If you’ve ever doubted the real-life harms that climate disinformation and conspiracy theories can create, just take a look at what happened last month in Oxford, UK, where proposed city and county council policies ignited global conspiracies leading to local harassment.
A firestorm of disinformation starting in late November had the predictable effect of inciting abuse of public servants by social media trolls, with city and county “council staff receiving threatening and abusive calls and social media messages from residents.”
This harassment of staff and councilors led the Oxfordshire County Council and the Oxford City Council to release a joint statement on December 7 which debunks conspiracy theories related to their proposed policies and confirms that the Council has turned to law enforcement to address the most extreme abuse. Many news outlets also mobilized to debunk the raging disinformation, but at that point, the damage had already been done.
How did it get to this point? To understand the disinfo, you first have to understand the real story.
This saga started when Oxfordshire County Council proposed the introduction of six traffic filters to “reduce unnecessary journeys by private vehicles” and help “deliver an affordable, sustainable and inclusive transport system.” How do these filters work, exactly? The Council explains, “When they are operating, private cars will not be allowed through the traffic filters without a permit. All other vehicles including buses, coaches, taxis, vans, mopeds, motorbikes and HGVs will be allowed at all times.” The County Council created a months-long process starting in February 2022 through which to receive feedback and consult relevant groups about this policy, which, to be clear, is basically just requiring permits for drivers who want to drive through particular neighborhoods, in order to protect the people who live there from getting run over while riding their bikes and breathing polluted air.
However, on November 30 (a month and a half after the pre experimental traffic regulation order (ETRO) consultation period ended on October 13), the COVID and culture wars-focused disinformation outlet Vision News hysterically framed this policy as a “climate lockdown,” referencing the preexisting conspiracy theory that emerged in 2020 as a response to the 'lockdown' measures taken to address the COVID pandemic. Vision News also conflated the traffic filters proposal with the concept of 15-minute cities.
The 15-minute city aspect of the conspiracy theory has roots in Oxford City Council’s Local Plan 2040, which is still in development. The Plan lays out the concept of communities having “access to all of their daily needs within a 15–20 minute walk or cycle ride,” which would “not only reduce the negative impacts of future pandemics, but also promote healthier and more active lifestyles as well as reduce our impacts upon the climate and the natural environment.”
As Thom Waite at Dazed points out, the 15-minute city as an urban planning concept “isn’t [even] a brand new idea,” having been coined back in 2016, long before the COVID pandemic started. Furthermore, this concept was already a way of life for most people prior to public policies prioritizing cars and the suburbanization of modern development.
So how did Oxford's 15-minute city plan turn into 15 minutes of disinfo fame? Tune in tomorrow to find out!