A 12-year-old schoolgirl has become the poster child for a bizarre conspiracy theory that is sweeping the world.
On Saturday, the Stop Oxford: No 15 Minute Cities community day of action was held in Oxford in the UK, attracting thousands of protesters.
The 15-minute city concept is a simple one – that everyday essentials of life such as healthcare, schools, work, shops and eateries should be a convenient 15-minute walk, cycle or public transport trip away.
However, it has been hijacked by conspiracists, who claim 15-minute cities are part of a grand master plan by global elites to lock down and control the population.
The Oxford protest featured six main speakers, including a 12-year-old student, identified only as Jasmin, who quickly went viral for claiming the 15-minute neighbourhoods were “soon to become digital ID facial recognition zones”.
“Let’s say my friend lives in Zone 3 and I’m in Zone 1,” she said.
“If, for example, I went to my friend’s house in Zone 3, my parents normally come and pick me up in their car – it only takes 10 minutes.
“So does that mean that they would have to go round the ring road and back into town again? If my mum or dad had to drive around the ring road, it would take 30 minutes, causing much more pollution and leaving a much bigger carbon footprint.”
The child then turned her focus to surveillance measures.
“They will say, you can walk home! Would that be safe, for me, to walk home? Me, as a 12-year-old, walking home in the dark alone. Is that really going to be safe?” she asked.
“Then they will say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. We’ve already thought of that. You will be safe. We will have a thousand cameras on the streets following you and tracking you all the way home. Oh, uh, just remember, it’s for your safety’.
“What? Are you serious? Do you really think I want to be watched every second of the day? Are you serious? Thousands of cameras tracking my every move until I get home. At this point, I have to ask, is my safety that important to me, that I want to be followed by cameras all the way home? Or do I prefer to have freedom than privacy? And for your information, I still wouldn’t feel safe. No amount of cameras is going to stop someone who wants to attack me. I want to be safe, but not to the extent that I am prepared to give up my freedom and my privacy to have it.”
The crowd went wild for her argument, before the girl took a swipe at climate change advocate Greta Thunberg.
“As a 12-year-old, I’m really concerned about my future. And to [World Economic Forum chairman] Klaus Schwab, I say this: How dare you!” she said, impersonating Thunberg’s accent and using her famous catchphrase.
“How dare you steal my childhood and my future, and the future of all children, by enslaving us in your crazy digital surveillance prison.
“We all know where this is leading. These are the first steps of a dystopian reality, called 15-minute neighbourhoods. From a small seed, a huge tree can grow. Climate change is being used to control us, to nudge us in the direction the greedy people want us to go.”
The schoolgirl then launched into a claim that “the greedy people” wanted “total control over everything we do, everything we think, and everything we say”.
“Our government has been hijacked by greedy and selfish impostors posing as politicians.
“They believe they are better than us and masters over us. And until this problem is effectively dealt with, the tyranny will continue,” she said.
A clip of her speech has been viewed on Twitter hundreds of thousands of times, with many fellow conspiracy theorists heaping praise upon the girl.
“Hehe, a sweeter and truthful version than paid actor, Greta Thunberg,” one woman posted, while another said: “Now that you’re an adult Greta, move over and let the children speak! This 12yr old is fighting for freedom”.
But it also attracted plenty of critics.
“You mean ‘dystopian’ falsehood. 15 minute cities means you could now walk to most of the things you need in 15 minutes, instead of having to take a car journey to the next town. No one is stopping, checking anyone from taking any journeys they want,” one person explained.
“This young girl is reading a script,” another added.
In recent years, far-right figures have spread the 15-minute city conspiracy theory, which is making waves across the UK, Canada, the US, Australia and elsewhere.
Supporters of the 15-minute city idea say it would make urban areas more liveable for residents, who would also enjoy greater freedom and health benefits as a result of being less dependent on their cars.
But critics have spread the completely false narrative that 15-minute cities are a deliberate strategy to turn neighbourhoods into “concentration camps”, with many claiming they will somehow lead to surveillance tracking our every movement, that people will be banned from driving or cop heavy fines, and that people will be unable to move freely around the city.
Conspiracists’ unlikely battle ground
The English city of Oxford, a university town home to 162,000 inhabitants, has recently emerged as the unlikely epicentre of the odd debate.
That’s because conspiracists have somehow conflated two completely separate local council policies to spruik their argument.
Under Local Plan 2040, Oxford City Council has suggested rolling out 15-minute neighbourhoods over a 20-year period, which would involve upping mobility and boosting infrastructure in certain areas.
But the council also – separately – unveiled plans for traffic reduction strategies as well, which from 2024 will see motorists encouraged to avoid driving through the CBD and instead travel via the city’s ring road, or catch public transport.
It’s crucial to note that the plan has never involved banning residents from driving anywhere, but rather, it will simply reduce when and where vehicles can be used.
‘Misinformation and irrationality’
Dr Joanne Gray, a University of Sydney conspiracy theory expert and researcher on digital platform policy and governance, told news.com.au conspiracy theories tended to spread more easily when there were social conditions that lead to a level of unhappiness and distrust in institutions.
“What we know now is that conspiracy theories are spread online easily, people can access these theories through very minimal effort, and be exposed to all sorts of theories that get picked up and shared by different people,” she said.
“Humans are very imaginative, we like to look for patterns and explanations for things … there have always been conspiracy theories about the world that aren’t connected to reality, but social media gives us access to information [and the ability to] see and engage with others on a global scale, and that changes the impact of these ideas and makes it riskier, with the potential for harm greater.
“Conspiracy theories are indicative of a culture where people aren’t using rational thinking to explain the world. Sometimes it’s really banal, when people believe in things like horoscopes … but it can often lead people to more extreme and harmful ideas and can lead certain people to take action based on those extreme and harmful ideas – everything from not getting vaccinated to violence against other people.
“We want to live in a world where people think critically about the information they receive and apply it logically to try and understand the world, so it doesn’t lead to the kind of thinking based on misinformation and irrationality that can lead to harm to society and individuals.”
She said the 15-minute city conspiracy was a classic example of how alternative beliefs can spread quickly.
“When you look at the range of conspiracy theories, often within them there’s a piece of information or an idea or an event that’s completely innocuous – such as a theory about urban planning – that gets used and discussed in a way that spins it so it becomes ‘evidence’ of a broader theory – things like social control,” she said.
“A lot of conspiracy theories posit that there’s some bigger organisation looking to oppress and control us. What conspiracy theories and conspiracists do is pull disparate bits of information that might not be connected and that individually don’t mean anything, but when it’s pulled together it creates a narrative about social or population control.”
Dr Gray said the “danger” was that in the future, even the most basic attempts at social progress could be perceived as a conspiracy by some, and that the emergence of young Jasmin as a far-right hero was concerning.
“You can understand if there’s a generation of adults who believe in Covid and far-right conspiracy theories who are having children, just like religion, they will be brought up being told that this is true, so it’s easy to understand how an impressionable child could start to advocate those ideas,” Dr Gray said.
“There’s a lot more that social media platforms can do to limit the spread and reach of these sorts of ideas – we don’t have to be lead by the principle that anyone is allowed to say what they want and have it amplified online because of free speech.”
She said social media warnings placed over false information was a good “first step”, because while it would not convince anyone who already held conspiracy theory beliefs, it could prevent those who were on the fence from being converted.
Conspiracy theory slammed
Over the weekend, urbanist and former chief planner of Vancouver in Canada Brent Toderian told the ABC’s Radio National 15-minute cities have been happening for decades, with Melbourne one of the originators of the concept.
He said it was “surreal” that so many people suddenly had a problem with “reasonable walking distances”, of all things, and that city planning had become tied to conspiracies.
He explained 15-minute cities used to be the “norm”, and that it was only relatively recently that developed countries began deliberately prioritising the car – which meant we were now dependent on our vehicles, which was actually “the opposite of freedom”.
Mr Toderian said Melbourne had been pursuing smart cities for several decades, as had many cities around the world, but that the 15-minute city concept had received mass attention several years ago due to “the power of branding” when it was promoted by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo as part of her re-election campaign.
He said there were so many “public interest reasons” to reduce dependency on cars that the concept was a “no-brainer”, and that he wanted to call out the conspiracy theorists and “liars” because “a lie gets a lot more attention than the rational truth”.
He explained that among the many lies connected to the conspiracy was the idea that 15-minute cities were an attack on individual freedom, that authorities would discourage driving altogether, and the suggestion leaders wanted to “turn your neighbourhood into a concentration camp”.
“It goes from ridiculous hyperbole to outright lies,” he said, adding it was a deliberate tactic to use outrageous claims to gain attention, and that at the extreme end, it leads to “bullying and violence”.
“The liars know they’re lying. They’re not going to be convinced to stop lying because you give them the facts,” he said.
“The facts are not in their interest. It’s not part of their strategy.”