“You can't spell Insulate Britain without ‘Isn't Real’”.
This was sent as a joke to Joe – who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy – by a friend who believes in the same conspiracy theory as he does: that Insulate Britain protesters are paid-for actors.
“The whole thing is obviously not a joke though,” he says. “I do 100 percent sincerely believe this.”
Joe came up with the theory independently, after his dad was caught up in traffic by one of the protests. His dad wasn’t particularly angry with the protesters – more with climate change itself. But the incident piqued Joe’s interest, and as public backlash to the protests grew, so did his sense of suspicion. “No climate protester worth their salt would continue doing things so obviously counterintuitive to their cause,” he says.
A link began to form in Joe’s mind between the protests and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through parliament. He’s been involved in anti-policing activism in the past and is firmly against the bill because it will grant the police extra powers to restrict protests. Seeing how furious some people were getting in response to the road blocking, he started to think the protests could be fake: staged to antagonise the public, therefore drumming up support for a bill that could help the police control protests.
“The connection got made in my head: This seems a bit like it’s trying to create a common enemy to make it easier for that bill to become justifiable,” says Joe. “Eventually I was speaking to some friends of mine and they were like ‘there are other people out there who believe this.’ My friends believe it too.”
It’s important to emphasise that this is a baseless conspiracy theory. Whether you agree with Insulate Britain’s tactics or not, there’s zero evidence to suggest the protesters are anything other than a collection of concerned members of the public – and the occasional hot carpenter – giving up their comfort and safety to raise the alarm about global heating and fuel poverty.
Nonetheless, the conspiracy theory is spreading and it’s flexible. Depending on who you speak to, the protesters might be agents of the government, the deep state, Big Oil or the World Economic Foundation. They might be simply trying to make the climate activist cause look bad, or else paving the way for a future crackdown on anti-lockdown protests. Whichever the spin, Insulate Britain are not who they say they are and have a hidden agenda.
More and more posts have been popping up across Twitter and Reddit. A TikTok video about it has racked up 33,000 likes. “I feel most people watching [the video] see it as something to think about rather than a hardcore belief,” says Danielle, 29, who did not wish to share her last name due to her line of work. “I just thought I’d throw it out there for a laugh,” says one Reddit user who posted about the theory. So is it all just shitposting, or does the rabbit hole go deeper?
“A lot of conspiracy theories begin with people ‘just asking questions’ and things go from there,” says Prof Karen Douglas from the University of Kent. Douglas studies the psychology of conspiracy theories. “People add more speculation and layers of information and then a full conspiracy theory emerges. What begins as idle speculation can sometimes broaden out into a conspiracy theory.”
To many of the people posting about the theory, the timing of the protests also seem particularly suspicious. Just as the government gears up to pass a draconian protest bill, along come a bunch of protesters with worse YouGov polling than Keir Starmer. Coinkydink?
“There's a basic false proposition here about Insulate Britain,” says Dr Graeme Hayes of Aston University. His research focuses on social movements, with an emphasis on protest strategies and activism. “The Police Crime Sentencing and Courts bill was brought in in [March]. The PCSC bill pre-dates Insulate Britain – perhaps not as an idea but certainly as a developing movement.” So while the protests could be used as an excuse for furthering a political agenda, he says, that doesn’t make them orchestrated for that purpose.
David Reiner, a political scientist at the University of Cambridge, points out that Insulate Britain aren’t the “coolest” of activists, which definitely adds fuel to the fire. “Clearly one aspect of it is [that]... insulation is not very sexy, right?” he says.
Some people may be confused by the act of gluing yourself to the road to protest cavity walls, which may in turn feed into conspiracy thinking. For Hayes, this is all part of a strategy from the protesters. “Insulate Britain: who could be against that? It's really boring!” In other words: The blandness of the demand is designed to be a (relatively) small rational step anyone can get behind – not just people who do fire poi.
But is it the group’s attempt to reach out to apolitical middle Britain that’s made them seem suspicious to those who believe in conspiracy theories? If they can’t be pigeon-holed as tree-hugging, mung-bean munching eco-freaks – who are they, exactly?
“It’s an intriguing possibility,” says Hayes. “It's very difficult to locate them within a wider landscape of who they are and where they're from, and therefore it's easier to go ‘well in that case, these are not grounded actors and therefore they may be fake actors, they may be astroturfed actors’.”
“If you look at the letter [to Boris Johnson that environmental organiser Roger] Hallam wrote at the tail end of last week, it’s specifically using a conservative language,” adds Hayes. “He talks about nation, heritage, pride and patrimony and patriotism, in ways which are very unusual for people who are committing acts of civil disobedience… The words Insulate Britain… and those [Union Jack] colours. This is trying to hit a spot which will attract people who aren't politicised.”
For a bunch of the people who post the conspiracy theory – joking or otherwise – this is all a key part of it. “What genuine activist group would have a name like some crappy government grant scheme?” one tweet reads. Another simply says: “Why the same colours and font as Build Back Better?”
For their part, Insulate Britain seem unfazed by these kinds of posts. When contacted for comment, a spokesperson told VICE: “Whether the conspiracy is true or not, what we believe is unarguable is what Sir David King means when he says, ‘We have to move quickly, what we do in the next 3 to 4 years will determine the future of humanity.’”
When asked if their tactics could alienate members of the public and be counterproductive, they said: “Sometimes a small group of people have to do what's right, whether the public agree or not. The vast majority of the American public thought the Freedom Riders opposing segregation on buses in 1961 wasn't the right way to go about it... Today we would find it abhorrent if people didn't fight those laws.”