London is littered with conspiracy leaflets as Covid deniers dodge Facebook moderators
“Dear Neighbor, don’t be afraid to study this,” the leaflet on my doormat read, in tiny, six-point text. “I am writing this because I would like my opinion heard, in my local area and beyond. We are at war.”
It proceeded to offer eight pages of reading material that were startling in their breadth. Quotes from the Bible and the libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand jostled against 9/11 conspiracy theories, stories of UFOs and antisemitic tropes about the Rothschilds controlling the world. But, above all, there was one overarching theme: that Covid-19 is a hoax, perpetrated by the deep state to oppress the global population.
Friends, living miles away in another London borough, received the same glossy pamphlet. “They must have printed thousands,” one messaged me. The next day, I checked in on my local print store to see if they had fulfilled any bulk orders for material that seemed unusually concerned with Bill Gates. The manager frowned.
“I would have noticed something like that,” he said. “You don’t mean these?” He then showed me a poster complaining of recent changes to the borough’s parking restrictions. No, I didn’t mean them.
December turned to January, and more leaflets came. My octogenarian father found one tucked beneath his windscreen wipers, informing him that the deep state would soon be overthrown. During one of my countless government-approved walks on Hampstead Heath, I found another, stuck in the crook of a leafless oak tree: a mud-spattered page of links to conspiracy theory videos such as “Plandemic,” laying out a complex set of beliefs that the lockdown is a plot to reduce and control the population.
The U.K. has endured months of coronavirus restrictions, and now the country’s quiet streets are being littered with anti-lockdown leaflets. On Telegram, thousands of people are rallying to print and distribute material advocating for a “great reopening” of businesses, splitting themselves into groups to cover every county and major city.
“It is the most organized campaign that I’ve seen throughout the whole of Covid,” said Aoife Gallagher, a researcher at London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who has been busy studying anti-lockdown movements in the UK and Ireland.
In recent months, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms have cracked down hard on anti-vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories. Now, some anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 deniers have gone back to the drawing board, using age-old methods to spread their message. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, pamphlets printed by an Italian doctor spread a popular, fantastical theory that the disease was a German bioweapon, deployed against the enemy in the final desperate months of the First World War. A century on, as a different disease rampages across the globe, the same tactics are being used once again.
On Telegram, anti-lockdown campaigners are posting instructions for how to flyer communities. “We suggest you use local printers and make a deal with them, and pay in cash,” the admin of one group wrote, warning users that “agents of the establishment” were watching the conversation. I wondered if they meant journalists, like me.
I am now a member of dozens of these groups, which ping a constant stream of messages to my phone. Every day, new poster templates are added for people to download and print. Many use an idiosyncratic design style, particular to conspiracist literature: red text on black, dire warnings, prophecies. Others masquerade as government information, complete with National Health Service logos and the royal coat of arms.
In Bishop’s Park, a patch of green in west London, overlooking the River Thames, the late-February sun was sinking on the horizon. Earlier, the park had thrummed with music and was filled with hundreds of anti-lockdown protesters. Piers Corbyn — the climate change denialist, vaccine conspiracist and brother of the former Labour party leader Jeremy — was arrested after making a speech to the crowd, and charged with organizing the event in defiance of coronavirus restrictions. He’s used to it: earlier in the month, he was held for distributing leaflets equating the vaccine program to the Holocaust. In fact, watching Corbyn being led away by the police has become an integral part of such gatherings.
Gradually, people began to disperse, and the half-dozen police vans that had arrived at the park drove away. Campaigners pushed more leaflets into my hands — even a full newspaper. I was also told, many times, to take off my mask.
I talked to Mark, a 51-year-old former lorry driver who has been attending similar events since the start of the pandemic. “I’ve got a better social life than I ever had,” he told me. “It’s something to do every weekend.”
Mark, who asked me not to use his full name, for fear of repercussions from friends and family, told me that he had been “awake” for the past 30 years. The kind of consciousness he referred to roughly translates as immersing himself in alternative news sources and believing in an array of secret plots against ordinary civilians, orchestrated by a sinister network of self-serving elites.
His doctor signed him off from work last year after he faced problems with his health. Throughout lockdown, he’s been reliant on benefits, and is keen to get better and get back to work — but told me he can’t get an appointment with his GP.
Since November last year, he has spent four days a week walking the streets of London, handing out leaflets. It offers a break from the monotony, and a sense of purpose. He has also been campaigning for Corbyn, who is running for London mayor, as well as flyering for an organization called Stand Up X, which contends that the pandemic is a scam and that vaccine programs are a way for the government to conduct covert experiments on humans. He spends hours at a time on the streets, speaking to people and pushing papers through letterboxes. “I get home and my throat — I can feel it burning,” he said. “I’ve been talking so much.”
His friends at the protests mostly range in age from their 40s to their 60s. For them, he said, old-fashioned forms of campaigning feel more natural and removed from the interference of social media moderation policies.
“I can see the person’s eyes, and see if they’re taking it in,” Mark added. “Some stuff is only word of mouth. We don’t even discuss it on telephone calls.”
However, he does worry that some of the people at the protests have sunk too deep into the world of conspiracist thinking. “I’ve seen it creep up on people,” he explained. After events like this, he often takes a walk through the city streets, “to decompress.”
“I sometimes feel I’m being closed in — even after a really good day,” he said.
Behind the pamphlets
In December, Facebook shut down a group called Save Our Rights for posting anti-vaccine videos. Save Our Rights has pushed a conspiracy theory called the Great Reset, in which world leaders are said to have masterminded the pandemic to wrest control of the global economy. Founder Louise Creffield, 34, has since re-established the pages.
“I think we had like 43,000 in the group. We’re back up now to 26,000,” she said, adding that her followers have been mobilizing locally to distribute pamphlets up and down the country. “Getting out there and doing leafleting and stuff, reaches just a different audience that I can’t otherwise reach, because they’re not on my friends list.”
The Metropolitan police recently announced that Creffield has been charged with holding and attending gatherings in breach of coronavirus restrictions. She is set to appear in court in May.
Researcher Aoife Gallagher has noticed a growing trend for analog campaigning among anti-lockdown groups. “The platforms are trying to take action against Covid conspiracies, and they realize that,” she said. “So, using flyers, I suppose, is a way for them to get around that. It also helps them to bring the movement to people that may not necessarily be online.”
So far, Gallagher has yet to find a single significant grassroots anti-lockdown movement that doesn’t subscribe to conspiracy theories. “There, are of course, evil forces at play in these groups,” she said, describing how she’s seen Covid denialism give way to QAnon beliefs and white nationalism.
Looking through the collection of anti-lockdown leaflets I’ve now amassed, one flyer is simply a square QR code, accompanied by the words “Scan me for freedom.” When I followed that instruction, I was taken to a web page filled with links to theories about pedophiles running the world.
I found the pamphlet’s designer on Telegram. He agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity. “I came up with it to wake us Brits up a bit,” he said. “I’m a graphic designer, printer and artist, so creativity comes naturally.”
Leaflets like his, distributed in the offline world, offer a portal back into the internet’s shadowiest realms. What is more, they are encountered when people are going about their daily lives, simply taking a walk in a park or going through their mail.
In West Kirby, a leafy town in the English county of Merseyside, flurries of leaflets have been landing on residents’ doormats. Not long ago, Daniel Booth, 51, received a Wirral Community Information Newsletter through his letterbox. The leaflet, which he described as “utter tripe,” was jammed with false information about 5G radiation and vaccines. He ignored it, but told me that such unsolicited mail does make him worry for his older, more vulnerable neighbors.
“I don’t want to patronize elderly people, but if you’re waiting to be vaccinated and don’t have access to other information, and you read all these terrible things, it really could cause you not to have the vaccine,” he said.
Booth hasn’t been able to check on his neighbors, because of the ongoing lockdown, but he is scheduled to be immunized in the next few months. “I’m looking forward to being controlled by Bill Gates,” he said with a laugh.
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