The disinformation pandemic

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Dr Matthew Lee, a young medic working at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, tweeted a video of the scene that confronted him when he stepped out of the hospital after completing a late shift in A&E.

As he described it: “Hundreds of maskless, drunk people in huge groups shouting ‘Covid is a hoax’, literally outside the building where hundreds are sick and dying.” Understandably horrified, Dr Lee asked: “Why do people still not realise the seriousness of this pandemic?”

It was a good question, because it is increasingly clear that the UK is facing not just a pandemic of deadly disease but also one of disinformation – and the impacts of the latter pandemic are exacerbating those of the former. What’s more, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that there is very strong correlation between the so-called ‘covidiots’ pushing anti-scientific claims about the virus and the people who have been pushing disinformation about Brexit for the past five years.

Leading the merry mob of the incurably stupid and/or deluded outside St Thomas’ on New Year’s Eve was Piers Corbyn, brother of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and a keen Brexiter. For years, he had been dismissed as a mostly harmless  eccentric, promoting his ludicrous claims that climate science is a hoax via outlets such as the Putin propaganda channel Russia Today.

In 2015, Boris Johnson had described Piers Corbyn – with characteristic total disregard for the truth –  as a “great physicist and meteorologist”, in a Telegraph column in which Johnson sought to cast doubt on climate science. But in those days, few took Boris Johnson very seriously, let alone thought he might become Prime Minister at a time of unprecedented national crisis.

Brexit, of course, changed Johnson’s political fortunes, and it has given a similar boost to those of cranks like Piers Corbyn, who have not just entered the national consciousness but are now having a significant and malign impact on people’s behaviour. Corbyn has just announced that he will be running for Mayor of London, and while he has no chance of winning this will give him ample opportunity to further promote his toxic conspiracy theories.

Corbyn has long been a fanatical supporter of Brexit, particularly a ‘WTO Brexit’, which he has promoted on his website with liberal use of colourful fonts and the caps-lock key. While he still apparently thinks of himself as a man of the left, he has made common cause with some of the most unpleasant elements of the conspiracist extreme right. This was vividly brought home to me to me when I tweeted critically about him a while ago and attracted an interesting selection of hostile responses from anti-vaxxers, David Icke fans, QAnon nuts, 5G loons, fans of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, antisemitic holocaust deniers and right-wing extremists, one of whom claimed to be a representative of the Knights Templar. And there is no doubt that the vast bulk of Covid denialism is coming from Brexit-supporting far right.

One of the most active groups promoting anti-lockdown messaging is ‘Keep Britain Free’ (KBF), an organisation set up and bankrolled by Simon Dolan, a multi-millionaire Brexiter who resides in a chateau in France – when he is not in one of his seven other homes or on his £15 million estate on the Caribbean island of Mustique.  Dolan, who refuses to wear a mask and calls Matt Hancock a “tinpot dictator”, took the government to court in April in a so far unsuccessful attempt to have lockdown measures declared unlawful. He has no fewer than 92,000 enthusiastic followers on Twitter. 

Or take a look at the windows of any Wetherspoons in the country, now plastered with anti-lockdown propaganda at the behest of arch-Brexiter and Leave.EU donor Tim Martin.

Wetherspoon’s window. Photo by @scattermoon

Piers Corbyn and the veteran conspiracy theorist David Icke (also a Brexiter) head up what could be seen as the provisional wing of the anti-lockdown movement, rather as the Arron Banks’ Leave.EU played that role in 2016 in relation to the more “respectable” Vote Leave, fronted up by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Meanwhile, media figures such as Julia Hartley-Brewer and Allison Pearson (both Brexiters) pump out much the same sort of lies or highly misleading information, designed to suggest that all is fine and dandy with the NHS and that the impacts of the pandemic have been greatly exaggerated.

Then there is Leave.EU itself and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (now rebadged as the Reform Party), both of which have sought to belittle the need for the social-distancing measures urgently needed to stop the spread of the virus.  And, as Byline Times revealed in November, there are strong links between Farage and the anti-lockdown lobbying groups ‘Restore the Balance’ and ‘Time for Recovery’. Another linked group, ‘UsForThem’ has been lobbying to keep schools open, without masks or social distancing, despite the now incontrovertible evidence that schools play a major role in transmission of the virus.

All these groups reveal nothing about who is behind them on their websites, or exactly what they are doing with the funds they are soliciting from supporters. But Companies House data shows that Restore the Balance and Time for Recovery both have among their directors one Jon Dobinson, who is also a director of a group called World4Brexit that was launched by Farage in New York in 2019, with the help of right-wing political operatives in the US, and that was apparently designed as a way of raising funds for Farage’s political projects in the UK. (Dobinson’s name is incorrectly given as “Dobson” in the Companies House records for Time for Recovery.)

As 2021 began and Britain’s nearly 50 years of EU membership ended, several leading commentators called for a reconciliation between Remainers and Brexiters. It might be easier for such reconciliation to take place if many of the same people who brought us Brexit were not now pushing malignant disinformation that threatens to do serious and indeed fatal harm to many of their fellow citizens.