Conspiracies theories and disinformation mar UK local election

Conspiratorial narratives and rampant misinformation were used to influence the result of a recent local election in the United Kingdom, Euronews has learnt.

Ahead of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip byelection in July – which saw the Conservatives narrowly beat the opposition Labour Party by 500 votes – there was a dramatic increase in false claims and conspiracy theories around ULEZ, a controversial environmental policy.

Candidates in the vote “directly leveraged” this rhetoric, Maisie Draper, an analyst at fact-checking organisation Logically, told Euronews, pointing to a “convergence of far-right and far-left ideologies targeting the ULEZ scheme”. 

The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is an area in London where drivers of vehicles which don’t match specific emissions standards must pay a fee of £12.50 a day.

The zone currently covers central London but is set to be expanded to cover the entire Greater London area from 29 August 2023.

Resistance to ULEZ is widely seen as having tipped the election in the Tories’ favour, with the right-wing party campaigning against the scheme, first introduced by the Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan

An influential conspiracy theorist, COVID denier and anti-vaxxer campaigned for the west London seat claiming ULEZ would be used to turn London into a “net zero prison” with the introduction of “climate lockdowns”.

Besides using his personal and affiliated telegram channels, which combined have around 6,000 subscribers, to pump out disinfo about ULEZ curbing freedoms, he was photographed distributing leaflets outside Uxbridge station, claiming “ULEZ isn’t about pollution, it’s about theft and control”.

Media figures with a history of spreading climate change misinformation called on their large followings to vote Conservative on the basis of their resistance to the policy. 

In June 2023, a video detailing how to remove ULEZ cameras to resist the “globalist sh*t c***s” went viral on Twitter and fringe Telegram channels, earning millions of views collectively.

In the clip, a man claims to have taken down several cameras and instructs others how to do so in “under a minute” using simple-every-day tools. He says “this is our country, we’re taking it back”.

Many social media users praised the anonymous individual and called him a “modern-day hero”, though detractors also condemned his action.

He even gained international acclaim with US conspiracy theorists picking up on the topic possibly shaping their perception of the UK as part of “anti-globalist” plans such as The Great Reset – a conspiracy that COVID was created by a secret group to take over the world economy.

ULEZ is a controversial issue. A February 2023 report showed it had brought cleaner air to more than four million people in London, slashing pollution by 26%. Around 4,000 Londoners die prematurely every year due to toxic air.

It has also helped promote healthier, more sustainable forms of transport, such as cycling.

Critics claim the policy hits the poorest hardest, damages local economies and unfairly penalises those who need a car to get around.

In a statement sent to Euronews, Alex Brocklehurst, Political Editor at Full Fact said “several misleading claims” about UlEZ have spread from social media onto national newspapers.

“These range from posts claiming public consultations weren’t held on the scheme, to headlines reporting that high numbers of people in the capital oppose the expansion.”

“Misleading claims… of this kind, can damage trust in politics, harm public debate, and ultimately affect the way people vote,” he added.

Public opinion on ULEZ is evenly divided. A July 2022 poll commissioned by the London Mayor’s Office found 51% of Londoners supported it, while a separate study by the Conservatives the same year revealed 51% were against ULEZ expansion.

More than a third of car trips made by Londoners could be walked in under 25 minutes, according to Mayor’s Office. 

A challenge brought by five Conservative-led councils to the ULEZ expansion was dismissed by the High Court. They argued Khan had overstepped his powers by making the owners of the most polluting cars pay to drive. 

The resulting backlash to the verdict by conspiracy and far-right groups resulted in a significant increase in 15-minute city, digital prison, climate lockdown and other narratives targeting the Mayor of London and the ULEZ scheme, Euronews was told. 

Fifteen-minute city is an urban design idea that wants people to be able to access work, school and other daily essentials within a short walk. 

Conspiracy theorists and some right-wing commentators have latched onto the concept as a dystopian nightmare where movement is heavily controlled and monitored by governments. 

Anti-ULEZ protests are due to take place in central London on 5 August, amid calls by far-right and far-left groups to target the cameras. 

Fears are rising amongst experts that next year’s general election in Britain could be marred by disinformation, with images, text and deep fake videos potentially going viral.

Climate issues may become the next culture war ahead of the vote, experts say, with some Conservatives sensing this could be a wedge issue that drives support for their party, currently languishing in the polls.

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