Oxfordshire Climate Lockdown: How a Traffic Scheme Became a Conspiracy

Oxfordshire climate lockdown: How a traffic scheme became a conspiracy

By: pallavi sethi&
February 9 2023

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Oxfordshire climate lockdown: How a traffic scheme became a conspiracy

In response to a steady stream of online misinformation surrounding the traffic filter schemes in Oxford, Oxfordshire County Council released a video to put the rumors to rest: "These conspiracy theories are causing real-world harm … we are not planning a climate lockdown or a lockdown of any kind," a concerned Liz Leffman, leader of the Oxfordshire Council, explained. Leffman confessed that the council had been subjected to widespread harassment and abuse after misinformation started circulating both online and in a leafleting campaign

With just under 10,000 views, the county's YouTube video had far lower engagement than Katie Hopkins' viral video titled "Oxford Climate Lockdown." In the video, Hopkins, a far-right commentator, claims the Oxford County Council uses “coercive” methods to keep people "locked" in their neighbourhoods under the pretext of climate change. Hopkins' video received more than 100,000 views on YouTube.

As more cities in the U.K. try to adopt green transport policies, some people are using the opportunity to push climate misinformation. A few days before Hopkins released her video, Nigel Farage made similar claims about a transport scheme in Canterbury. He confidently tweeted to his million-plus followers that Canterbury's circulation plan was a climate lockdown. He has previously admitted to being clueless about global warming.  

Traffic schemes in cities like Oxford and Canterbury aim to ease motor congestion, make walking and cycling safer, reduce gas emissions, and improve overall air quality. The Oxford traffic filter, which will be trialed in 2024, will place six filters in key routes and prohibit private cars without permits from traveling on those routes during certain times of the day. Each permit lasts for 100 days. Exempt vehicles include buses, coaches, taxis, mopeds, and heavy goods vehicles. The Canterbury Circulation plan, which is still in its early stages, works similarly. The plan proposes to divide the city into five zones based on major routes and prevent private cars from driving from one side of the city to another through the city center. 

Under the proposals for both cities, people could still drive to any part of the city from any other part of the city at any time of day, albeit using a longer route. 

The 15-Minute Neighborhood

An assortment of climate deniers, conspiracy websites, and media outlets connected the Oxford traffic filter scheme to the "15-minute neighborhood plan." 

The story first appeared in the Oxford Mail and used the headline: "Traffic filters will divide the city into ‘15-minute’ neighbourhoods,” referring to an interview with Oxfordshire County Councilor Duncan Enright with The Times. In a somewhat loose interpretation of Enright's quote that “it was definitely going ahead,” it said that Enright insisted the traffic plan "would go ahead whether people liked it or not." Enright said no such thing

Several conspiracy websites in December 2022 quoted the Oxford Mail's language. They claimed the "totalitarians" would turn the city into  15-minute districts, under which residents would be imprisoned in their neighborhoods.

Oxford County Council confirmed to Logically that the traffic filters would not confine people to their homes or the local area, and the 15-minute neighborhood plan had no connection to the traffic filters and has nothing to do with a lockdown. According to Oxfordshire County Council, the idea of the 15-minute neighborhood, which falls under a separate county proposal, was to add essential services within a 15-minute walking radius of residential homes. "They aim to support and add services, not restrict them."

Further, the council held a public consultation before making any decision about the traffic filters. More than 5,000 people, including businesses, residents, and schools, participated in the discussion, resulting in several scheme updates. The county will conduct an additional consultation during the trial period to decide if the filters will be made permanent. 

Other narratives falsely mentioned using electronic gates under the traffic filter scheme. Oxford County Council told Logically the filters "do not include any physical barriers. The traffic filters will work in exactly the same way as the existing traffic filter in the city on High Street and are widely used in cities across the U.K. to manage congestion and support public transport.”

The filters will have cameras that read number plates, and those without a permit will receive a £70 penalty via post. Automatic Number Plate Technology (ANPR), which is neither new nor illegal, has been around since the 1980s. Various law enforcement agencies use the ANPR to "detect, deter and disrupt criminality at a local, regional and national level." 

Some commenters called the transport proposals in Canterbury and Oxford “communist” and compared them to the Soviet Union and China. When asked about the sources of misinformation, Canterbury City Council told Logically, "Following local and national press coverage of the idea to use modal filters to zone the city to ease congestion, improve air quality and promote walking and cycling, a prominent former politician [Nigel Farage] deemed it part of a climate lockdown conspiracy." 

Fringe groups were quick to blame the World Economic Forum, suggesting a powerful group of elites led by Klaus Schwab concocted the transport schemes to control people's lives. The narrative ties into the Great Reset conspiracy theory – the false belief, drawing from antisemitic tropes, that everything from transportation and housing to health and food supplies is controlled by a “secret group of elite manipulators.” 

The widespread misinformation caused confusion for the local residents of Oxford. Oxfordshire County Council revealed to Logically that "councils [received] numerous calls and social media messages from worried residents" in fear of being locked in their homes. 

Network Amplification

According to an Institute of Strategic Dialogue report, the term "climate lockdown" first emerged on social media in September 2020. Climate denialists primarily drove the online propaganda, and the narrative received demonstrable reach and traction "following a series of poorly thought-out headlines" from mainstream media outlets. 

The same bad-faith actors mentioned in the ISD report who planted seeds of climate lockdown in 2020 spread disinformation around the Oxford traffic filters. These include Steve Milloy, director of Heartland Institute, a funder of climate change denial; Paul Joseph Watson, an influential InfoWars host and antisemitic conspiracy theorist; and Marc Marona, publisher of climate denial website Climatedepot.com, which is funded in part by the conservative dark money group Donor’s Trust. Right-leaning news channel GB News also contributed to the surge in online discussion and amplified the disinformation to its millions of viewers. Raising concerns around Oxford's "climate lockdown plan," the channel aired an interview with Lois Perry, the director of CAR26. This known climate denial group has previously equated climate change literacy to "borderline child abuse."

Logically found conspiracy websites fuelled the ongoing disinformation by amplifying each other's messages. Instead of speaking to government officials or vetted and reliable sources, these right-wing fringe websites "corroborated" their claims by quoting from and linking to other fellow websites. This phenomenon reinforced inaccurate narratives. All the conspiracy websites Logically analyzed had shares ranging from 2,500 to 16,400 on Facebook and several hundred on Twitter. Further, links to the conspiracy websites were widely circulated on climate denial groups on Facebook. The primary amplifiers of the narrative were right-wing influencers, and known climate change deniers, including James Melville, Jordan Peterson, and Neil Oliver. 

What the Science Says

According to an independent survey by YouGov, more than half of the 249 people surveyed support the Oxford filter plan. In fact, previous traffic reduction policies have proved to be beneficial. The 2017 circulation plan in Ghent's city center has been an effective and innovative transportation scheme. The mobility plan, fundamentally the same as Oxford and Canterbury's transportation system, restricts motor movement across the city center and encourages walking, cycling, or public transport. Experts have assessed the plan's impact, showing its enormous success. According to a Transport and Mobility Leuven report, the circulation plan resulted in a sharp increase of 60 percent in cycle use. Further, car traffic during rush hour was reduced by 12 percent, and the air quality in the city center improved by 18 percent. Even the motorists took less time on the longer routes thanks to the overall traffic reduction.

Belgium's third-largest city is one of many places to experience a successful transportation scheme working toward climate action. Possible, a U.K. charity working on climate action, conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of 46 Low Traffic Neighborhoods schemes in 11 London boroughs. The study, the largest to date, found that neighborhoods using LTNs saw a reduction of 46.9 percent in average traffic.  

The Oxford filter trial followed a democratic process by conducting a written consultation with those impacted by the traffic reduction scheme. Most bad-faith actors pushing misinformation narratives do not reside in Oxford, are not impacted by Oxford's roadway congestion and did not engage in public consultation with the County Council. These people continue to frame and subvert the climate narrative for their own agendas.

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before