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How misinformation derails free speech


Own nothing, be happy. You might have heard the phrase. It started life as a screenshot, culled from the internet by an anonymous antisemitic account on the image board 4chan. “Own nothing, be happy—The Jew World Order 2030,” said the post, which went viral among extremists.

How did an anonymous antisemitic account turn a years-old headline into a meme for the far right, and a slogan picked up by mainstream conservative politicians? And what’s the truth behind that “own nothing and be happy” headline?

The story begins in 2016, with the publication of an opinion piece on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda website by Danish MP, Ida Auken, “Welcome to 2030: I own nothing, have no privacy and life has never been better.” It is the reference for a social media video entitled “8 Predictions for the World in 2030.” It was part of an essay series intended to spark debate about socioeconomic developments—this was the time of the booming “app” economy, and the commissioning editor—hardly a radical—had previously worked for Britain’s conservative-leaning Telegraph.

The piece gained a respectable readership and lived quietly on the Forum’s website for a number of years. The video notched up 9,900 reactions and 766,000 views on Facebook. Fast forward four years to 2020. The world looked very different. A global pandemic was raging and the WEF launched “The Great Reset,” promoting the idea of “building back better” out of the pandemic so that economies could emerge greener and fairer post-COVID-19.

The pandemic magnified many societal ills. The mistrust in governments and leaders that had been building before played into the hands of both fringe groups and state-sponsored actors looking to undermine and weaken rivals. Both came together on the anonymous dark web in places like 4chan’s “politically incorrect” image board. The board, which is completely unmoderated, was also by operators of a Russian propaganda campaign, active since 2014. The intent was apparently to spread disinformation in a bid to stir far-right outrage about COVID-19 and perpetuate domestic extremism. The means were often via bots that would push a far-right conspiracy theory to communities on boards such as 4chan. Recent analysis explains how this context brought extremists together “using rhetoric that trivialized National Socialism and the Holocaust.” This same far-right, Holocaust-denying cohort latched onto the “Great Reset,” claiming that the WEF was part of a group that “orchestrated the pandemic to take control of the global economy.” A number of threads appeared in this vein, dedicated to the “Great Reset.” One such 4chan thread linked the pandemic, the alleged nefarious control that the Forum exercises over the global economy, and the idea that “You’ll own nothing and be happy.”

It went truly viral, capturing the warped imagination of conspiracy and fringe groups. One neo-Nazi and white supremacist website claimed the “Great Reset” was a “response to the coronavirus faked crisis” and would usher in “global communism” to ensure “no one will be able to own anything.” Its popularity also saw more mainstream figures “dog-whistle” the phrase while ignoring its antisemitic and far-right origins. Threads proliferated, the catchphrase, “own nothing, be happy” snowballed, and even more mainstream news sites, including Fox News, Sky News Australia, and GB News, embraced it.

Pierre Poilievre, a Canadian MP who was the former minister for democratic reform, used it to discredit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, giving rise to a national movement. The campaign has similarly infected the Dutch political landscape, long targeted by Russian misinformation actors. In the Netherlands alone, during June 2020, there were an average of 1.5 posts per day mentioning the “Great Reset” among Dutch-speaking communities on Facebook. By October, this grew to an average of 6.3 posts per day and, by December, this had more than doubled to 13.6 posts per day. By January 2021, the figures doubled yet again with an average of 28 posts per day.

Trolls on Twitter and Facebook, for instance, have spread doctored content to promote the falsehood that, through the “Great Reset,” the WEF is advancing pernicious depopulation efforts. These include racist conspiracies that claim white people are the primary target for depopulation. Bad faith actors have also targeted the Forum’s coverage of the circular economy (economic systems that aim to eliminate waste by reusing raw materials rather than disposing of them), decrying it as a “top-down agenda” coming from “unelected globalists looking to reshape the world in their image.”

These are just some examples among many. As far back as 2013, the WEF’s annual Global Risks Report flagged misinformation as a concern, warning then that misinformation could spark “digital wildfires” in our hyperconnected world. Today, that warning has largely been born out. Misinformation is a serious challenge for regulators, a minefield for individuals who seek the facts, and a barrier to governments and organizations wanting to disseminate important information. The consequences of unabated misinformation are dangerous. Misinformation concerning COVID-19 and vaccines cost lives during the pandemic. The revelations around the 2021 Capitol Hill riot reveal how false information around elections can threaten the foundations of democracy. Moreover, the amount of data now generated, predicted to nearly quadruple by 2025, makes it easier and cheaper to use algorithms for malicious or manipulative purposes with unprecedented efficiency, speed, and reach.

“It is important to recognize that misinformation/disinformation is a tactic used to support an oftentimes political strategy. There are a variety of ways that bad information circulates for political gain. A classic example is for an actor to intentionally disseminate false, inaccurate, or misleading information that inflicts demonstrable and significant public harm,” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The story of “You’ll own nothing and be happy” is anything but trivial, and offers valuable insights into how misinformation is created and why it’s essential not to perpetuate its spread. It also highlights how misinformation derails free speech. At the request of Auken, the WEF removed all the media around her piece because of the abuse and threats that she had faced online. Action to prevent lies being accepted as truth can help avoid similar situations and promote genuine free speech, allowing us all to freely exchange ideas and opinions. In a world where the trolls win, more forward-thinking conversations like the one Auken tried to initiate will be tarnished. The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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Adrian Monck is managing director of the World Economic Forum.

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The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.

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