‘Playing with fire’: How politicians can perpetuate baseless conspiracy theories

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Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre took to social media this week with repeated messages to “#StopTheGreatReset.”

He says he’s simply criticizing comments Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made in a speech at the United Nations and an associated World Economic Forum document, but the terminology of a “Great Reset” has been co-opted by fringe groups who falsely claim a group of global elites are using the pandemic to benefit themselves and their friends.

Twitter is full to the brim of users parroting the same terminology to describe this baseless idea of a dystopian future.

“Any politician who uses the phrase, #BuildBackBetter should be thrown out of government & charged with treason,” writes one user.

“It is the slogan of #TheGreatReset – an authoritarian plot for world domination at the expense of national sovereignty & universal suffrage. A crime against humanity.”

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That tweet has 5,000 likes. Another tweet, which has over 2,200 likes, claims that “The Great Reset is a PR term for the New World Order.”

“Conspiracy is not a theory, it’s a crime,” the user adds.

Read more: Coronavirus conspiracies spreading at alarming rates across Canada, experts say 

There are thousands of similar tweets about “The Great Reset” circulating on the social media platform, all detailing equally ominous fever dreams of power grabs on the part of a vague “they” or a generally nameless “global elite.”

Disinformation experts are starting to pay attention to the theory’s spread.

“We no longer have people disagreeing about economic policy. Now we have a cabal of elitists who are trying to betray ordinary, hardworking, decent people on one side and those who are revealing the conspiracy on the other,” explained Russell Muirhead, a professor at Dartmouth University who co-authored the book A Lot of People Are Saying, which explores the impact of conspiracy theories on democracy.

“This — when you remake politics into a fight between good and evil — you can’t really have a politics that consists of argument and disagreement and regular peaceful contestation.”

What is The Great Reset?

“The Great Reset” conspiracy emerged over the summer, after the World Economic Forum (WEF) announced that next year’s annual meeting in Davos would focus on the idea that the pandemic provides an opportunity to usher in a more fair, just society — a concept described by organizers as “The Great Reset.”

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“‘The Great Reset’ is a commitment to jointly and urgently build the foundations of our economic and social system for a more fair, sustainable and resilient future,” reads a press release for the May 2021 meeting on the World Economic Forum’s website.

The real “Great Reset” proposal also calls for swift action on social justice and climate change, with WEF founder Klaus Schwab quoted in the press release stating that “we only have one planet.”

However, some are concerned the reimagined global society would not be one of increased equality and reduced carbon emissions, but rather an evil plot to benefit the global elite and their friends after the spread of a planned pandemic.

Read more: Anti-mask movement ‘not based in reality’, health expert says after Winnipeg protest

The conspiracy did grow from a grain of truth. The WEF’s “Great Reset” does indeed seek to reimagine society in a way that tackles major issues like climate change and global poverty — a plan endorsed by world leaders and royalty, individuals who could be described as a group of “elites.”

However, the theory loses its grip on reality when it weaves in accusations of non-existent plans to impose socialism, allegations of nefarious plots to take away individual rights for the benefit of a wealthy elite, and baseless theories that the coronavirus pandemic was planned to achieve those ends.

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As the theory began to enmesh itself in the webs of social media, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stepped into the conspiracy’s spotlight.

“We need to work together, and not just on vaccines; Canada believes that a strong coordinated response across the world and across sectors is essential,” Trudeau said, speaking before the United Nations in September.

“This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset. This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts to reimagine economic systems that actually address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change.”

His use of the term “reset” did not go unnoticed.

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The video of his remarks went viral with conspiratorially-minded social media users latching on to his pledges to use a “great reset” to “build back better” as validation of their theory.

Pierre Pollievre tweets ‘#StopTheGreatReset’

On Wednesday, Poilievre began using similar language on Twitter to criticize Trudeau’s proposal. He questioned whether the prime minister was attempting to “block scrutiny of the ‘reset’” with a Liberal filibuster of the finance committee and linked to a YouTube video wherein he accused the prime minister of attempting a “socialist reset” of Canadian society.

“This is not a time to re-engineer society to his liking or his socialist ideology,” Poilievre said in the video, posted to YouTube on Nov. 17, which featured an excerpt of comments he made during a House of Commons finance committee meeting.

Poilievre went on to say in the video that this is “not a time for government to take advantage of the crisis in order to massively expand its powers at the expense of Canadians’ freedoms.”

He then questioned whether the government was “covering up” its “grand schemes for social and economic engineering” and accused Trudeau of having “lusted over” a “power grab” since “the beginning of this crisis.”

The Conservative politician also twice tweeted “#StopTheGreatReset,” a hashtag primarily used by conspiracy theorists on Twitter.

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Finally, Poilievre published a petition on his website wherein he detailed claims of “global elites preying on the fears and desperation of people to impose their power grab.” The petition also accuses Trudeau of calling for the same “reset” as “global financial elites” that he says would “reengineer economies and societies to empower the elites at the expense of the people.”

Read more: COMMENTARY: What’s the deal with ‘The Great Reset’?

Muirhead said the Conservative MP is “playing with fire.”

“Public officials have a responsibility not to play with fire, and this kind of misinformation, conspiracy misinformation, it’s so potent and has such a long half-life and is so devastating to democratic institutions that public officials do have a responsibility to refute it,” Muirhead said.

“This official decided to play with fire. And if the fire is out of control, it’s going to do more than just burn him.”

Poilievre has denied allegations that he’s appealing to conspiracy theorists. When Global News asked whether he was intentionally associating himself with the same language as the debunked theory, he did not answer and instead responded with the following questions.

“That has nothing to do with what I said. The ‘language’ I am quoting is from the Prime Minister and the World Economic Forum. Are you denying the Prime Minister said he wanted to reimagine the economy and reset the country? It is on camera. Are you denying he said he wanted to phase out the oilsands or move away from manufacturing? Are you accusing all the media sources I provided of simply making it all up? Are you denying the existence of the words I quoted of the World Economic Forum and for which I provided you the links?” read a statement from Poilievre, emailed to Global News.

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Despite repeated questioning from Global News, Poilievre would not provide a clear answer as to whether he believes in the conspiracy theory, and also pushed back on allegations that the language he is using is also popular in conspiratorial circles.

In reponse to a tweet from Global News pointing out this linkage, Poilievre said that his “points stand.”

“My points stand: taking advantage of the carnage of a very real pandemic to impose risky new ideological schemes, like those the Prime Minister proposes (and which your false tweet omits) threatens people’s livelihoods,” Poilievre said.

Though whether he deliberately used the language of the conspiracy theory or not, one expert warned that the risk lies in the potential misinterpretations of the Conservative politician’s statements. Those misinterpretations can occur even as Poilievre insists he was simply mounting a criticism of government policies, according to Ahmed Al-Rawi, who runs the Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University.

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“The danger lies in the misinterpretation of some of these big words,” said Al-Rawi.

“We don’t have anything written down about how politicians should behave. But, of course, the expectation is that they behave in a reasonable way without spreading any kind of misleading or problematic information.”

Al-Rawi noted, however, that he believes Poilievre was simply mounting a criticism of government policy — albeit one that used a catch phrase, “The Great Reset,” that could “scare” people.

“I think the goal of this politician, it was mostly related to instigating, probably using (the term) to show concern — some of it is imagined, some of it is real — about the intentions of the government. But again, it’s all related to their own policy,” Al-Rawi said.

However, an Ottawa-based communications expert said she suspects Poilievre was aware of what he was doing.

“I think it’s highly likely that they’re aware that there are conspiracy theories out there. And if I were advising them, I would tell them to nip the conspiracy theory in the bud,” said Jennifer Stewart, the CEO of the strategic communications and advocacy company Syntax Strategic.

When Global News emailed Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s office to ask whether he disavows Poilievre’s use of the term “The Great Reset” or has concerns about the conspiratorial associations of the language, his spokesperson pointed to a video from O’Toole.

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In the video, which the Conservative leader tweeted out on Nov. 18, O’Toole accuses the government of planning to “use the pandemic” to “implement a massive and risky experiment to remake the economy.”

When pressed for a more concrete answer as to whether O’Toole is concerned about the conspiracy theory, O’Toole’s spokesperson said the Conservative leader has been “fighting for COVID-19 support and jobs.”

“You’ll have to ask Trudeau why he chose to use the word ‘reset’ in his speech about using the pandemic as an ‘opportunity’ to ‘reimagine the economy,’” Chelsea Tucker, O’Toole’s spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.

Trudeau and The Great Reset

When Trudeau was asked about the conspiracy theory in a Friday press conference, he said that Canada is seeing “a lot of people fall prey to disinformation” as they endure the pandemic and “try and find someone to blame.”

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“If Conservative MPs and others want to start talking about conspiracy theories, well, that’s their choice. I’m going to stay focused on helping Canadians get through this,” Trudeau said.

“I’m learning lessons from this pandemic and making sure that the world we leave to our kids is even better than the world we inherited from our parents.”

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Trudeau points to COVID-19 ‘anxiety’ after his UN speech sparks ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy' Coronavirus: Trudeau points to COVID-19 ‘anxiety’ after his UN speech sparks ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy
Coronavirus: Trudeau points to COVID-19 ‘anxiety’ after his UN speech sparks ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy

Global News also reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to request their reaction to Poilievre’s use of the “Great Reset” terminology, and they had a near-identical response.

“If the Conservative Party wants to focus on peddling conspiracy theories, that’s up to them,” wrote the prime minister’s press secretary, Alex Wellstead, in an emailed statement.

“Our focus remains addressing issues like poverty, inequality, and climate change while we fight this pandemic and support Canadians through it with whatever it takes.“

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Global News also asked the PMO to specifically touch on whether the prime minister regrets using the term “reset” in his UN speech, but the office did not answer and instead sent a transcript of that part of his speech, which was quoted earlier in this article.

Despite these comments, the conspiracy continues to spread on social media. However, according to an expert on the issue, there are steps Canadians can take to protect themselves from this sort of disinformation.

“Most people are not trained to have so much information and to have to sift through (it),” said Mary Blankenship, a University of Nevada researcher who looks at how misinformation spreads through Twitter.

The first step to fighting conspiracy theories, Blankenship said, might be “obvious.”

“Just don’t spread the conspiracy. I know this sounds silly, but it’s one thing to have a legitimate argument of facts and another thing to float just claims and conspiracy,” she said.

Blankenship added that in an age where information — and misinformation — can suffocate the average user, media literacy is also key to determining whether the facts a person is faced with are legitimate.

“(Do) not to take a tweet at its face value, and use Google, for example. You have more information at your very fingertips to do research on the issues themselves,” Blankenship said.

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She also noted that there are websites like Hoaxy where users can search a term, like The Great Reset, to see its origins as well as how it spread.

“It’s hard for a user to tell if what they’re seeing is a real person or if it’s a fake bot, if they’re not using…tools, Blankenship said.

“If you continue to become exposed to it, you start believing in it — and that’s really the danger.”

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© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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