In late 2020, conspiracy theorists started telling everyone who’d listen about a sinister plot called the “Great Reset.”
The global elites of the World Economic Forum (WEF) had either co-opted or outright concocted the COVID-19 pandemic, they falsely claimed. Then world leaders and technocrats, almost all of whom are supposedly active agents or compromised puppets of the Forum, adopted what conspiracists see as senseless and draconian policies, like lockdowns, ostensibly to curb the spread of the virus—but really to destabilize and traumatize the globe. As the pandemic wound on, this deluded line of thinking went, the WEF and its acolytes would exploit chaos and fear to lock in and expand the totalitarian powers they gained under the guise of protecting public health.
“To corner us into accepting their dystopian future,” as one conspiratorial Telegram channel with around 28,500 subscribers recently put it, quoting and amplifying a smaller channel. “A world with no freedom, no autonomy, no choice, no ownership, nothing. [We’d be] controlled slaves in a system serving only the few at the top.”
Suffice it to say, that didn’t happen. Although the pandemic is far from over, most jurisdictions have rolled back the bulk of their COVID control measures, and people are slowly moving back towards a sense of normalcy.
But rather than accept that the pandemic didn’t precipitate the dystopia they predicted, several prominent conspiracy theorist channels argue that COVID was actually just the first major attempt at—or phase in—the Great Reset.
“COVID is not *the* agenda,” another notable conspiratorial channel stressed in January. While it was a catalyst and key focus, from the outset the Great Reset always involved a slew of other potential vectors, they argued. “Race chaos, LGBT stuff… fake environmentalist climate change bullshit… mass migration, human rights, etc.” Any supposedly manufactured crisis the “globalists” can leverage as part of their bid for power.
But the channel specifically suggested the WEF and its allies’ next big world domination gambit may be a “cyber pandemic,” an ill-defined but massive false flag cyberattack, or series of attacks, on financial institutions. Or the entire power grid. Or the internet as a whole.
That’s not an isolated take. There’s been sporadic talk of an incoming, elite-orchestrated “cyber pandemic” in Great Reset circles for well over a year. But the idea of this digital threat, and its imminence, has seemingly gained traction across the conspiratorial web since around the end of last year—and especially since the start of this March.
Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF and the central villain in most Great Reset conspiracies, “is set on shutting off the grid using the global cyber attack excuse,” the Telegram channel with 28,500 subscribers baselessly argued that month. “That means no power, no gas, no food, no communication, everything goes dark. This will end economies and lives in rapid speed [sic], causing a major irreparable and irreversible collapse of every country…. Stay awake, alert others and prepare.”
Other Telegram channels, some with around 100,000 followers, have mused about how governments may use such an attack as an excuse to link everyone to a centralized digital ID in the name of safety and security. They could then, these conspiracists argue, track our activities throughout our increasingly digitized world, control what we see, even deny us access to our own state-controlled digital cash if we engage in wrongthink. These wild dystopian visions clearly echo bogus conspiracy theories about how the powers that be wanted to use vaccine passports, or (nonexistent) microchips in the jabs, to exert totalitarian control over the world. (The WEF is a proponent of digital ID systems, but their descriptions of the concept are vague, speculative, and generally vastly different from conspiracists’ characterizations.)
Fears like these have taken off not only in Telegram circles, but also on niche conspiracy podcasts and sites, as well as fairly popular conspiratorial Reddit forums.
“What if the real reason they’re interested in a ‘cyber pandemic’ is because they realized more and more people are waking up and they need to stop us sharing information with one another?” worried a poster in a Reddit conspiracy community in late March.
This refocusing reveals a lot about the persistence of conspiratorial mindsets, experts say, and why, even as we may gradually escape the pandemic, we’ll likely have to live with the inane strains of fear and outrage that coalesced around it for years to come.
Conspiracy theorists often attempt to substantiate their fears of and speculation about a coming elite-orchestrated cyber pandemic by pointing to Cyber Polygon, an annual cybersecurity event started by a Russian cybersecurity firm in 2019, and supported by INTERPOL and the WEF.
To most observers, Cyber Polygon is just your average industry-insider confab. Big companies, governments, and NGOs (remotely) send their security teams to rub figurative shoulders, listen to expert speeches and discussions, and participate in simulated exercises in which groups try to repel and investigate a fake cyberattack, perpetrated in real time by the organizers. The event’s promoters hype it as a particularly glitzy and sophisticated affair, but there are a ton of conferences like these—and simulated cyberattacks are a common training exercise. That may be why the event’s rarely drawn more than cursory media attention, even in niche outlets.
“I guess it never occurs to folks that the Illuminati, Soros, Queen Elizabeth, lizard people, and so on must be really inept, as they’ve been trying this for so long but still haven’t succeeded in their nefarious plans.”
— Eric Oliver
Muhammad Mudassar Yamin, a cybersecurity expert at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who studies training programs and scenario exercises akin to this one, told The Daily Beast that he’d never even heard of it.
But the Cyber Polygon event held in mid-2020 was organized around the central theme of “the prevention of a ‘digital pandemic.’” That summer, the event’s organizers also published an interview with a cybersecurity expert talking about what he perceived as the inevitability of a “cyber pandemic.” By the end of the year, the WEF was raising the alarm about the risk of “a cyber-attack with COVID-like characteristics” striking the world and causing economic chaos.
The idea of a cyber pandemic is not actually new. Broadly, it’s in keeping with the cybersecurity world’s use of biological disease metaphors to explain digital risks. (Think: computer virus.) As early as 2004, cybersecurity researchers used the term to talk about the risks associated with increasingly interconnected digital ecosystems, in which a novel virus or exploit could hit one weak link, then cascade outwards through wider systems. Experts have trotted it out every few years since then; even the expert Cyber Polygon interviewed stressed that he’d found the term elsewhere, years before. But it took off in the mainstream in 2020 thanks to the term’s evocative resonance in the context of the actual pandemic—and the spotlight the shift to digital work and life during lockdowns (as well as hackers’ attempts to exploit that shakeup) put on cybersecurity for everyday people.
Although it made total sense in the context of both cybersecurity terminology and concerns and the zeitgeist, Cyber Polygon’s language and activities set off red flags for Great Reset conspiracists.
After all, their overarching conspiracy theory emerged as a direct reaction to the WEF’s decision, announced in mid-2020, to organize its upcoming summit around the theme of a “Great Reset,” and to publish a 280-page book on that concept. The event and the manifesto were both dull and vague—a run-of-the-mill lemons-into-lemonade call to view the crisis of the pandemic as an opportunity to build a better world.
The WEF’s longstanding vision, which it baked into this new call to action, has been subject to heavy critiques from all over the political spectrum for years. Still, most people shrug off this kind of content as feel-good words with pretensions to thought leadership, especially given the WEF’s arguably talk-heavy, action-lite history.
But Michael Barkun, an expert on extremism and conspiracy theories at Syracuse University, noted that, “generally, whenever a large international organization formulates a plan, no matter how innocuous it may appear, conspiracists interpret it as a blueprint for a global takeover.”
So after the WEF started talking about its plan for a Great Reset, conspiracists jumped, parsing the text, the event, and everything else the WEF was involved with in order to extrapolate out darker forces and activities. One of the first breadcrumbs they gobbled up was the WEF’s involvement in Exercise 201, a pandemic simulation exercise run for experts in the fall of 2019. The scenario involved a novel strain of coronavirus jumping from bats to pigs in Brazil, infecting farmers, escaping into cities, then surging around the world, killing 65 million people in 18 months. As early as January 2020, conspiracy theorists pointed to this exercise as proof positive that the elites involved in it knew about COVID-19 before it happened.
The Great Reset crowd adapted this early pandemic theory into evidence that the WEF either orchestrated the pandemic, or saw it coming before anyone else and used the event to help program people’s responses to it. They also used Event 201 to argue that the WEF does all its sinister work in broad daylight; anyone “awake” can see their dark deeds.
“Event 201 was humongous,” said Marc Tuters, an expert on radical digital political subcultures at the University of Amsterdam who’s followed the development and spread of Great Reset theories. In early conspiracy talk online, he stressed, “it was one of the biggest things.”
In truth, Event 201 was just one of dozens of pandemic scenarios experts have played through in recent years, in order to help them identify gaps in their defenses and prepare for scenarios we know are likely based on ample evidence and experience. It featured a coronavirus strain because they are common (see: SARS and MERS), evolve easily, and act as a great model for respiratory spread patterns. Its organizers stressed that it was not a prediction, and fact checkers have demonstrated conclusively that the scenario was demonstrably different from this pandemic.
But conspiracy theorists brush those explanations aside. “These psychopaths literally tell you what they are going to do before they do it,” a conspiracy Telegram channel with over 26,000 followers insisted last year, repeating a sort of mantra of this world. “There’s going to be a terror attack… there’s a terror attack. There’s going to be a pandemic… enter the scamdemic.”
In light of this context and conviction, when Great Reset theorists saw the WEF was involved in an exercise to simulate a cyber pandemic, there was really only one way for them to react.
“The WEF and other UN-affiliated organizations have been warning of a ‘cyberpandemic’[sic] since the beginning of the COVID hoax,” one conspiracy account posted last year. “The Cyber Polygon event is likely a test-run for such a scenario, just as ‘Event 201’ was a test-run for the COVID psyop.”
This notion got so much play online that it apparently reached Candace Owens, the prominent far-right pundit with a penchant for amplifying baseless conspiracy theories. (Owens did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) This past November, she posted a video on Instagram with the description, “What would you do if they brought the power grid down? Anybody else paying attention to the World Economic forum [sic] discussing a ‘cyber pandemic’? You probably should be.” She cited Event 201 as prime support for her suspicions.
As early as November 2020, a major conspiratorial Telegram channel, with almost 115,000 subscribers today, identified “a looming large scale cyberattack on critical infrastructure” as the potential “Next Crisis Bigger than COVID” that would “help to usher in the Great Reset.”
Throughout 2021, conspiracy accounts distorted the details of Cyber Polygon’s work, and WEF statements on cyber pandemics, to paint them all as clear telegraphing for those in the know of a disaster to come. Notably, when the WEF posted a video late last year about the risk of a natural disaster or cyberattack knocking out digital infrastructure in one location and leading to spillover effects in others, including potential banking system issues, a conspiratorial Telegram channel with over 95,000 subscribers flipped out. “WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM HINTS TO SHUTTING DOWN YOUR BANK ACCOUNTS. CYBER POLYGON IS COMING,” it blared.
There are plenty of legitimate critiques of the WEF’s views on cybersecurity circulating among experts. But the gap between grounded criticisms and these conspiracies is vast.
“Unless you believe exactly what they believe, they say you have been taken in….”
— Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Conspiracy accounts also spent the last year flagging every big story about a known cyberattack, like the Colonial Pipeline hack, as either the possible start of the elites’ planned cyber pandemic, or a sign that it was already slowly gearing up. They pointed to wider infrastructure failures, like the Texas power grid crisis, and speculated about secret elite cyber interference in them, as well. One account, with over 91,000 followers, even suggested that Awake, a bad Netflix film about a power-grid failure and the global chaos that ensues in its wake, which was released a few weeks before last year’s Cyber Polygon, was a possible signal of things to come. “Eerily similar to the November 2019 Release of the Netflix docuseries Pandemic,” it intoned.
“More and more of these ‘cyber attack’ headlines keep popping up… they are picking up speed since 2020,” a prominent conspiracy Telegram channel wrote last fall. “All this means to me, and perhaps at least to those who have been paying attention, that Klaus Schwab’s Cyber Polygon could be coming soon.”
A meme that flew between a few Telegram accounts last year even attempted to make a clear link between Cyber Polygon and COVID vaccine conspiracy theories. “On the left, a graphic for Cyber Polygon,” it reads, showing the hexagonal designs the event uses. “On the right, the molecular structure of graphene,” a substance that many conspiracy theorists incorrectly believe was added to the COVID-19 vaccines as a tool for controlling, tracking, and/or sickening people. This substance’s molecular structure is also hexagonal. “No such thing as coincidence.”
Except that there are. And this is an incredibly common shape in nature and design.
Also, as Yamin, the cybersecurity expert, pointed out, news of cyberattacks is growing because the risk of them is growing—quickly. This is a clear result of the proliferation and interconnection of increasingly complex tech, years of cybersecurity policy choices, and the increasing ease of access of bad actors, be they nations, criminal groups, or lone wolves, to simple tools that, if well directed, can do a lot of harm.
“It is not fear-mongering, but actual threats that need to be dealt with,” Yamin stressed.
But conspiracy theorists do not tend to engage with these counterfactuals, save to dismiss them as naïve at best, and deceptive at worst. Several experts on conspiratorial mindsets The Daily Beast spoke to for this story explained that this is a common issue: Conspiracy thinking primes people to read everything through one specific lens, and to reject information or analysis that doesn’t accord with their convictions about the plots and malice that allegedly rule the world.
“Unless you believe exactly what they believe, they say you have been taken in by them,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on misinformation and conspiracy thinking at the University of Pennsylvania. “Or you’re a dupe or a confederate. You’ve basically been co-opted.”
All conspiracy theories evolve, blending with other ideas they come in contact with to adapt to new audiences or changing circumstances. The Great Reset itself, experts explained, appears to just be an update of older conspiracy theories about the dark machinations of global elite cabals that’ve been circulating since at least the 1700s, always identifying new foes and plots.
“I guess it never occurs to folks that the Illuminati, [George] Soros, Queen Elizabeth, lizard people, and so on must be really inept, as they’ve been trying this for so long but still haven’t succeeded in their nefarious plans,” said Eric Oliver, a University of Chicago conspiracy theory expert.
But the specter of a cyber pandemic was just one notion floating around in the Great Reset ether. In January, a conspiracy Telegram channel actually polled its 27,000 followers about what they thought the next big play in this supposed agenda, post-COVID, would be. Options included Cyber Polygon, but also a manufactured food crisis, a fake climate crisis, a new disease, and more. That raises the question of why the specter of a cyber pandemic specifically has appeared to draw more attention and active concern in several Great Reset conspiracy communities in recent months.
The obvious answer, Oliver pointed out, is that the idea of a cyber pandemic is a clear, direct riff on a traditional pandemic, so the language and concepts stay the same. So does the narrative of a darkly prophetic training exercise. The ambiguity of identifying and attributing a cyberattack right after it happens also offers room for totally unfettered conspiratorial speculation, noted Jamieson. Tuters added that one of the key concerns of the Great Reset was always about digital control—hence anxieties about nonexistent microchips in the vaccine and app-based vax passes. So looking towards a specifically digital threat as the next big thing makes sense to him, as well.
Concerns about a coming cyber pandemic also got a visibility boost when the WEF appeared to take down its page on Cyber Polygon in early March, something that sent a few conspiracy circles into a minor fit: “Why did the WEF remove the page?” one conspiratorial blogger questioned. “The cyber pandemic is maybe coming sooner than we think! Are you prepared?”
Neither the WEF nor Cyber Polygon responded to requests for comment for this story, but this did occur around the same time that the WEF started to distance itself from Russia, the home of Cyber Polygon, in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
But perhaps most importantly, the threat of cyberattacks is in the news right now, thanks to mounting tensions between Russia, a nation with notoriously robust and active cyber operations, and countries opposed to its invasion of Ukraine. Although this coverage speaks to a real risk, it apparently reads through the Great Reset conspiracy lens as a clear tell.
“This is a fixed war sponsored by WEF [sic]. Putin is as much WEF as the western leaders are, don’t you be fooled,” one poster recently wrote in a conspiratorial Reddit forum. “If EVENT 201 was the precursor to COVID 19, then last year’s CYBER POLYGON will be the predictive event for the coming CYBER WINTER of total global telecommunications collapse which will be achieved through Russian Nuclear Submarines. We will be fooled once again!”
No one The Daily Beast spoke to could say whether concerns in many Great Reset circles about the prospect of a cyber pandemic will last. That likely depends on whether any major figures in the mainstream pick up on and amplify the idea, as well as whether any truly society-shaking cyber attacks occur in the near future. If not, it’s possible that these groups will sideline this particular strain of their wider conspiracy.
But rather than backing off in the face of another unfulfilled prediction, they’ll almost certainly just turn to yet another supposed Next Big Step in the Great Reset. Because once general belief in a broad conspiracy is established, experts told The Daily Beast, it will find ways to perpetuate itself indefinitely—well past the fade-out of the crisis that helped to spark it.
“The conspiracy theory is going to stay alive past COVID,” said Matt Motta, an expert on anti-science attitudes and conspiratorial thought at Oklahoma State University. “It’s just going to have to speak to other hot-button issues of the day and time as it goes.”