Conspiracy theories can be found online around almost half of large companies, according to research from BNR. They are often unaware of this, but when conspiracy theorists take action, it can have serious consequences.
BNR searched social media, where many conspiracy theorists gather, for trademarks of the 25 AEX-listed companies. It resulted in a hit with a conspiracy theory in twelve cases. Especially on Telegram, these kinds of theories were easy to find. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, for example, this platform has virtually no measures against disinformation.
‘Shell is behind the Ukraine war’
The nature of the theories varies greatly. Unilever is said to have put ‘rubbish’ in food, ING is said to have ‘disappeared’ money from savers and Albert Heijn was allegedly involved in organizing ‘controlled food shortages’ by deliberately destroying vegetables. Some lines of thought are so inimitable that they are difficult to reproduce. For example, someone suggests that Rutte ‘needs’ the Ukraine war to ‘keep MH17 contained along with the shale gas contracts made with Shell at the site of the MH17 disaster’. Others are so blatantly factually incorrect that it is sometimes unclear exactly which company they are referring to. For example, the ‘mortem’ conspiracy theorist seems to believe that McDonalds is part of Unilever.
A common theme is the World Economic Forum (WEF), an annual meeting for top people from politics and business. This congress also counts many Dutch companies among the visitors, and this is seen as suspicious by conspiracy theorists. For example, one conspiracy theorist notes that WEF-affiliated companies are still doing well despite the impending recession. ‘Unilever, Shell, Heineken and Heinz make billions in profits. All WEF companies. Haven’t we figured it out yet?’
Conspiracy thinkers on the pavement at Picnic, Eneco, telecommunications companies
Despite their bizarre nature, conspiracy theories can have major consequences if the conspiracy theorists act. Attacks on 5G masts are the most extreme example of this, but conspiracy theorists have been stirring more recently. Eneco’s head office in Rotterdam was visited last month by protesters who came to burn their energy bills. Slogans were chanted about ‘The Great Reset’, the title of a policy proposal by WEF chairman Klaus Schwab.
Online supermarket Picnic was visited this summer by a number of camera crews from alternative media from the US after a fire at a delivery point. The reason was then a story that went around on social media: Behind the delivery point there would be a cultured meat factory financed by Bill Gates. Michiel Muller, co-founder of Picnic, looks back on the episode with ‘fascination’. (Muller is also a member of the board of FD Mediagroep, the owner of BNR.) “It was a snowball effect,” says Mulder. A message in the local press was cast in a sinister light by a Dutch Twitter user, later someone translated this theory into English, after which American Twitter users caught on to the story. “It went quickly after that,” says Muller. In the end, Steve Bannon, former adviser to US President Trump, was even aware of the story in his online news show. “We haven’t sold a word about it – but if something like this happens to you and you are active in the US, I can imagine that there will be consequences,” says Muller.
Reacting can make the problem worse
Muller will not pay too much attention to the phenomenon, an attitude that can often be found in business. Conspiracy theories therefore put companies in a dilemma. Providing a response is sometimes necessary, but it can exacerbate the problem, said Roland Kroes, independent communications director and interim spokesman. “Furthermore, there are security risks involved. As a spokesperson, you are always very visible, and you can suddenly start getting strange phone calls when you speak out about this sort of thing.’
Companies are often surprised by the speed with which a conspiracy theory spreads on social media, says Kroes. Conspiracy theories, illogical by definition, are often difficult to predict. “The violence is very annoying. This discussion can suddenly appear if you want to talk about another topic.’
‘Practice crisis scenarios’
Still, there are things companies can do to protect themselves from conspiracy theorists, communications experts say. Picnic says, for example, that a fact check from the American news agency Associated Press has helped a lot. ‘It really put the brakes on that story,’ says co-founder Muller. Some media took parts of the conspiracy theory for granted, and the story threatened to spread to ‘mainstream’ media. The fact check helped correct foreign journalists. “A journalistic check like this helps it out of the media world. But it’s still alive on Twitter because people keep tweeting about it.’
According to communication expert Kroes, it is also important not to answer all questions during a crisis. ‘Stick to the facts’, says Kroes. ‘Answer questions about the crisis, about the underlying problem. This is what really worries your customers, suppliers and investors. In the end, it is always only a minority who have questions for the WEF. And ‘no’ is also an answer in many cases. Most journalists know how to separate the chaff from the wheat.’
Kroes also points out the importance of preparation. “You just have to take into account that this can happen to your company.” A script can help with this. ‘Companies practice crisis scenarios all the time: a fire, a cyber attack, a visit from the regulator. In fact, you should add these kinds of scenarios to it. You don’t know how to get involved in conspiracy theory. But if you have thought about it in advance and discussed how to deal with it with the management, you are already much further ahead.’
Conspiracy theories about AEX companies – an overview
BNR conducted a tour of social media and found conspiracy theories about 12 of the 25 AEX companies. Below is a selection of them.
Shall would keep the war going in Ukraine because of its favorable effect on energy prices.
Unilever would put ‘corpse’ in food.
ASML would be involved in the WEF’s intent to chip people.
ING would have ‘disappeared’ money from account holders and even orchestrated explosive attacks to accelerate the transition to digital money.
DSM would help spread ‘chemtrails’.
Albert Heijn would help cause ‘controlled food shortages’.
A subscription model for oral care from Phillips would be part of the WEF’s plan to end private property
Heineken is said to have satanic references in its logo.
Akzo associated with chemtrails.
KPN would make it impossible to send information about Joe Biden’s son over their Internet connections.
AEGON would have knowledge of the cause of excess mortality and make use of it in life insurance reinsurance.
Mean would make “smart lampposts” to spy on the population.