Plans for a more walkable, bikeable Oxford anger conspiracy theorists
WHEN CONSPIRACY THEORISTS UNITE
Sometimes two extremist political factions — each with their own set of conspiracy mythologies — meet on the picket lines and merge, creating a hybrid Frankenstein’s monster of a fringe group. We saw it happen when the Reichsburger conspiracy theorists who believe that Germany should go back to the monarchy of the 1870s met up with anti-vaccine adherents during the pandemic. Both groups were out campaigning against the Covid lockdown — and it was a sort of a conspiracy theorist meet-cute.
This week, two groups I’ve been covering separately for a while got together: the anti-bike brigade and the QAnon, New World Order, anti-vaccine adherents. It would almost be heartwarming if it wasn’t so disturbing.
The anti-bike movement, which I wrote about in November, is furious about the transformation of European cities into green, low-emission zones where they can’t drive their cars. Meanwhile, the QAnon types are convinced that the world is in the midst of a “great reset” and that we will soon all be confined to our homes in a permanent lockdown.
So when the historic British city of Oxford introduced a new plan to make the center of town more walkable and bikeable, both groups kicked off. The city council proposed creating more “15-minute neighborhoods” — an urban planning term that aims to develop cityscapes where everything you need is a quarter-hour walk away and where cars become redundant for shorter journeys. But the two groups saw the plan as a dystopian ploy to keep us all locked inside.
Thousands joined a protest in Oxford, bringing the city (ironically) to a standstill. A speech by a 12-year-old girl, claiming that the “government has been hijacked by greedy and selfish imposters,” was the event’s highlight. The video was then tweeted by Children’s Health Defense, a U.S. anti-vaccine propaganda group chaired by the prominent vaccine conspiracy theorist, and John F. Kennedy’s nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., where it got a million views.
James Stafford, 37, a British campaigner for bike infrastructure, posted another video on TikTok about the protest. “This is what the 15-minute city protesters in Oxford are protesting against,” he said, posting idyllic videos of walkable cityscapes. “This is what they want,” was the caption for nightmarish footage of traffic gridlock and huge WalMart parking lots.
Thousands of TikTokers accused him of wanting the world to become “North Korea” governed by a social credit system. Stafford said he watched as the anti-15-minute-cities campaign started as a simple opposition to low-traffic neighborhoods and “morphed into people talking about Nazi ghettos and open prisons.”
It’s bizarre to think that all this was spawned from one city council’s plans to make buses run faster and active travel feel safer.
As negotiations for the European Union’s AI Act get underway, a whole range of different groups are campaigning to make sure it is the landmark piece of legislation that it has the potential to be. The AI Act is a proposed law to regulate the use of artificial intelligence in the bloc, and it’s the first of its kind anywhere in the world. LGBTQ+ groups want the act to outlaw gender and sexual orientation recognition technology. AI facial recognition systems often work by first sorting people into gender categories. For trans and nonbinary people, the technology can misgender them, meaning that at the airport they are more likely to get pulled aside. “In malicious hands, such as law enforcement in countries with anti-LGBT+ laws, these tools could lead to serious harm for LGBT+ people,” said Yuri Guaiana, the senior campaigns manager at All Out, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group.
Reports have emerged from Afghanistan that the Taliban had put a blanket ban on the sale of contraceptives, saying their use was a “Western conspiracy.” The Guardian ran it as their top story, reporting that the Taliban was threatening midwives and clearing pharmacy shelves of birth control pills and condoms. But when others followed up, the story didn’t seem to be quite true. An English-language paper from the UAE, the National, visited pharmacies in Kabul and found contraception freely available. Doctors Without Borders also said they hadn’t seen any evidence of the ban. The Taliban government called the story “fake news.” While it’s possible that certain zealous local Taliban enforcers banned contraception, it’s certainly not happening everywhere. The Guardian has yet to issue a retraction. That said, women’s health remains under constant threat in Afghanistan: Last year, the Taliban introduced new requirements that women had to be chaperoned by men to see a doctor. It’s had a major impact on women accessing healthcare.
The Environmental Protection Agency is on the ground responding to the damage caused by a train derailment in Ohio earlier this month. Several of the train’s cars were carrying hazardous materials and toxic chemicals, which were released into the atmosphere to prevent further explosions. But the EPA says that there are no concerns about them affecting air and water quality. That hasn’t stopped the slew of alarmist claims that the derailment was “planned.” The EPA has been criticized for its testing process for air and water quality, and some commentators compared the situation to the Chernobyl disaster. Amid the confusion and fear, people are struggling with knowing who to believe — and reaching for conspiracy theories as a knee-jerk response. Former President Donald Trump has visited the disaster zone and delivered “Trump water,” as well as “much lesser quality water. You want to get those Trump bottles.”
WHAT WE’RE READING
- There’s a growing backlash against renewable energy projects in the U.S. with deep ties to powerful conservative players. And it’s spreading disinformation about solar power to try to stop new projects. NPR and Floodlight investigate.
- “The Black List” is a platform for screenwriters to share unproduced Hollywood scripts. Its creator, Franklin Leonard, became a bizarre target for QAnon followers. Why? For Rolling Stone, Will Somner gets to the bottom of it.