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Dealing with mis/disinformation at the local level

  • by JW

“How on earth did an urban planning model – the 15-minute city – spawn the fantasy that a shadowy cabal is aiming to lock the populace in their homes, denying us permission to move around freely and monitoring our every second? And why have these fears about a concept designed to cut pollution taken root in the city of Oxford?” [The New European]



There’s certainly a lot of misinformation around what we eat: Veganuary: Is it good for your health? Is it good for the planet? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

.. around ‘the rural way of life’: Is the Countryside Alliance ‘representative’ of rural Britain? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

… around single-use plastic: Coronavirus and plastic pollution – Vision Group for Sidmouth

But how do we sort out what is ‘misinformation’ and what isn’t – and how do we deal with it? 

One way is to ‘debunk’ – by employing the scientific consensus about how to combat misinformation: Debunking by building consensus – Vision Group for Sidmouth


There is an awful lot of misinformation and disinformation out there – and it’s important to see the difference between the two as a starting point:

Misinformation is false or inaccurate information—getting the facts wrong. Disinformation is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead—intentionally making the misstating facts. The spread of misinformation and disinformation has affected our ability to improve public health, address climate change, maintain a stable democracy, and more. Misinformation and disinformation

Scholars who study the spread of false information define ‘misinformation’ as false information without the intent to cause harm, and distinguish it from ‘disinformation’ as false information that is shared with the intent to cause harm. Misinformation  is not intentional, but disinformation is, and we must remember that. Since at least 2020, according to Google Trends, Google searches for the term “misinformation” are more frequent than for “disinformation.” Because there is a lack of clarity over the meanings of terms to describe false information, sometimes disinformation (which is intentional) is classified as misinformation (which is unintentional). I will show that underestimating the intent of disinformation by labeling it as misinformation serves to propagate the harms of disinformation. What’s the Difference between Disinformation and Misinformation? – Union of Concerned Scientists


There are reliable media organisations intent on uncovering mis/disinformation: Explaining the ‘how’ – the launch of BBC Verify – BBC News and bellingcat – the home of online investigations

Including our very own investigative journal: Exeter Observer – Independent, investigative, in the public interest

Much of it is about dealing with conspiracy theories: Americast – Conspiracies: Inside the Rabbit Hole – BBC Sounds and BBC Sounds – Things Fell Apart – Available Episodes and BBC Radio 4 – The Coming Storm and BBC Sounds – Conspiracies: The Secret Knowledge – Available Episodes


But what about at a local level? What specific tools are there to help deal with mis/disinformation when it comes to the issues affecting people on the ground as it were?

There are some excellent guides provided by the government: RESIST 2 Counter Disinformation Toolkit – GCS and The Wall of Beliefs – GCS

And on the Active Travel Café youtube channel last month, we were introduced to how these: Active Travel Cafe – 2 May 2023 – YouTube

With the very amiable and well-informed Stefan Rollnick from Lynn Global on the subject of mis/disinformation and how to deal with it: Misinformation Cell – Lynn


It might seem strange to have the issues around conspiracy theories discussed at such length on a site devoted to ‘active travel’ – but here we do indeed have the strange intersection of mis/disinformation and the attempt of local authorities to bring in practical ways to reduce traffic and air pollution.

This session on Active Travel Café dealt with ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ – something these pages considered some three years ago: The questions around Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Which is also very much connected to the notion of the ’15 minute neighbourhood’, also covered in these pages: The 15-minute city: the 15-minute town – Vision Group for Sidmouth and The 15-minute neighbourhood: valuing our places on foot – Vision Group for Sidmouth and 15-minute neighbourhoods for Sidmouth – Vision Group for Sidmouth

This is very much a local issue – and it’s very much in the local news:

In Exeter from two years ago:

The Heavitree Low traffic neighbourhood consultation is out and it is being discussed on the many Heavitree & Whipton Facebook groups. If you live or work or move through these areas why not comment on the posts to help increase understanding? This is not about cycling it is about healthy, low traffic places to live in.

Exeter Cycling Campaign | The Heavitree Low traffic neighbourhood consultation

In Exeter from last year:

£900,000 to keep Magdalen Road one-way system despite decisive public support for low traffic street County council misrepresented and omitted key public consultation findings in report and did not publish results until after decision taken in favour of option with only 18% public support. Exeter Observer snapshot survey finds 90%+ motor vehicles passing shops are through traffic.

£900,000 to keep Magdalen Road one-way system despite decisive public support for low traffic street – Exeter Observer

In Oxford from March:

How on earth did an urban planning model – the 15-minute city – spawn the fantasy that a shadowy cabal is aiming to lock the populace in their homes, denying us permission to move around freely and monitoring our every second? And why have these fears about a concept designed to cut pollution taken root in the city of Oxford?

“We’ve seen a combination of people who have deliberately manipulated the situation and misrepresented the facts and have caused outrage among people… who have probably not realised that they have been manipulated,” says Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics. “The fact that (the 15-minute city conspiracy theory) is rising shows we are not doing a good enough job of engaging that fringe and they are now open to this kind of cynical manipulation… We have to be very careful not to ignore this because it can escalate and it can become very dangerous, and we should be tackling it.”

Engaging on climate change with evidence and communication – Vision Group for Sidmouth


A problem for ‘reliable media organisations’ is that they want to present a ‘balanced’ view:

The danger inherent in the BBC’s approach of trying to present two sides to an argument when in fact science and data points firmly in one direction – see for example the late Lord Lawson, well-known for his denial of climate change, regularly being invited to provide ‘balance’ on the subject whenever it cropped up in the news – is that it not only risks legitimising such views, but also magnifies them and helps them spread further.

Me, I’d rather hear more from experts on this kind of programme rather than the misinformed claims of a small but shouty minority in the interests of reflecting both sides of an argument – after all, it’s not as though in the interests of balance, the makers of ‘999: Criminals Caught on Camera’ feel the need to canvas the opinions of pressure groups claiming to represent people who drive while drunk or drugged, or those who take vehicles without the owner’s consent, is it?

Simon MacMichael: More experts, fewer conspiracy theorists on active travel TV shows please |

A problem for our local politicians is that they tend to listen to ‘the misinformed claims of a small but shouty minority’ – as reported on these pages back in August 2020:

There have been two problems confronting the councils, however…

Firstly, there is the fear of a repeat of the revolt which happened very expensively for the County Council over plans for Totnes. And this sort of investment is not going to be risked again by the council.

Secondly, there is the fear from shopkeepers that any ‘restrictions’ on traffic will hurt trade. And so plans to part-pedestrianise Topsham have been stopped. Although it does seem a little hasty, as one commentator puts it: 

The excellent local news website the Exeter Observer does some penetrating investigative journalism. And as it points out, the city and county councils really do need to get a move on with doing something about Exeter’s traffic issues…

New cycle lanes and wider pavements: abandoned in Exeter – Vision Group for Sidmouth