As the war in Ukraine has put pressure on the global markets for food, Russia has spread conspiracy theories that blame the West.
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When the Dutch government announced plans in June to reduce certain greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70 percent, farmers erupted in protest. The change requires sharply cutting the waste produced by livestock operations, potentially forcing some of them out of business. They clogged traffic on highways with their tractors, dumped manure in the streets and set bales of hay on fire.
The demonstrations were covered extensively by the conservative news media in the United States, with outlets like Breitbart and Fox News describing how the farmers were staging their own versions of this year’s “freedom convoys” of Canadian truckers who were opposed to mandates for coronavirus vaccines and other Covid-19 policies.
But beneath the headlines, in some of the darkest corners of the internet, disinformation researchers and State Department officials who monitor online propaganda saw the Dutch protests as feeding a troubling new conspiracy theory: Western nations are trying to impose mass hunger, and induce submission, by restricting and hoarding the world’s food supply. And the new environmental regulations in the Netherlands, according to the conspiracy theorists, are part of a wider plot by liberal policymakers to use 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 instead of meat, a strain of misinformation that has been gaining traction on the far right in recent months.
Disinformation experts agree that there is a main 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 trying to deflect its responsibility for disrupting the world food supply through its invasion of Ukraine. And they warn that these conspiracy theories will only find a more receptive audience as Russia’s invasion continues to pressure the global markets for food and energy and, as is expected, keeps prices elevated through the winter.
Most troubling, some experts said, is how the spread of lies about food insecurity can be even more radicalizing than some of the most insidious conspiracy theories circulating about vaccines, voter fraud and a “deep state” of evil bureaucrats.
“When it comes to the food supply, the conspiracies become existential,” said Joel Finkelstein, co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks hate and extremism on social media. “If you lose an election, you can win it back. Vaccines, well, you’re going to get sick, but you’ll be OK, probably.”
“But when it comes to food,” Mr. Finkelstein continued, “it becomes a matter of selecting who lives and who dies. And the threat of political violence becomes completely justified in 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 many of the people spreading false reports of an intentional manipulation of the food supply were devotees of QAnon, the fringe movement that believes a cabal of child traffickers runs the world.
In a post cited in the report, one QAnon supporter who has more than 250,000 followers on Telegram wrote: “Never believe for one moment there’s a shortage of anything. Food. Water. Oil. They create and manufacture these shortages.”
The report noted that the use of “they” in many of these conspiracies “is typically code for ‘the elites,’ and in some cases, the Jewish community.”
Sometimes, these ideas find their way to more mainstream outlets.
In July, Mr. Carlson hosted a right-wing Dutch philosopher on his show to discuss the uprising in the Netherlands. “Messing with the food supply tends to cause food crises, and then famine,” Mr. Carlson told his audience in a segment that presented the farmers as heroic. “You’re seeing this in the developing world thanks to climate activism and the war in Ukraine.”
Mr. Carlson added, “We should be worried with the big things. And the food supply is the biggest thing.”
Leah Bray, the acting coordinator of the Global Engagement Center, a division of the State Department that tracks misinformation and disinformation, said that both in peacetime and now in wartime Russia had used “information manipulation as a weapon to bring about its desired political ends.”
These efforts, the center said in a recent report, have so far been concentrated in 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 such as RT Arabic and RT en Français, as well as through Chinese state media.
Ms. Bray said she was especially concerned that Russia would manipulate similar emotions this winter, when energy insecurity is almost certain to increase. The intent of the Russians, she added, is to pit Western nations against one another in a blame game over who is responsible for the shortages.
“Russia is going to use these tactics more broadly to seek 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, among other measures.
If these ideas have been rather slow to take hold in the United States, that should not be seen as a sign that they won’t soon expand their reach, experts warned.
“There was a long 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 all of a sudden — boom. And that’s what I think we’re looking at here.”