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Apr 4, 2020

An Old Conspiracy Theory Known As "Agenda 21" Has Been Rebooted By The Coronavirus Pandemic

People on social media are sharing posts that link the pandemic to claims that a totalitarian world government is seeking to kill most of the planet’s population.

Facebook / Via Facebook

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The coronavirus crisis has brought new life to an old conspiracy theory about a totalitarian world government seeking to kill most of the world’s population as part of a UN plot dating back to 1992.

A BuzzFeed News analysis of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram shows a sharp uptick in posts mentioning "Agenda 21" in recent weeks as the coronavirus crisis has taken hold around the world, although posts are often removed for breaching the platforms’ rules.

These posts and videos often link Agenda 21 with other tried-and-tested tropes of anti-government conspiracy theories, including vaccinations, Bill Gates, George Soros, and 5G networks.

Many of the theories brought together by Agenda 21 are included in the list above, which has been shared hundreds of times after being posted in a Facebook Group called "Yellow Vests Canada" last week.

"Agenda 21" was a nonbinding UN resolution signed in 1992 that provides an action plan for governments with regard to sustainable development.

But in the 22 years since it was signed, extremists have recast it as a secret plot to impose a totalitarian world government and a nefarious effort to crush freedom in the name of environmentalism, according to a 2014 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Fears are running rampant in the far right that [the coronavirus] is some part of a conspiracy, maybe by the Chinese government, other global actors, even George Soros, to do 'something' to conservatives or Americans,” Heidi Beirich, one of the authors of the 2014 report, told BuzzFeed News.

“It’s not surprising that Agenda 21 would pop up again in that environment.”

Agenda 21 content is rife on YouTube, which has long had an issue with conspiracy theories.

One YouTube video, which has been viewed more than 200,000 times since being uploaded by "the Atlantis Report" stated: “Agenda 21 will reduce the human population from almost 8 billion to around 750 million. This means that the UN is planning on killing just over 90% of the global population.”

Facebook

A YouTube spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that this video does not violate the platform’s policies — harmful misinformation related to health gets removed, but general conspiracy theories do not. Some other videos were removed after being flagged.

Another post, shared several hundred times on Facebook via a page called "United States of Africa," claims the coronavirus is part of a Western biological plot to force vaccinations that would systematically reduce the population of Africa.

Facebook

Opposition to vaccines is a common theme of posts citing Agenda 21, as is the idea that the novel coronavirus is a plot to crash the economy in order to create the conditions for greater government control of businesses and people’s lives.

Anti-UN sentiment is a common trope on the US right — politicians Newt Gingrich and Sen. Ted Cruz and commentator Glenn Beck have all referenced Agenda 21 in speeches.

The Republican Party’s 2012 platform said “we strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty,” and legislators in several states have introduced anti–Agenda 21 bills in the years since.

However, much of the recent online conversation about Agenda 21 and the coronavirus goes far beyond legitimate criticism of Big Government and environmental overreach and into the world of outlandish conspiracy.

“It’s no surprise to see a reemergence of this decades-old theory, which our research has found to be flourishing across social media,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a think tank. "This is incredibly dangerous in the context of a global pandemic, as conspiracies almost always urge people to doubt the official advice from government and the NHS, for example, to reject an eventual vaccine or social distancing rules, putting themselves and the rest of society at risk."

Many of the biggest posts citing Agenda 21 are posted in languages other than English.

One video in Tamil linking the resolution to “forced vaccinations” has more than 600,000 views. Facebook posts in Spanish and Hungarian also have thousands of shares.

Facebook / Via Facebook

The conspiracy theory is also widespread on Instagram, with accounts posting about coronavirus using the hashtag #agenda21 in recent weeks — including @freedom_faction and @the_eye_is_on_us, two Instagram accounts with over 200,000 followers.

Both YouTube and Facebook, the latter of which owns Instagram, told BuzzFeed News they have policies to combat harmful misinformation, are monitoring false claims relating to the coronavirus, and are promoting content from trusted sources such as health authorities.

Posts about Agenda 21 have not been exclusive to the typically conspiratorial accounts.

For example, @moonmaison, an Instagram influencer with almost half a million followers who describes herself as a “goddess of love and sex”, wrote in a caption, “I’m not down with [the coronavirus] and lies”, and implored her followers to investigate Agenda 21, 5G networks, and chemtrails.

Instagram / Via Instagram

Some posts do not explicitly mention the coronavirus but include knowing references, like a YouTube video by a poster called PapaDuck called "Let Me Introduce You To What's Really Happening Its Called 'Agenda 21'".

It has had over 180,000 views in the last fortnight and has attracted lots of comments linking the conspiracy theory to the virus.

A YouTube video by British conspiracy theorist David Icke called "Agenda 21, The Plan to Kill You" has had 3.7 million views since it was uploaded in 2016, and recent comments invariably reference the coronavirus.

There is also a lot of overlap between Agenda 21 and conspiracies linking the coronavirus to 5G mobile phone networks.

Facebook / Via Facebook

Many of the claims used to support the Agenda 21 theory are completely made-up.

However, one piece of evidence — which has been circulating online over the past couple of days, including in posts mentioning Agenda 21 — is a genuine letter from a Welsh doctor recommending that patients with serious health problems fill in “do not resuscitate” forms.

A spokesperson for Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the letter was sent to “a small number of patients” and added that “staff at the surgery are speaking to those patients who received the letter to apologise directly and answer any concerns they may have”.

Facebook / Via Facebook

This slip-up, and the speed with which it spread across the internet, demonstrates how the atmosphere is so ripe for conspiracy theories at the moment.

People are scared, officials are occasionally overreacting or making human errors, and governments are massively increasing their powers in countries all around the world.

A couple of weeks ago, BuzzFeed News debunked a rumour that was spreading like wildfire on WhatsApp in the UK, which claimed UK troops had been deployed onto the streets of south London because of the coronavirus.

In normal times, this would be too outlandish to be widely believed — but with the military helping enforce lockdowns in France and Belgium, the rumour spread very quickly and was believed by a lot of people.

The coronavirus is absolutely not a UN plot to kill billions of people, but it’s easy to see why people are more likely to believe outlandish conspiracy theories in times like these.

Joey D'Urso is media and politics reporter at BuzzFeed News UK and is based in London.

Contact Joey D'Urso at joey.durso@buzzfeed.com.

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