Adrian Monck is the managing director of the World Economic Forum.
Own nothing, be happy. You may 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 a years-old headline turn into a meme for the far right and a slogan picked up by mainstream conservative politicians? And what’s the truth behind that headline?
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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 under the headline “Welcome to 2030: I own nothing, have no privacy and life has never been better.”
It was part of an essay series intended to spark debate about socio-economic developments. This was the time of the booming “app” economy, and the commissioning editor had previously worked for conservative British newspaper The Telegraph. The piece gained a respectable readership and lived quietly on the website for a number of years.
Fast forward four years to 2020. The world looked very different. A pandemic was raging, and the World Economic Forum launched “The Great Reset,” promoting the idea of “building back better” so that economies could emerge greener and fairer out of the pandemic.
The pandemic magnified many societal ills. The mistrust in governments and leaders that had been building before the health crisis 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 such as 4chan’s “politically incorrect” image board.
The board, which is completely unmoderated, was also used by operators of a Russian propaganda campaign. The intent was apparently to spread disinformation in a bid to stir far-right outrage about COVID-19 and perpetuate domestic extremism. The means was often via bots that would push far-right conspiracy theories 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 Forum was part of a group that “orchestrated the pandemic to take control of the global economy.”
A number of threads appeared in this vein. One such 4chan thread linked the pandemic and the alleged nefarious control the Forum exercises over the global economy with the idea that “you’ll own nothing and be happy.”
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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 and Sky News Australia, embraced it.
Actor and comedian Russell Brand talked about it in a video that received more than 1.8 million views on Facebook. Pierre Poilievre, currently running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, used it to discredit Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, giving rise to a national movement.
Even though Reuters Fact Check concluded in February, 2021, that “the World Economic Forum does not have a stated goal to have people own nothing and be happy by 2030,” the trolling continues.
Users on Twitter and Facebook, for instance, have spread doctored content to promote the falsehood that, through the Great Reset, the Forum 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 World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report flagged misinformation as a concern, warning then that it could spark “digital wildfires” in our hyperconnected world.
Today, that warning has largely been borne 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 Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riot reveal how false information about elections can threaten the foundations of democracy. And 68 per cent of Americans agree, saying “made-up news is detrimental to the country’s democratic system.”
Moreover, the amount of data now being generated, predicted to almost 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.
“Another set of tactics involve trolling and harassment, probably the most common form of misinformation directed against the Forum. Trolling and harassment entail deliberately posting offensive content online in order to provoke or disrupt conversations.”
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 Ms. Auken, the Forum removed all media around her piece because of the online abuse and threats she had faced. 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 often win, more forward-thinking conversations like the one Ms. Auken tried to initiate will be tarnished.
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