Tens of thousands of Aussies are lapping up a "ridiculous" conspiracy theory — that climate change is a United Nations-led hoax to aggressively depopulate the world.
Social media platforms are being used to push the theory, known as Agenda 21, and, in the past four weeks alone, hundreds of Australians have engaged in posts about it.
A joint investigation by news.com.au and social media intelligence agency Storyful over the past month has found only a handful of these posts take place on fringe sites such as Gab and 4chan.
The bulk of Agenda 21 conversations are on mainstream platforms Twitter and Facebook — where tens of thousands of Aussies have liked and followed Australian-based pages dedicated to the conspiracy.
And, while many of the posts captured by Storyful's search came from anonymous accounts pushing right-wing and anti-immigration rhetoric, several of the most influential posts came from mainstream voices.
WHAT IS THE AGENDA 21 CONSPIRACY?
The conspiracy theory centres on the UN's non-binding Agenda 21 sustainable development goals, adopted by more than 178 governments in 1992. The document sets out broad objectives for governments to combat poverty and protect the environment.
These goals were updated in 2015 with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which sets out 17 broad aims — including to "take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts" — agreed on by all UN member states.
While conspiracy theories about the goals date back to at least 2012 with close links to the US Tea Party movement, the idea has been pushed with renewed vigour with increasing coverage of and public concern about climate change.
And, as Australia's catastrophic bushfires dominated headlines and conversations in recent weeks, it appears the theory has gained massive traction on social media.
WHAT ARE PEOPLE CLAIMING?
As bushfires swept across Australia — destroying homes and claiming lives — a number of Twitter posts emerged, linking the unfolding disaster with Agenda 21.
One tweet suggesting the blazes weren't wild but the result of deliberate "directed energy" attacks drew nearly 80 interactions.
Another tweet highlighting the recent out-of-season snow at Perisher and telling Green politicians to "stop with the bulls**t … There is #NoClimateEmergency … Stop pushing #Agenda21" elicited a similar response.
However, it is on Facebook that the conspiracy theory appears to have gained the most traction.
Pages pushing the concept frequently post extreme anti-immigration or anti-vaccine content, or carry links from junk news sites purporting to expose chemtrail activity or secret, government-endorsed weather engineering projects.
One article 2015 from US conspiracy theory site Natural News entitled "The United Nations 2030 Agenda decoded: It's a blueprint for the global enslavement of humanity under the boot of corporate masters", which has been shared more than 26,000 times worldwide on Facebook, initially drew a muted response from Australian networks.
Before 2019 it was posted 13 times to Australia-themed groups and pages, however since the start of the year it has been shared a further 30 times.
The combined posts for the article, which connects UN plans for climate change action with a plot to "force the masses onto public transit, where … facial recognition cameras can monitor and record the movement of every person in society", drew more than 1000 interactions from posts to 29 different groups and pages.
Similarly, a February blog post setting out the alleged conspiracy to depopulate and rule the world under the guises of the UN plans and the need to act on climate change was shared a dozen times in quick succession by Australia-themed groups and pages in September.
These posts generated more than 250 interactions.
It's not just anonymous trolls spreading the message.
Mainstream voices — notably representatives of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party — have recently posted about Agenda 21.
The three top Agenda 21 tweets by engagement all came from Queensland senator Malcolm Roberts, who famously highlighted many of the key elements of the conspiracy theory in his maiden speech to parliament.
The second highest number of engagements of the Facebook posts were generated by a post from One Nation candidate Sharon Bell, who unsuccessfully ran for the federal Queensland seat of Blair in the 2019 election.
SHOULD WE BE WORRIED?
Dr Will Grant — senior lecturer in science communication at the — has looked at the interaction of science, politics and technology over many years, and says the Agenda 21 conspiracy is nothing new, with its heyday between 2011 and 2012.
However, he said it was making a comeback as climate change denialists attempted to discredit science.
"Agenda 21 misunderstands the nature of science and it's a ridiculous theory," he said.
"But it's fodder for far-right thinker, because it gives them a narrative in their mind when they spend years trying to find a way to discredit something that's based on overwhelming evidence," Dr Grant said.
He said theories like this spreading on social media was one of the greatest challenges facing the world right now — given the enormity of what was at stake with climate change.
"Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are working in a market where truth has no engagment quality for them, so fake news and bulls**t continue to spread on their platforms because it gets more engagement," he said.
He said this type of theory gaining acceptance in Australia had made it easier for the mainstream parties to do nothing on climate change.
"Climate change is real, it's causing problems now and we need to do something about it. It's not a big government plot," he said.
"Just remember, scientists are trained to disagree with each other — they only agree when the overwhelming evidence points in one direction. And on climate change it does."