“Conspiracy theories” about 15-minute cities are “false”, “unhinged”, “dangerous” and “not to be believed”, declare mainstream media in unified chorus.
“In recent years, conspiracy theories that were once almost unheard of have spread like wildfire, with a growing number of Australians now sceptical of things like vaccines, 5G and election results,” News.com.au reports in one such article, titled, ‘Inside the 15-minute city conspiracy theory sucking in gullible Australians’.
The article explains that 15-minutes cities (also called Smart Cities) are a commonsense way of attempting to boost liveability for residents. City dwellers in proposed Smart Cities – including Melbourne, Paris, London, Edmonton and Oxford – will have access to everything they need within a 15 to 20-minute walk, cycle or public transport trip, and that’s really all there is to it.
“Anyone who has ever faced a long and painful commute will immediately see the appeal of having the daily essentials at their fingertips,” the article assures readers.
However, “gullible Australians” who cannot appreciate commonsense or convenience have been “sucked in” to a “dangerous conspiracy”. These “unhinged” conspiracy theorists actually believe that Smart Cities are “part of a secret plan by global elites to restrict people’s freedom and movements” – a form of lockdown justified by climate action.
Never mind that Western governments have just spent the past three years abusing their powers with gross overreach and wanton disregard for their citizens’ will or wellbeing, which might make some people nervous about giving government more control over movement, commerce, energy consumption and the like. The article notes that conspiracies about 15-minute cities have been flagged as “false information” on Facebook, so that really settles it, they’re definitely false.
The Victorian Government claims that Smart Cities are a benefits-only proposition, as depicted in the nice pastel coloured infographic on the official Government page detailing plans for Melbourne’s transformation into a Smart City. These plans extend to regional Victoria also. Residents in the Yarra Ranges (just under an hour’s drive from Melbourne) report that their council is already implementing a Smart City Urban Development Framework.
Smart City conspiracy theory reporting comes as the latest micro-meme in the larger meme of ‘cooker watch’ reporting, whereby media outlets clutch pearls and catastrophise over the proliferation of online ‘cookers’ expressing distrust in the government and big corporations.
At the same time as raising the alarm about ‘conspiracy theorists’, the media have relentlessly and without a hint of self-awareness published the most scientifically dubious theories themselves. Some of these false theories include: natural immunity is not effective, when studies have consistently demonstrated otherwise; your vaccine keeps others safe, long after the high level of ‘breakthrough’ infections was plain; Covid vaccines do not affect reproductive health, when the evidence of adverse events points in the other direction; masks reduce the spread of Covid, when no high quality study has found a significant effect; and, there are no safe or effective early treatments of Covid, when numerous studies have identified benefits from repurposed drugs.
In rare edge cases, such as the tragic shooting of Queensland police officers by Nathaniel, Gareth and Stacey Train, most media have been quick to blame conspiracy theorist communities for the violence, hinting at the need for increased regulation of online ‘wrongthink’ in order to prevent further violence. In reality, these things are always complex.
Mainstream media reporting rarely, if at all, addresses the role of the Government in seeding distrust, or of the media’s own role in facilitating the marginalisation and even radicalisation of mentally unstable people like gunman Nathaniel Train. Train lost his job due to his vaccination status, and endured years of social and economic deprivation and isolation imposed by his government, reinforced by a relentless media campaign in which people of his ilk were portrayed as morally bankrupt idiots unworthy of a place in society. Did anyone pause to consider the effects of such policies and campaigns on those who were already mentally vulnerable? Effects like pushing the already marginalised further out to the fringes of society and discourse?
It looks as though the ‘cooker’ contingent in Western populations is not insignificant. The Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report of 2023 found that of 32,000 respondents surveyed across 28 countries, nearly half considered the Government and the media to be sources of ‘false’ or ‘misleading’ information. A quarter of Canadians believe in online ‘conspiracy theories’, according to a large poll conducted in 2021. A Rasmussen Report found that more than a quarter of Americans think that they know someone who died from Covid vaccines, and almost half of Americans believe it is likely that Covid vaccines are driving unexplained deaths. A 2023 peer-reviewed paper titled ‘The role of social circle COVID-19 illness and vaccination experiences in COVID-19 vaccination decisions’ found that almost a quarter of respondents reported that they knew someone who had experienced a severe health problem after Covid vaccination, and that this was a driver of vaccine hesitancy.
The media’s response to the distrust of this fairly significant swathe of the population is typically to belittle, insult and defame them, ad infinitum. Which makes one wonder – who is the media’s ‘news’ aimed at, and what is the goal of such inflammatory content?
So here we go, full steam ahead. Smart Cities are coming whether the people want it or not. The Yarra Ranges council in Victoria has put out a statement warning residents to be, “wary of incorrect information circulating in their communities” about Smart City development in the region, which seems to be advancing despite pushback from the local community. In Oxford, U.K., Heritage Party leader David Kurten says that the majority of the residents do not want the implementation of the Smart City framework, which thus far has focused heavily on surveillance cameras and limitations on free movement. That the Council intends to go ahead with plans regardless of the will of the people, “makes a mockery of democracy”, says Kurten.
What will be interesting to observe as Smart City planning progresses is, what gets implemented first? Better infrastructure and support for small businesses, childcare and playgrounds within local hubs? Or systems and technology to facilitate control of movement, commerce and energy? The Oxford experience hints at the latter.
For the time being, the media’s great obsession with 15-minute city conspiracy theories gives a tell. Anyone raising questions about the great plans being imposed on us is stupid and dangerous, say the mainstream media, delegitimising and shutting down debate. This is how we know that powerful interests are very much invested in Smart Cities moving forward, unopposed.
Rebekah Barnett reports from Western Australia. She holds a BA (Hons First Class) in Communications. Find her work at Dystopian Down Under.