DeSmog

Science Denial Group Behind Surge of Online Attacks on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

The Together Declaration spurred a wave of “disinformation” around anti-pollution schemes, new report finds.
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A Together Declaration protest in Wellingborough. Credit: Together / YouTube

More than a quarter of online posts attacking low traffic schemes last year came from a science denial group which campaigns against climate policies. 

A new report by cross-party think tank Demos found that 27 percent of online posts attacking Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in 2023 were posted by the right-wing Together Declaration

The group, originally set up to oppose COVID-19 policies such as lockdowns and mandatory vaccines, is backed by some of the UK’s most prominent climate science deniers, including blogger Ben Pile, Reform UK candidate Howard Cox, and UKIP leader Lois Perry

According to the Demos report, Together’s anti-LTN posts included “assigning sinister intentions to councillors, arguing that LTNs are a totalitarian policy which is part of a wider global agenda, and stoking explicitly conspiratorial rhetoric” about an “alleged grand agenda of control”. 

Demos found that, between 2022 and 2023, disinformation posted online about LTNs surged. The proportion of the most popular posts about LTNs classed as disinformation, including conspiracy theories, rose from 5 percent to 28 percent year-on-year. 

The report shows how local schemes to reduce air pollution are being used by political groups to spread conspiracy theories about climate action. DeSmog has reported that climate denial groups have seized on traffic filter schemes in Oxfordshire, and the extension of the ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) in London, to spread disinformation.

These debates are likely to form part of the general election campaign, with the UK going to the polls on 4 July. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has claimed that he is “on the side” of motorists, and has become a vocal critic of local anti-pollution measures. 

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods 

LTNs were introduced in the UK in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the government provided £250 million in funding for local authorities to create schemes that encouraged walking and cycling. 

DeSmog reported at the time that climate deniers were attempting to co-opt public concerns about the schemes. Last year the government reversed its support for LTNs as part of a broader U-turn on green action, calling for a review into what Sunak called “hare-brained schemes”. 

Hannah Perry, lead researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos, said that Sunak’s “screeching U-turn” on LTNs “ultimately fed the public backlash”.

Demos’s analysis showed “how this pivot coincided with the spike in LTN-related disinformation,” she said. Even despite this, polling commissioned by the government found that in four LTNs, twice as many people supported their local scheme as opposed it.

The Demos report, co-produced with the Public Interest News Foundation, looked at 570,000 online posts about LTNs on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, and Reddit, along with online news sites. 

Researchers also interviewed local journalists, community leaders, activists, and politicians in three case study areas – Enfield, Oxford, and Rochdale – where LTNs have been trialled or introduced. 

The report concluded that the failure by some local councils to engage with communities about the introduction of LTNs, and the central government’s U-turn, have been “weaponised” by bad faith actors looking to attack the policy for their own ends. The report singled out Together as a major source of anti-LTN disinformation. 

“From early 2023 onwards, Together Declaration began to dominate the online discussion of LTNs, both in terms of the overall volume of posts and the most engaged-with posts,” the report states. 

“This account is likely to have significantly contributed to the swing towards anti-LTN sentiment in our dataset, as well as being responsible for a substantial portion of the increase in disinformation and conspiracy framing.”

It adds: “Importantly, these disinformation campaigners again did not seek to engage with the local issue or arguments about LTNs directly, but instead sought to demonstrate how genuine concerns about LTNs reinforced their broader conspiratorial narrative.”

Together Declaration

The Together Declaration is a campaign group founded in August 2021 by businessman Alan D. Miller to oppose government measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This included casting doubt on the safety of life-saving vaccines. An open letter Together published last year said: “We have no confidence in the process for ensuring ongoing safety of the COVID-19 vaccines”. 

Miller is a frequent guest on right-wing broadcaster GB News, which has also given a platform to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

Together has increasingly turned its attention to green policies, opposing state-led action designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions. 

This has included a “no to net zero” campaign, which claims that decarbonisation policies are based on “wildly exaggerated fears about the future”, and that giving up fossil fuels will make people “poorer, hungrier and colder”. 

The group also runs a “free our streets” campaign against LTNs, labelling these schemes “undemocratic impositions on freedom of movement”. It also runs a “Stop ULEZ Coalition” calling for the policy to be scrapped. 

The group is tied to a network of anti-green activists. Together’s “cabinet member for net zero” Ben Pile is a climate crisis denial blogger who has falsely claimed “the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is neither as strong nor as demanding of action as is widely claimed”. Pile wrote a report for Together in November which argued that clean air policies “are not based on science, and are not democratic”. 

Together’s media advisor James Melville runs the No Farmers No Food “astroturf” campaign that opposes green farming reforms and has boosted conspiracy theories about people being made to “eat bugs” to cut down on meat consumption. 

Signatories to its “Stop ULEZ Coalition” include Reform UK candidate Howard Cox, Reclaim Party leader Laurence Fox (who has campaigned against LTNs), and UKIP leader Lois Perry, who runs the climate denial campaign CAR26

The Together Declaration did not respond to DeSmog’s request for comment.

Adam Barnett - new white crop
Adam Barnett is DeSmog's UK News Reporter. He is a former Staff Writer at Left Foot Forward and BBC Local Democracy Reporter.
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Joey Grostern is a climate reporter and researcher at DeSmog since April 2023. His work focuses on news media and has been covered by The Guardian, The Intercept, and The Nation. He also works freelance for Deutsche Welle in Berlin.

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