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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for the 15-Minute City

Carla Francome campaigns for better cycling routes in Haringey, North London, where she moved a few years ago in search of a community—“an area where I could make friends that would go to the park with me on a Saturday,” she says. “And where there are cafés nearby, and everything is in walking distance.” 

Her activism, which has included support for traffic-reduction measures, has led to the occasional dirty look in the street from fellow residents. But nothing has compared to the stream of vitriol she’s received on Twitter since, on February 12, she posted a thread about the benefits of 15-minute neighborhoods—a concept in urban planning that suggests services should be spread out around cities, and that no one should be more than quarter of an hour away from parks, shops, and schools.

“That’s not freedom, that’s a socialist prison,” said one reply to her thread, from an account with the user name @pauldup80977540. Another account, @BusinessLioness, whose feed is peppered with anti-vaccine messaging and retweets of far-right commentators, sent Francome an image of the Warsaw Ghetto with a message: “There were already 15-minute cities in Poland during the Nazi occupation … In 1941 the Nazis introduced the death penalty for going out.”

The aggression of the messages has left Francome shaken. “How can I put us at risk from someone for just saying that we'd like to be able to walk to the local pub?” she says.

Francome had unwittingly blundered into the middle of an evolving conspiracy theory, which has bundled up innocuous ideas in urban development, from traffic calming and air pollution measures to cycle lanes, into a kind of meta-narrative—a meeting point for anti-lockdown activists, anti-vaxxers, QAnon adepts, anti-Semites, climate deniers, and the far right. With help from right-wing figures in the US and UK, including the author Jordan Peterson, the 15-minute city concept has become entwined within a much bigger universe of conspiracies based around the idea of a “Great Reset” that will see people locked in their homes by climate-obsessed autocracies.

“There’s no reason that an urban planning initiative … should have anything to do with the idea that Bill Gates wants you to eat bugs, but this idea of the Great Reset is the meta conspiracy framework that all of these people are actively participating in,” says Ernie Piper, an analyst at Logically, a fact-checking and disinformation analysis company. “It’s a bit like an alternate reality game where everybody can contribute their own interpretation of events.”

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The 15-minute city conspiracy theory has become entrenched in the UK’s political fringe, referenced in interviews on GB News, a free-to-air TV channel that has periodically promoted conspiracy theories. On February 9, Nick Fletcher, a member of parliament in the ruling Conservative Party, referenced the conspiracy while asking a question about 15-minute cities in the House of Commons, calling it an “international socialist concept” that would “take away our personal freedom.”

Fletcher’s question was met with laughter in the Commons. 

The conspiracy is entirely baseless. WIRED spoke with Areeq Chowdhury, a Labour Party councillor for Canning Town, in the East London borough of Newham, which has adopted some 15-minute neighborhood ideas in its own planning. Chowdhury’s day job is as a researcher into data and digital technologies, and he recently led a campaign against  police use of face-recognition cameras in his borough. The 15-minute neighborhood has absolutely nothing to do with surveillance or control, he says. “It's just about creating a sense of community and promoting active travel,” Areeq says. “I think often people overestimate the competence of authorities to conduct these kinds of [conspiracies].”

Researchers say the #15MinuteCity conspiracy theory has its roots in 2020, when campaigners linked to the fossil fuel lobby tried to push the idea of a looming “climate lockdown,” in which governments would bar people from using their cars, eating meat, or traveling outside of their assigned districts. The idea gathered momentum after conspiracy theorists jumped on a post-pandemic recovery initiative launched by the World Economic Forum think tank called “the Great Reset.” That, they decided, was code for the creation of a tyrannical world government. 

By the summer of 2021, #climatelockdown and #greatreset were rippling across social media and were picked up by right-wing commentators in the US, including the prominent climate change deniers Steve Milloy and Marc Morano, according to research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue think tank. They also made their way onto mainstream channels, particularly Fox News, where prime-time host Tucker Carlson has repeated elements of the conspiracy and interviewed proponents of it.

“It really found its moment during the pandemic, because it preyed upon these much larger themes of government overreach and infringement on civil liberties,” Jennie King, head of climate research and response at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says. “It kind of got pulled in and bled into this much wider ecosystem of extremist and conspiracist thoughts online.”

As pandemic lockdowns have faded into memory, some anti-vaccination groups, and those pushing Covid-related conspiracies about microchips, Bill Gates, and 5G networks, have lost traction. But the “amorphous blob” of radical libertarians, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists who mistrust the authorities, as King puts it, was looking for a new focal point, and it found it in 15-minute cities. The WEF website, which publishes hundreds of articles from academics and businesspeople every year, has occasionally carried articles about 15-minute cities, which is enough for conspiracists to link the concept to the Great Reset.

In December, the blob found a target in Oxford, UK, where the local council had announced a traffic filter scheme to reduce the number of cars and trucks passing through the center of the city. The plan will require local residents to apply for permits to drive on certain streets. It’s not actually a 15-minute city initiative, but it was seized upon by right-wing commentators, including former MailOnline columnist Katie Hopkins, who was banned from Twitter for violating its hateful content policies in 2020 but has more than 270,000 subscribers on YouTube. 

Hopkins, and others, conflated the traffic-calming measures with restrictions on free movement, making a spurious link between building walkable cities and banning cars. A leafleting campaign, spearheaded by the 1990s pop stars turned conspiracy theorists Right Said Fred, warned Oxford residents that they would become “guinea pigs.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Peterson raged against “idiot tyrannical bureaucrats” in a tweet viewed 7.5 million times. Members of the Oxfordshire County Council have received death threats

There can be real-world consequences to conspiracy theories that start online. In December 2021, an anti-vaccination mob attacked a Covid-19 testing site in the UK. In November 2022, a far-right terrorist reportedly radicalized by online content attempted to firebomb a migrant detention center. Accounts posting about the Great Reset and related narratives routinely make reference to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals and post pictures of hangings. “Violent rhetoric is violence,” says Piper of fact-checker Logically. “It's just rhetoric until all of a sudden it isn’t.”

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