A throwaway comment by New South Wales chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant about a “new world order” has gone viral after being picked up by conspiracy theorists.
During a press conference on Thursday, Chant made the comment when answering a question about how contact-tracing will work once the state opens back up.
“We will be looking at what contact-tracing looks like in the new world order — yes, it will be pubs and clubs, and other things, if we have a positive case there [but] our response may be different if we know people are fully vaccinated,” she said.
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The phrase “new world order” is a term regularly used to describe a time of change. It’s also the name of a long-standing conspiracy theory about a global totalitarian government run by shadowy forces like the Illuminati or Freemasons. The theory often carries anti-Semitic undertones.
As soon as it was uttered, some expected that the innocuous comment would garner some attention. And it did.
The term began trending on Twitter in Australia — and then around the world. One version of the video posted by a user on Twitter has gained more than 2.5 million views. Google searches for “new world order” spiked.
Some of the attention came from anti-government conspiracy theorists who said that the phrase proved that Australia’s strict COVID-19 public health measures were actually something more sinister.
Everyone from anti-vaxxers to QAnon believers to one of the world’s biggest right-wing YouTubers Steven Crowder shared it on Facebook, Twitter and Telegram. Many sharers seemed to be sceptical of the conspiracy, but were sharing it because they expected it would pique the interest of fringe social media users.
Of course, the use of the phrase wasn’t an announcement by a state’s chief health officer that she was installing herself as a global monarch. (If that was the goal, it would be ill-advised to announce it at a press conference until power had already been seized.) The idea is ridiculous to anyone not already primed to believe it.
What this saga shows is how easily moments can be cut up, shared, remixed, and take on a life of their own. Until recently, a comment like this would have gotten little notice — perhaps a write-up in the traditional media before being quickly forgotten. Now, this comment will likely live on as part of the corpus of out-of-context moments and events that conspiracists use to reinforce and promote their world views.
More than anything else, Chant’s “new world order” is perfect gristle for the content machine. A public figure at an official-looking event broadcast saying something engaging. There are thousands of online influencers and communities who are desperate for some new piece of material to feed to their platforms which will prove their world view, grow and excite their audience
Perhaps Chant should have been careful with her words, but there’s always a chance that something said or done (perhaps taken out of context or misleadingly framed) can go viral.
The most people can hope for is that it doesn’t happen to them.