Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for the 15-Minute City

Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for the 15-Minute City

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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