When the World Economic Forum (WEF) begins this Monday evening in Davos, Switzerland, conspiracy supporters are likely to become active again with all sorts of disinformation. For example, with claims that politics and business ban private car ownership or demanded the killing of pets.
Founded in 1971, the World Economic Forum has become something of a center of evil for supporters of conspiracies. "Large economic associations like the World Economic Forum like to be projection screens for conspiracy narratives because a wide variety of powerful people come together to exchange ideas," says political scientist Jan Rathje from the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS) of the German Press Agency. CeMAS examines radicalization tendencies and conspiracy stories on the internet.
Such claims have found particular acceptance since the beginning of the corona pandemic. In 2020, WEF founder Klaus Schwab presented the initiative "The Great Reset" and his book of almost the same name. In it, he sees the pandemic as an opportunity to make societies and the global economy more just, social and ecologically sustainable.
But the "Great Reset" is seen among conspiracy supporters "as a signal that the world should now change fundamentally, based on a conspiracy by the people who came together at a meeting like the World Economic Forum," says Rathje. In this imagination, the pandemic is often seen as intentionally created.
A wide variety of assertions then fit into the belief in a forced transformation of the world: an appeal to share vehicles more often, known as the "sharing economy", becomes the lie that the WEF wants to ban private cars. In a WEF patch on the uniform of Swiss police officers, conspiracy supporters see evidence that the economic gathering has its own police force, much like a state.
"Ultimately, it's all conspiracy stories that aim to make the people suffer and that assume that the elites will implement something against the will of the people," says political scientist Rathje. The "Great Reset" is like an update of existing conspiracy ideologies.
Especially in the focus of the disinformation: the German WEF founder Klaus Schwab. "The personification of a conspiracy theory fits into the worldview of good and evil," says psychologist Lotte Pummerer from the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media (IWM) in Tübingen.
For example, a fake Twitter account under Schwab's name announced that only vaccinated people would receive food packages in the event of shortages. A fictitious statement. Sometimes his father is accused of having been a confidante of Adolf Hitler, sometimes the economist is said to be part of the Rothschild banking family – an anti-Semitic cipher for Jewish rulers who are supposedly acting in secret.
The sometimes abstruse ideas can have real consequences. "We have seen in research that conspiracy theories lead to greater distrust in politics and in other people," says Pummerer. "Conspiracy supporters also have less trust in other people and less often adhere to social norms. This has consequences for social cohesion."
But not all resentment about the World Economic Forum is a myth. "It's important to distinguish between conspiracy ideologies and criticism," says political scientist Rathje. Criticism of those in power and those in power is important for liberal democracies. However, it should not reduce the complexity of events to such an extent that it could only be a conspiracy of elites.
"It is at the heart of conspiracy theories that actions are always seen as having malicious intent," says psychologist Pummerer. "That distinguishes it from factual criticism that is based on facts and wants to bring about change."