When the Dutch government announced plans in June to cut back certain greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70 percent, farmers erupted in protest, saying the move would in effect, force them out of business. They clogged traffic on highways with their tractors, dumped manure within the streets and set bales of hay on fire.
The demonstrations were covered extensively by the conservative news media in america, with outlets like Breitbart and Fox News describing how the farmers were staging their very own versions of this 12 months’s “freedom convoys” of Canadian truckers who were against mandates for coronavirus vaccines and other Covid-19 policies.
But beneath the headlines, in a few of the darkest corners of the web, disinformation researchers and State Department officials who monitor online propaganda saw the Dutch protests as feeding a troubling latest conspiracy theory: Western nations try to impose mass hunger, and induce submission, by restricting and hoarding the world’s food supply. And the brand new environmental regulations within the Netherlands, in accordance with the conspiracy theorists, are a part of a wider plot by liberal policymakers to make use of climate change as a ruse to seize control of the farming industry.
Most versions of this disinformation campaign implicate “globalists,” a term that antisemites online often use as shorthand for Jews. Other versions link it to a supposed plot by environmentalists to force people to eat insects as an alternative of meat, a strain of misinformation that has been gaining traction on the far right in recent months.
Disinformation experts agree that there’s a major driver for these falsehoods: Russia. Propaganda from the Kremlin, they said, has bled into right-wing social media chat rooms and, occasionally, into mainstream conservative news media like Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program.
U.S. officials have said Russia is attempting to deflect its responsibility for disrupting the world food supply through its invasion of Ukraine. They usually warn that these conspiracy theories will only discover a more receptive audience as Russia’s invasion continues to pressure the worldwide markets for food and energy and, as is predicted, keeps prices elevated through the winter.
Most troubling, some experts said, is how the spread of lies about food insecurity might be much more radicalizing than a few of the most insidious conspiracy theories circulating about vaccines, voter fraud and a “deep state” of evil bureaucrats.
“In terms of the food supply, the conspiracies turn out to be existential,” said Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks hate and extremism on social media. “When you lose an election, you’ll be able to win it back. Vaccines, well, you’re going to get sick, but you’ll be OK, probably.”
“But with regards to food,” Mr. Finkelstein continued, “it becomes a matter of choosing who lives and who dies. And the specter of political violence becomes completely justified within the minds of certain people.”
Throughout the summer, the Network Contagion Research Institute noticed a spike in extremist activity related to the Dutch protests on Twitter, Telegram and 4chan, the message board on which conspiracy theories spread largely unchecked. In a report, the institute said most of the people spreading false reports of an intentional manipulation of the food supply were devotees of QAnon, the perimeter movement that believes a cabal of kid traffickers runs the world.
In a post cited within the report, one QAnon supporter who has greater than 250,000 followers on Telegram wrote: “Never consider for one moment there’s a shortage of anything. Food. Water. Oil. They create and manufacture these shortages.”
The report noted that using “they” in a lot of these conspiracies “is often code for ‘the elites,’ and in some cases, the Jewish community.”
Sometimes, these ideas find their method to more mainstream outlets.
In July, Mr. Carlson hosted a right-wing Dutch philosopher on his show to debate the rebellion within the Netherlands. “Messing with the food supply tends to cause food crises, after which famine,” Mr. Carlson told his audience in a segment that presented the farmers as heroic. “You’re seeing this within the developing world because of climate activism and the war in Ukraine.”
Mr. Carlson added, “We should always be apprehensive with the large things. And the food supply is the largest thing.”
Leah Bray, the acting coordinator of the Global Engagement Center, a division of the State Department that tracks misinformation and disinformation, said that each in peacetime and now in wartime Russia has used “information manipulation as a weapon to bring about its desired political ends.”
These efforts, the middle said in a recent report, have to date been concentrated within the Middle East and Africa, where food shortages have been most acutely felt. And, the report added, the conspiracy theories have spread through Kremlin-controlled state outlets akin to RT Arabic and RT en Français, in addition to through Chinese state media.
Ms. Bray said she was especially concerned that Russia would manipulate similar emotions this winter, when energy insecurity is sort of certain to extend. The intent of the Russians, she added, is to pit Western nations against each other in a blame game over who’s liable for the shortages.
“Russia goes to make use of these tactics more broadly to hunt to erode Western unity,” Ms. Bray said.
With the invasion of Ukraine causing an energy crisis across Europe, the European Union has proposed mandatory electricity cuts, amongst other measures.
If these ideas have been fairly slow to take hold in america, that mustn’t be seen as an indication that they won’t soon expand their reach, experts warned.
“There was an extended lag with QAnon, too,” said Denver Riggleman, a former intelligence consultant and a staff member for the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol who has worked with the Network Contagion Research Institute. “Then rapidly — boom. And that’s what I believe we’re taking a look at here.”