 in response to economic and social conditions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The call-to-action plan encouraged governments to steer markets towards fairer outcomes for societies, to rethink capital investment in order to help advance common goals such as sustainability, and use technology in support of society’s best interests.
As an influential lobbying organisation, WEF membership includes many of the world’s most powerful individuals, from the CEOs of major corporations to political leaders, journalists and celebrities. Its mission is to “shape global, regional and industry agendas,” according to its website. Historically, it has been criticised for expressing concern about issues such as global poverty and global warming, while allegedly doing little to alleviate them.
While there are valid reasons to pay attention to the activities of the WEF, its association with elites, as well as its clear intention to influence and change the world, has made it prime fodder for conspiracy theorists. The launch of the Great Reset proposal in the middle of the pandemic provided yet another matter for conspiracists to take issue with. The initiative did not feature any specific programmes or actions to be undertaken at a global level in order to achieve the goals outlined, and this broad, vague approach left it open to interpretation by all, including conspiracists.
The ‘conspiracy smoothie’
The global pandemic directly contributed to a global rise in conspiracy theorising. The ‘Great Reset’, a conspiracy theory which takes the same name as the WEF initiative, quickly became one of the most popular narratives in various countries. The conspiracy drew on the original plan, linking it to the WEF and its founder, Klaus Schwab, while incorporating other conspiracies to adapt to different national contexts. It was less a singular conspiracy theory and more a “conspiracy smoothie,” as writer Naomi Klein put it.
The core conspiratorial theme 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 various versions of the conspiracy theory. In some cases it’s about bringing about economic collapse, in others about establishing Marxist or socialist authoritarian rule, and at times it is linked to a vision of a corporate capitalist surveillance dystopia.
Event 201, a disaster response exercise simulating a fictional pandemic that was run in 2019, has often been pointed to as proof of the WEF’s sinister plan. The exercise was hosted by John Hopkins Center for Health Security, in partnership with the WEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Event 201 then became enmeshed with the wider conspiratorial claims about the Great Reset initiative to claim that the pandemic was orchestrated by elites to control the world.
The WEF’s Great Reset initiative also became interwoven with similar long-standing conspiratorial themes including those related to a supposed New World Order; or claims associated with Agenda 2030, part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The initiative has also been adapted to propagate denial and scepticism about the realities of climate change. In this case, it has been used to frame global warming as part of a plot devised to destroy capitalism. According to this narrative, climate action is really meant to control what we own and eat, and ultimately impose totalitarian rule. Narratives mentioning the Great Reset in the run-up to COP27 linked the conspiracy to the energy and cost of living crises, claiming the current situation had been deliberately provoked to facilitate state control.
A phrase that is often used to support the conspiracy that the WEF is planning to strip people of their liberties, possessions and private property is: “You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy.” This originates from a 2016 WEF video and a subsequent series of articles by members of the forum’s Global Future Council where they made predictions about what the world would look like in 2030. It included statements like “we won’t transplant organs, we’ll print new ones instead” and “you’ll eat much less meat,” but it was the contribution of Danish MP Ida Auken that grabbed the most attention. Writing from a city in an imaginary future, Auken described a world where technological advancements had made transport, accommodation and food free. “Welcome to the year 2030,” she said. “I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes … Everything you considered a product has now become a service.”
Auken later tried to clarify that the blog wasn’t her idea of a utopia or a dream future; it was simply a scenario “showing where we could be heading – for better and for worse.” Her blog was summed up in promotional videos as, “you’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy.” It eventually made its way through online conspiracy communities as alleged evidence of the WEF’s master plan.
How the Great Reset conspiracy ties in with extremism
There is evidence that the Great Reset conspiracy has become increasingly popular among right-wing extremist communities online, focussing on the supposed related threats. In some white supremacist communities online, ISD has observed discussions that use the Great Reset as a byword to promote antisemitism and code slurs with parentheses to reference Klaus Schwab or the WEF: (((Klaus Schwab))), (((WEF))). Among right-wing extremists communities online, this messaging implies negative, antisemitic connotations about Schwab and the WEF, accusing them of conspiring with others to secretly control the world. In some communities, violence is encouraged against them on this basis.
The Great Reset has also been a motivating factor toward violence in some cases. In October 2021, the neo-fascist Forza Nuova group took part in violent anti-vaccination protests in Rome and targeted a hospital emergency room as part of their fight against the Great Reset and the country’s green pass (COVID-19 vaccination certificate).
Spread of the Great Reset conspiracy
ISD has tracked the spread of conspiracy theories regarding the Great Reset from the beginning. After the WEF initiative was launched on 3 June 2020, the first video describing the call-to-action as a “New World Order power grab” was posted four days later on alt-tech video platform Bitchute. The video has since been viewed over 100,000 times. Towards the end of June, an op-ed written by Justin Hawkins of the Heartland Institute, a leading climate change-denying think tank, was published on Fox News, in which he wrote the Great Reset’s “socialist outline is clear: destroy the global capitalist economy and reform the Western world.”
By November 2020, conspiratorial narratives concerning the Great Reset started to attract wider attention online again when a mixture of leading Canadian and American right-wing and far-right media figures published videos portraying it as a liberal, left-wing, globalist power grab. Figures and organisations like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham (both of Fox News), Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck and Breitbart News, among others, all began to produce content framing the Great Reset as a power grab by liberal elites to usher in a new world order.
Internationally, the spread of the Great Reset conspiracy theory has been aided primarily by right-wing and far-right media and political figures. Whether it’s Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in Australia; the AfD in Germany or Carla Zambelli, a pro-Bolsonaro politician in Brazil; the ‘Great Reset’ became a new boogieman for many on the right to cry foul over.
The influence of prominent local figures in helping to seed and amplify this conspiracy is also clear. In a research project released in January 2021, ISD explored how Theirry Baudet, the leader of the populist right-wing Forum for Democracy party in the Netherlands, mainstreamed the conspiracy and used it to target Prime Minister Mark Rutte ahead of the country’s elections in March of that year. Baudet posted about the Great Reset on Facebook in January 2021, leading to a 94% increase in wider discussions about the conspiracy within the country in the period immediately afterwards, effectively helping to bring the conspiracy theory to whole new audiences.
Conspiratorial interpretations concerning the Great Reset have not been confined to right-wing figures either. Russell Brand, a comedian-turned-YouTuber with over six million subscribers, whose history of political commentary and activism has more often supported left-wing positions regarding various issues or elections, has produced more than 20 videos about the Great Reset, most often framing it as an elitist power grab.
The Great Reset conspiracy has become significantly popular online. On Facebook (pages and public groups), from June 2020 to January 2023, there have been over 260,000 posts that mentioned the Great Reset. On TikTok, videos tagged with the hashtag #GreatReset have been viewed 245 million times at the time of publishing.
Everything is connected
Millions of people have now been exposed to the Great Reset conspiracy in one form or another. What started off as a right-wing reactionary response to the WEF’s aspirational call-to-action to rethink how governments, corporations and technology can better serve society, has now been blended into a misleading and highly adaptable conspiracy. The initial claims first aired in the US and Canada have now spread across the globe and become useful fodder for radical or fringe political figures, as well as online content creators seeking higher viewership and/or subscribers.
Mainstream, as well as less-popular, social media platforms have largely taken a hands-off approach to addressing or removing misleading and false claims related to the WEF initiative. The WEF’s lack of detail about how to implement the Great Reset and – following the conspiratorial backlash – failure to issue any public rebuttals, statements or counter measures to dispel such conspiratorial notions, has given more nefarious actors a wide range of ammunition to further distort the narrative around the Great Reset. At the time of writing, conspiratorial claims concerning ‘15 minute cities’ are spreading rapidly online, largely drawing on the Great Reset conspiracy and so-called ‘climate lockdowns’.
For conspiracists, everything tends to be connected. When it comes to the Great Reset, a lofty plan to reset the world’s economy designed by highly influential elites in governments and corporations, makes for an attractive theory. Away from the clicks, likes and shares however, the Great Reset conspiracy remains a narrative that has empowered extremists and other opportunists and it’s impossible to know what may follow in its wake.