Opinion: How ‘owning nothing and being happy’ sparked a disinformation campaign targeting the World Economic Forum

Adrian Monck is the Managing Director of the World Economic Forum.

Have nothing, be happy. You may have heard the phrase. It started life as a screenshot, scraped from the internet by an anonymous anti-Semitic account on the 4chan image board. “Own Nothing, Be Happy – Jewish World Order 2030,” said the post, which has gone viral among extremists.

How did a years-old headline become a far-right meme and a catchphrase picked up by mainstream conservative politicians? And what is the truth behind this title?

The story begins in 2016 with 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 a series of essays intended to stimulate debate on socio-economic developments. It was the era of the rise of the “app” economy, and the editor had previously worked for the conservative British newspaper The Telegraph. The piece gained a respectable readership and lived quietly on the website for several years.

Fast forward four years to 2020. The world was 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 can emerge greener and fairer from the pandemic.

The pandemic has amplified many societal ills. The mistrust of governments and leaders that had grown before the health crisis has played into the hands of fringe groups and state-sponsored actors seeking to undermine and weaken their rivals. The two reunited on the anonymous dark web in places such as 4chan’s “politically incorrect” picture board.

The painting, which is absolutely unmoderated, was also used by operators of a Russian propaganda campaign. The intention was apparently to spread misinformation in an effort to incite far-right outrage over COVID-19 and perpetuate domestic extremism. The means were often via bots pushing far-right conspiracy theories to communities on forums such as 4chan.

A 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 clung to the Great Reset, claiming the Forum was part of a group that “orchestrated the pandemic to take over the global economy.”

A number of threads have appeared in this vein. One such 4chan thread linked the pandemic and the Forum’s alleged infamous control over the global economy with the idea that “you will own nothing and be happy”.

It has gone truly viral, capturing the warped imaginations of conspiratorial and fringe groups. A neo-Nazi and white supremacist website claimed the Great Reset was a “response to the fake coronavirus crisis” and would usher in “world communism” to ensure that “no one will be able to own anything”.

Its popularity has also seen more mainstream figures hissing the phrase while ignoring its anti-Semitic and far-right origins. Threads proliferated, the slogan “own nothing, be happy” snowballed, and even more mainstream news sites, including Fox News and Sky News Australia, adopted it.

Actor and comedian Russell Brand spoke about it in a video that received more than 1.8 million views on Facebook. Pierre Poilievre, currently a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, used it to discredit the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 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 that people will own nothing and be happy by 2030”, the trolling continues.

Twitter and Facebook users, for example, have been spreading doctored content to promote the lie that thanks to the Great Reset, the Forum is making progress. pernicious depopulation efforts. These include racist conspiracies that claim white people are the main target of 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 seeking to reshape the world in their own image. These are just a few of many examples.

As early as 2013, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report flagged misinformation as a concern, warning that it could ignite “digital wildfires” in our hyper-connected world.

Today, this warning has been largely confirmed. Disinformation is a serious challenge for regulators, a minefield for individuals seeking the facts, and an obstacle for governments and organizations wishing to disseminate important information.

The consequences of continued misinformation are dangerous. Misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines is costing lives during the pandemic. The revelations surrounding the January 6, 2021 riot on Capitol Hill reveal how false information about elections can threaten the foundations of democracy. And 68% of Americans agree, saying “made-up news is harmful to the country’s democratic system.”

Additionally, the amount of data currently being generated, which is expected 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 often political strategy. Bad information circulates in various ways for political purposes. A classic example is an actor intentionally spreading false, inaccurate, or misleading information that inflicts demonstrable and significant public harm,” said Steven Feldstein, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Another set of tactics involves trolling and harassment, probably the most common form of misinformation directed at the Forum. Trolling and harassment involve the deliberate posting of offensive content online in order to provoke or disrupt conversations. »

The “you will own nothing and be happy” story is anything but trivial and offers valuable insights into how misinformation is created and why it is essential not to perpetuate its spread.

It also highlights how misinformation derails free speech. At Ms Auken’s request, the Forum removed all media surrounding her article due to the online abuse and threats she had faced. Acting to prevent lies from being accepted as truth can help avoid similar situations and promote genuine freedom of expression, allowing all of us to freely exchange ideas and opinions.

In a world where trolls often win, more forward-thinking conversations like the one Ms. Auken tried to initiate will be tarnished.

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