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Five things the Oxford anti-LTN protest teaches us about the challenge of protecting climate action from disinformation

Last week, approximately 2000 protestors took to the streets in Oxford’s city centre. Their opposition: low traffic neighbourhoods. 

Demonstrations like these are not few in number. As the amount of cities implementing improvements in public transport and greener travel alternatives increases, so too does the disinformation around them. The Misinformation Cell has been documenting the rise in adversarial narratives, and it has also been developing the keys to fighting back.

In this article, our Head of The Misinformation Cell, Stefan Rollnick, lists his five lessons learnt from the most recent anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) protests in Oxford.

Legitimate concerns are inflamed by conspiracy theorists

Firstly, as with all the best disinformation and conspiracy theories, disinformation does contain kernels of truth.

The transition to a greener future requires all of us to embrace change; whether from new lifestyles or new modes of transport. Whilst huge amounts of opportunity and potential lie in this new future, change is never easy. When it comes to something as personal as how we travel to work, how we see family and friends, how we explore and adventure, backlash is inevitable. In many cultures, cars don’t just represent transport, they represent freedom, autonomy and identity.

These are all understandable and legitimate concerns. They are, essentially, part of people’s core values. Values which are challenged by lifestyle-impacting campaigns such as emissions zone policies and Oxford’s LTN zones. Having your lifestyle disrupted makes you more vulnerable to disinformation. Which is precisely what conspiracy theorists prey on.

Most people feel very little personal responsibility for the climate crisis. Conspiracy theorists know this and thus target the concerns about disruption of lifestyles with, as they see it, little personal gain. Directly responding to every talking point is unwise; nevertheless, it is important to have answers to these legitimate concerns. In essence, to meet people where they are before trying to bring them with us.

As communicators, there are limits to what we can control

Oxford’s protests confirmed what many of us already know about climate action: sizable shifts result in backlash of equal and greater proportions. People become anxious and, understandably, search for new (and untrue ) explanations for the change; explanations which align with their worldview. This procrastination only helps to avoid confronting the scale of the change that lies ahead.

In this regard, Oxfordshire County Council didn’t do anything specifically wrong to trigger such a response. Over time, Oxford has felt the heat of the disinformation war over traffic changes as a result of many conflating, spontaneous factors.

The challenge now is in the how. How can Oxford – and other council’s across the country – prevent these disinformation forces from further harming the transformational change it seeks to implement?

Conspiracy theorists might be confusing 15 minute cities with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, but their real message is simply about autonomy

Autonomy is so often at the heart of disinformation messaging. During the pandemic, the message of governments, the World Health Organisation and Bill Gates stealing autonomy was spread far and wide.Then, as the torrent of COVID-19 news slowed to a trickle, the key question was what would conspiracy theorists move on to next? It appears as though one of the key topics they’ve moved onto is personal car use. Within these theories, the evil elites – as claimed by them – can include everyone and everything; from local politicians to ‘globalist’ puppet masters such as the World Economic Forum and World Bank. 

What’s revealing in the case of Oxford is that the Low Traffic Neighbourhood infrastructure and protestors’ complaints are two different things. The protestors are predominantly complaining about ‘15 minute cities’. This policy idea isn’t new, and simply aims to ensure that everyone has what they need to live, work and enjoy life within 15 minutes of where they live, thus reducing car dependency. Oxford’s LTN infrastructure, however, is set up to manage and reduce traffic flow through the city. Clearly, the protestors have been misinformed somewhere along the way.

Or perhaps this conflation isn’t a mistake. Conspiracy theorists may believe that the only way to effectively attack 15 minute cities – a policy about increasing freedom – is to conflate it with more restrictive policies (like traffic reduction) which they’re hoping are less popular.

Conspiracy theories are fluid, meaning we cannot know what will happen next

The agility of conspiracy theorists to move from COVID-19, to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, to antisemitic conspiracy theories about ‘globalists’, is built on the ‘story’ behind conspiracy theories.

These stories are about competition of resources and power between ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’.These all take place on the backdrop of a secret cabal of ‘elites’ pulling the strings behind the scenes. Ingroups and outgroups are, in many ways, primal concepts: our ingroup is the people in our ‘tribe’ who look and sound like us, and the ‘outgroup’ can be anyone outside our ‘tribe’ who can be considered a threat.

Here are some partial but practical examples of what this looks like in concrete terms:

Conspiracy theoryCompetitionIngroupExample outgroupExample elites
COVID-19 Money, personal health“Normal” peopleScientistsPharmaceutical companies
Male supremacyGender dominanceCisgender menWomen, LGBTQ+ communityLeftwing political elites
White supremacyRacial power/influenceWhite peoplePeople of colourJewish globalists
15 minute citiesAutonomy, freedom of movement, political powerCar usersClimate campaignersWorld Economic Forum

The shared narrative structure of these conspiracy theories is what makes them so fluid. It’s why climate journalist Dave Vetter at the recent Oxford protest reported that the Jewish Rothschilds family controls world governments… and “Ashkenazi Jews aren’t like us”. 

This fluidity is also exemplified by how anti-vaccine groups have pivoted their focus from vaccine passports to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

For those driving climate action campaigns or social justice work, the key question is how might these narratives be imprinted onto your work? Because if they can be, they will be adapted to your context sooner rather than later.

Conspiracy theories increase in danger rapidly following penetration of mainstream politics

Crucial fact-based understanding of green policies is in serious danger of disruption by mainstream conspiracy theories.In the context of 15 minute cities culture wars, Nick Fletcher MP, Conservative member of parliament for Don Valley, added a new twist the moment he stood up in parliament this month to decry them as an “international socialist” policy. He repeated a conspiracy theorist narrative which has been doing the rounds on fringe platforms like Telegram for some months now. For the wider public, hearing these talking points espoused by a sitting MP adds a great deal of authority and authenticity to them.

So what should communicators be doing today?

Know your vulnerabilities. This means knowing where your work is vulnerable to disinformation, and knowing how and why your audience might be vulnerable to that disinformation. Only then, can we start to address these vulnerabilities proactively.

And proactivity is essential otherwise, by the time disinformation takes hold, it can be too late.

You can read more misinformation insights here. Alternatively, to understand more about our work, the questions we ask, and insights we can discover please email contact@lynn.global

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