Stroud, Fake News and Conspiracies

By Sean Buckley

Stroud has a reputation as a hub for various green movements. With the success and international recognition of the Extinction Rebellion, famously birthed in Stroud, this reputation is growing beyond localised rivalries and taking an occasional position on the national stage. This heritage and notoriety has given rise to a particular stereotype of the ‘Stroudie’: a painfully middle-class, environmentally conscious but wilfully ignorant individual with a propensity towards the more ‘tinfoil hat’ leaning conspiracy theories. Spawned from localised class antagonisms, the stereotype mostly manifests in the form of colloquial banter with the denizens of nearby towns and villages. Although a broad generalisation, it isn’t without a kernel of truth.

Recently the Stroud News and Journal ran a story on The Beacon, a local organisation utilising an old art space that became a hub for a number of XR and XR related groups. It had been using its large window space near the main high street to display some deeply misinformed advice on how to cure the coronavirus with chloroquine and zinc. This was a rumour that was immediately disavowed by the medical community, and enthusiastically advocated by the Donald, so it’s easy to see how it quickly caught the ire of the local newspaper. The Beacon has also had displayed for months a large anti-5G banner. This banner had provided an anecdotal local talking point for weeks even before the lockdown provoked a new wave of theories speculating as to the connection between 5G and coronavirus. The legitimacy of these theories isn’t really worth debating, as many people have already; more importantly, the scientific consensus is that they hold no water whatsoever. What is interesting is the fact that these conspiracy theories surfaced largely within the environmentalist community. The green movement gains a significant amount of its power and legitimacy through the fact its core belief about the need for action around climate change is scientifically unquestionable. The mass public consensus has been behind the movement for decades, while the opposite side of the debate has only been sparsely populated with fringe extremists, hilariously obvious corporate mouthpieces and bought politicians. 

So how does an organisation like The Beacon that derives so much of its value from the scientific basis behind it find it so easy to turn to the public and ask them to ignore the same scientific consensus on another issue? It would be simple to use the 5G and Corona cure banners to discredit the large swathes of the movement and related campaigns. The Beacon specifically holds a powerful connection in the local discourse to the Green movement and XR and by individual relation a number of other left-leaning causes in the district. In a wider context, actions like those of the Beacon effectively discredit the positive actions of the Green movement. The most notable conclusion, however, is how deeply this affair shows parallels in groups far removed from the Stroud archetype.  

The green movement has historically been viewed as an arm of the left, with clear shared interests in movement towards an increasingly resource-based economy and corporate regulation.There is a history of a long, fraught relationship and reputation entwined with new-age, eccentric ideologies. For the most part these have proved relatively harmless and inconsequential, perhaps only providing ammunition for right wing mouthpieces and Youtubers to react to. But the conspiracy theorists surfacing more explicitly now hold far more in common with the fringe of right wing delusionals and hold shared beliefs surrounding a perceived enemy of globalist elite, often used as a thin veil for more vindictive anti-semetic theory

Conspiracy theories appeal to a cross section of political belief, defined more by paranoia than political belief, though certainly informed by it. For example, the anti-vax movement has been almost inspirationally intersectional across left and right, believed to have been born amongst the left but spread to religious conservatives and libertarians by the ‘’Science Left Behind’’ publication. Anti-vaxxers specifically have somehow managed to go from strength to strength despite being repeatedly and mercilessly body slammed by anyone who bothers to engage with them intellectually. The apathy towards reality required by an exponential amount of the population for these conspiracy theories to become so prevalent is concerning, and speaks to a rise in mass disinformation that is important to talk about.

The comparison between the relative fringes of traditionally left and right wing groups should not be perceived as evidence of a kind of horseshoe theory, however. The slightly extreme Luddite reaction of a few leftist hippies clearly holds no moral equivalency with the swathes of neo-fascist and white supremacist thought that has been circling the drain of the far right for decades. The important factor in the comparison then, is the common structure providing information to individuals. The inability of the internet (and an exponential amount of traditional media) to differentiate between encroachment on ideological free speech and the regulation of objective lies has proven to be inexhaustibly harmful.   

In what sounds almost like a conspiracy in itself, a recent leaked EU report accused Russian media outlets of spreading misinformation about the pandemic with the apparent intention of “aggravating the health crisis in the West’’.  The British state is notably not blameless in this debate: the Conservative party was demonstrated to have made a significant amount of misleading or untrue claims during its 2019 election campaign

The knock-on effect of mass disinformation on a state level is that it provides the infrastructure for the dissemination of more pernicious conspiracies and untruths. How possible is it to regulate the spread of news and information if the powers that be appear to have a vested interest in keeping those lanes open?  The state has less to defend around its own policy if a significant amount of hours spent by the sensible have to be spent debating a redundant point. I am reminded of a story about Lyndon B. Johnson accusing his rivals of random nonsense in order to waste their time in refuting it. 

An MIT study quoted by the EU  made the case that false news spreads faster than true, making the claim that this is because the tendency of fake news is to inspire a more visceral emotional reaction in its audience and therefore receive a much wider response. One of the most impressive and legitimate bucks against this trend has been in Finland, which has started programs to educate children about the issues surrounding online media and fake news. The issue of online media affects the young more than the old as they are more likely to get their news from exclusively online sources, which are more disparate and harder to regulate en masse. Accordingly it is appropriate to begin education around the issue from a young age, as the issue will only become more prevalent over their lifetime. The idea seems an obvious one: if a new problem arises in the world then the role of a government is to protect its population against it. In this instance, the spread of misinformation can be combated with education. However, other nations, especially our own, seem slow to take up this new approach despite its clear benefits. The conspiratorial conclusion to be drawn from this is that there is no interest in keeping the British public well informed if it would shift attention onto the government’s multiplicity of failures.  

The public demon of fake news can easily appear to be ethereal and an abstract threat until it raises its head, in tight-knit communities like Stroud, with an unfamiliar face. It is important to recognise that no particular political ethos is totally immune to the effects of widespread misinformation. These trends are easy to point out on the right through easily recognisable and hilarious, if terrifying, Trumpisms and neo-fascist conspiracies. The Beacon’s actions quoted above are the most explicitly harmful examples of misinformation on the left, but nowhere near the earliest or most widespread. Similar tendencies have arisen in the popularity of homeopathy and complementary faux-medical and new-age consciousness ideas. 

It is easy to forget the necessity for the left to be vigilant of these strands of thought creeping through its ranks. When weaponised they can be a powerful tool to discredit genuinely positive and forward thinking movements. However, it is difficult to see total disavowment serving much of a purpose beyond fracturing an already wounded political left. Finding a reliable and thoughtful method of combating misinformation will be integral to solving our problems now and for the foreseeable future. For now, promoting education and new media literacy is the best way to keep your community vaccinated against the evils of fake news. 

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