From 4chan to international politics, a bug-eating conspiracy theory goes mainstream
From 4chan to international politics, a bug-eating conspiracy theory goes mainstream
In mid-March, a far-right Dutch member of parliament named Thierry Baudet tweeted "WE WILL NOT EAT THE BUGS" accompanied by a photo of himself holding a microphone in one hand and pouring golden mealworms out of a bag in the other.
Earlier in the month, Poland's ruling nationalist party Law and Justice falsely alleged that the opposition Civic Platform was trying to push citizens into eating worms, prompting the opposition to hit back with a similar accusation.
Those are just some of several instances of European right-wing politicians lobbing a conspiracy theory that elites want people to eat bugs. The accusations arrived shortly after the European Union approved mealworms and crickets as food ingredients.
Across the Atlantic, American right-wing pundits and influencers decry a similar plot. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits small amounts of insect matter to be included in foods.
"The ruling class really, really wants us to eat bugs," conservative commentator Michael Knowles said in a YouTube video in January of 2022, waving a printout of a Bloomberg opinion piece titled "Why Bugs Must Be a Bigger Part of the Human Food Chain." The story he referred to actually focused on insects' potential as high-nutrient animal feed and on insects' ability to process human food waste, rather than as food for human consumption.
On March 29, the conservative video outlet Prager University featured man-on-the-street interviews with host Aldo Buttazzoni telling passersby that "the World Economic Forum wants you to eat bugs to save the planet" and asking them if they wanted to eat live crickets and bread ostensibly made with cricket flour.
Including insects in human food has been an emerging, but still marginal, idea among climate scientists and food security experts. In countries where insects have not been a part of the diet, it's an idea that has long been met with hesitancy and occasional ridicule.
In recent years, however, this aversion has fused with an amorphous and shapeshifting conspiracy theory in which a shadowy global elite conspires to control the world's population. For those who espouse the theory, eating bugs isn't just a matter of disgust, or questioning the impacts of climate change. It's framed as a matter of individual freedom and government control.
A brief history of a meme
Scientists say it's urgent to cut climate pollution from agriculture — mainly by reducing meat consumption and eating more plant-based food. Using insects as a source of protein is an idea that's floated on the edges of the policy debate. Even though the idea is far from taking off, it captured the public's imagination in the U.S. in the early 2010s when the press covered United Nations reports about edible insects, initially as a way to improve food security.
Earlier online discussions about eating insects were mostly reactions to news stories with responses ranging from curiosity to disgust. Take the phrase "I will not eat the bugs" as an example. Some of the earliest instances of the phrase surfaced on the 4chan message board on Aug. 30, 2019. Anonymous users repeated the phrase in response to a photo of climate activist Greta Thunberg, sometimes paired with the phrase "I will not live in a pod," said Sara Aniano, a disinformation researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, who identified the 4chan posts for NPR.
"It kind of started out and continues to be kind of a meme," said Aniano. "So some people might be using it earnestly and some people might be using it ironically."
The paired phrase "I will not eat the bugs and I will not live in a pod" traveled to Twitter on Sept. 23 when someone who self-identified as a "Proud Nationalist" commented on a photo showing a co-living space lined with bunk beds. It did not receive much engagement.
The next day, a Twitter account with just over 300 followers tweeted out the phrase in all caps paired with an anime-style image of a young woman screaming. The tweet was liked more than 500 times within a day, and the phrase spread.
"I really didn't expect it to become a meme; there wasn't much thought behind it," the owner of the account told NPR. "I was just making fun of people getting upset about articles around that time and it became a rallying cry."
On Sept. 26, investor, venture capitalist and cryptocurrency promoter Nic Carter picked up the phrase and followed up with an image titled "climate solutions." It showed a car screeching toward a side road under a sign "eat the bugs," with "more nuclear power" being the main road. He had more than 35,000 followers at the time.
Researchers at Social Media Research Foundation searched for tweets and website links going back to 2018. NPR also reviewed discussions in 2019 and before on Google, Facebook and smaller social platforms like Rumble, Kiwifarms and Bitchute via Junkipedia and Pyrra Technologies.
The phrase "I will not eat the bugs" would later resurface as part of a COVID-era conspiracy theory about government coercion, but it's difficult to pin down when it began. As COVID-19 swept across the world in early 2020 and governments imposed mandates on masks and upheld restrictions on social gatherings and travel, the conspiracy theory that global elites were seizing an opportunity — or even inventing an excuse — to exert more control over an unknowing population flourished, including by forcing them to eat insects.
But the pandemic wasn't the start. As "I will not eat the bugs" proliferated on Twitter in September 2019, a science fiction writer published a short story titled "Live in the Pod and Eat Bugs,'' set in a dystopian world where the characters had no choice but to eat insects.
A few months earlier, in April 2019, a few days after a fire destroyed part of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a blogger who self-identifies as a "white identitarian" suggested that eating insects is a "symbol of our enslavement."
"There's an undefined 'they' in charge," says Ciaran O'Connor, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue, reviewing the post for NPR. "'We would have almost no luxuries and would work for whatever minor consumption we would be allowed' ... I definitely see New World Order overtones."
"In this iteration, they are going to make you eat bugs," he observes.
From the New World Order to the Great Reset
The New World Order that O'Connor refers to is a decades-old conspiracy theory describing a world shadow government, often involving Jewish people. The name is based on a book published in the 1990s by conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
It mostly stayed on the fringe of public consciousness until early 2020, when many people questioned the stay-at-home measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. It got an extra boost during the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in July 2020, when chairman Klaus Schwab announced an initiative called "the Great Reset."
Vague and sprawling, the Great Reset urged a rethinking of national and global systems of government in the wake of COVID-19. The gathering of global elites in Davos has long held the imagination of conspiracy theorists and the initiative quickly became construed as evidence that global elites were using the outbreak to further enslave the masses.
"The Great Reset is just the New World Order repackaged," says O'Connor.
Within months, the Great Reset entered the right-wing vernacular with figures such as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro and Glenn Beck all echoing the idea, according to a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue that O'Connor co-authored.
During the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2022, conservative pundit Noor Bin Ladin further brought up insect eating as part of the Great Reset during an appearance on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's show.
"I don't want to eat the bugs. I don't want to live in the pod. I don't want to be trapped in a digital jail, and nothing they can do will make me," she said. Memes with similar wording have been circulating on social media.
One of the major differences between the older New World Order conspiracy theories and the Great Reset is their prominence, says O'Connor.
"[The Great Reset] has been adapted and adopted by leading prominent political figures in many, many countries in a way that's new," says O'Connor. "This was very immediately 'the Great Reset is a left-wing thing and our response were we're pro-freedom [and it] is a right-wing thing.'"
Right-wing figures can demonize their opponents by tying these conspiracies to them, says the ADL's Aniano. She notes that those who have supported eating insects only suggest doing so on a voluntary basis.
The Great Reset has become a catchall, absorbing opposition to many different kinds of climate initiatives. In the United Kingdom, protesters flocked to Oxford from across the country in February to protest policy proposals that would reduce traffic and increase walkability, many citing the conspiracy theory and claiming that the government wanted to turn cities into "open air prisons."
"You are what you eat"
Eating insects is "alien to our normal way of life, all of this is anti-human, anti life on this planet," said conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his Infowars show.
"Eating insects is repulsive and un-American," said Fox News host Tucker Carlson in 2019.
The reality is that insects and their cousins are part of many cultures' diets today and have been for a very long time. Mexicans put grasshoppers in their tacos; the Japanese cook them in soy sauce. Insects such as silkworms are part of the diet for many living in Southeast Asia and China.
The ancient Greeks and Romans ate insects. Aristotle wrote of cicadas: "At first, the males are the sweeter eating; but, after copulation, the females, as they are full then of white eggs." Pliny the Elder documented that the Roman epicures of his day enjoyed moth grubs fattened on flour and wine.
Insect colonies in modern day Western Europe declined in the 13th century during what climate scientists call "the Little Ice Age," which may have put an end to that tradition of eating insects in the region, says Julie Lesnik, an associate professor of biological anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit.
When Europeans first sailed to what is now the Americas, they encountered Indigenous people who included insects in their diet and reacted with revulsion. Diego Álvarez Chanca, who sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, wrote in a letter: "They eat all the snakes, and lizards, and spiders, and worms, that they find upon the ground; so that, to my fancy, their bestiality is greater than that of any beast upon the face of the Earth."
"There was very much an idea that you are what you eat back then. And so the Europeans felt they needed European foods," says Lesnik. "There is very much a worry that if you ate the Indigenous foods, you would become a savage."
Conservative media influencers continue to tap into this sentiment today. "I don't want to live like a peasant in the middle of the jungle in Vietnam. I want to live like a civilized person with a cultural inheritance," said Knowles in response to the Bloomberg article. "I'm not going to eat the bugs."
Lesnik sees a throughline between the early colonizers and the conservative outrage today.
"The easiest punching bag ... is to pick on something that looks uncivilized."
Clarification April 3, 2023
This story has been updated to note that Nic Carter, in addition to being a cryptocurrency promoter is also an investor and partner in a venture capital fund.