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How a conspiracy theory about eating bugs made its way to international politics

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In the past month, elected officials in the Netherlands and Poland have accused their opponents of plotting to force people to eat insects. The idea is also bubbling up in far-right circles in the U.S. NPR's Huo Jingnan reports on how a meme from anonymous message boards is making a leap into real-world politics.

HUO JINGNAN, BYLINE: If you follow far-right media, the message is plain and simple.

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MICHAEL KNOWLES: The ruling class really, really wants us to eat bugs.

HUO: That's conservative media personality Michael Knowles speaking last year. Using insects as a source of protein is only at the edges of the policy debate when it comes to cutting climate pollution from agriculture. Scientists focus mainly on reducing meat consumption and eating more plant-based food. Although the idea is marginal, various right-wing media outlets use insect eating as a punchline to mock the climate movement.

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PAUL JOSEPH WATSON: You know who won't be eating bugs? Climate change technocrats.

ALDO BUTTAZZONI: I have some crickets here with me behind me. What do you think of - what do you think about when you see this and think the government wants to put this in your food?

HUO: Those clips are from Prison Planet and Prager University. Sara Aniano of Anti-Defamation League traced some of this rhetoric back to 2019 in threats on the anonymous message board 4Chan.

SARA ANIANO: It kind of started out and continues to be kind of a meme. So some people might be using it earnestly, and some people might be using it ironically.

HUO: It started with comments below a photo of climate activist Greta Thunberg.

ANIANO: They say over and over and over again, I will not eat the bugs. I will not eat the bugs (laughter).

HUO: Then the phrase crossed over to Twitter, first by way of a white nationalist. Then a crypto advocate used it to poke fun at proposals to mitigate climate change. Yet another early propagator of the phrase told NPR he tweeted it only as a joke. Over time, it has fused into a darker conspiracy theory currently known as the Great Reset. The idea is that governments plan to enslave people and, among other things, force them to survive on insects. It's named after a World Economic Forum initiative launched in mid-2020.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: With everything falling apart, we can reshape the world in ways we couldn't before. And that's why so many are calling for a great reset.

HUO: The World Economic Forum sponsors the annual gathering of political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland. When the initiative came out, conspiracy theorists quickly jumped on the phrase. Ciaran O'Connor is an analyst at the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue that monitors extremism.

CIARAN O'CONNOR: It's been reinterpreted as a kind of sinister plan being orchestrated by global elites to enact a socialist, authoritarian regime of control.

HUO: That sinister plan goes way beyond eating bugs, as one guest told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on his streaming show.

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NOOR BIN LADIN: I don't want to eat the bugs. I don't want to live in the pod. I don't want to be trapped in a digital jail. And nothing they can do will make me.

HUO: As far as we know, no government makes anyone eat bugs. But this idea of a shadowy ruling elite goes way back, often drawing on familiar, sometimes anti-Semitic tropes. The gathering of global elites in Davos has long held the imagination of conspiracy theorists. For many who spread this narrative, bug eating is not just a threat to personal freedom but also a threat to identity, as Fox News host Tucker Carlson said in 2019.

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TUCKER CARLSON: Eating insects is repulsive and un-American. And of course, therefore, in the eyes of the left, it must be awesome.

HUO: It's not just bugs. The Great Reset conspiracy theory has also been used to push back against other climate-related measures. In February, people citing the Great Reset flocked from across the U.K. to Oxford. They protested local proposals to limit car use in the city center, claiming that the government wanted to turn cities into, quote, "open air prisons." O'Connor says the Great Reset is a very malleable tool, useful both for extremists and political opportunists trying to get clicks.

O'CONNOR: Right-wing political figures have used these claims to propagate this idea of a socialist authoritarian bogeyman or a strawman, and it doesn't even need to be far left. It might just be a nut of their persuasion.

HUO: And that straw man distracts the public from real challenges like confronting climate change. Huo Jingnan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.