Carlos Moreno wanted to improve cities. Conspiracy theorists are coming for him.

Carlos Moreno wanted to improve cities. Conspiracy theorists are coming for him.

Carlos Moreno wanted to improve cities. Conspiracy theorists are coming for him.

For most of his 40-year career, Carlos Moreno, a scientist and business professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, worked in relative peace.

Many cities around the world have embraced a concept he began developing in 2010. Called the 15 Minute City, the idea is that everyday destinations such as schools, shops and offices should only be ‘a short walk or bike ride from the house. A group of nearly 100 mayors around the world have embraced it as a way to help recover from the pandemic.

The conspiracy theorists arrived late, but suddenly.

In recent weeks, a deluge of rumors and distortions have targeted Mr. Moreno’s proposal. Prompted in part by climate change deniers and QAnon conspiracy theorists, false claims circulated online, at protests and even in government hearings that 15 Minute Cities was a precursor to “lockdowns.” climate change” – urban “prison camps” in which residents’ movements would be monitored and heavily restricted.

Many went after Mr. Moreno, 63, directly. He has been harassed in online forums and via email. He was accused without proof of being an agent of an invisible totalitarian world government. He was likened to criminals and dictators.

For the first time in his career, he started receiving death threats. People said they wished he and his family had been killed by drug lords, told him ‘sooner or later your punishment will come’ and offered he be nailed in a coffin or crushed by a roll of cement.

“I was no longer a researcher, I was Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler,” Mr Moreno said. “I became, in one week, public enemy number one.”

For high-profile figures, such as infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, misinformation and the hostility it can cause has long been part of the description of job. But increasingly, even professors and researchers without a big public figure have been bullied by extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Many of the recent threats have been directed at scientists studying Covid-19. In a survey of 321 of these scientists who had given media interviews, the journal Nature found that 22% had received threats of physical or sexual violence and 15% had received death threats. Last year, an Austrian doctor who was a strong supporter of vaccines and a repeated target of threats took his own life.

An epidemiologist holds A file on her computer to store all the death threats she receives just “just in case”. An atmospheric science professor who studied global warming received a letter containing white powder (it looked like anthrax but turned out to be cornstarch). A professor of health law and science policy, in an article reminiscing about his experiences with death threats, lawsuits and online trolling, wrote: “My skin is thick. I’m used to hate.

Mr. Moreno’s work has not focused on the pandemic, although his idea of ​​15-Minute Cities has become more popular since its inception. Like many of his academic peers who have faced harassment and misinformation campaigns, he has run out of ways to protect himself.

“I’m not sure what the best reaction is – to respond, not to respond, call a press conference, write a press release,” he said. Academics, he said, “are relatively alone.”

Mr. Moreno, who grew up in Colombia, began working as a researcher in a computer and robotics laboratory in Paris in 1983; the career that follows consists of creating a start-up, meeting the Dalai Lama and being named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. His work has won several awards and covers many fields – automotive, medical, nuclear, military and even household items.

Around 2010, he started thinking about how technology could help create sustainable cities. Eventually, he refined his ideas on “human smart cities” and “living cities” in his 2016 proposal for 15 Minute Cities. The idea owes much to its many predecessors: “neighborhood units” and “garden cities” in the early 1900s, community-based urban planning pioneered by activist Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, and even support for ‘new urbanism’ and walkable cities in the 1960s. the 1990s. So-called low traffic areas, or LTNs, have been introduced in several UK cities in recent decades.

Critics of 15 Minute Cities were candid, saying a concept developed in Europe might not translate well to highly segregated American cities. A Harvard economist wrote in a blog post for the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2021 that the concept was a “dead end” that would exacerbate “huge inequalities in cities” by subdividing them without connecting them.

However, Mr Moreno was not harassed until conspiracy theorists mistakenly confused 15-minute towns with the idea of ​​low-traffic neighborhoods in Britain.

Efforts to adopt the centuries-old LTNs, whose tests were approved last year in Oxford, have raised concerns about whether traffic reduction measures could lead to congestion spillover in areas surrounding areas or make certain properties less accessible. Some people, however, grabbed other elements of the plan, including cameras meant to monitor license plates.

The result, according to ill-informed conspiracy theorists: a nightmare scenario in which residents would be confined to open-air prisons fenced off in partitioned areas. On February 18, when around 2,000 protesters converged on a demonstration in Oxford, some carried signs claiming that 15-minute towns would become “ghettos” created by the World Economic Forum as a form of “tyrannical control”.

In fact, LTNs are championed by Oxfordshire County Council; Separate Oxford City Council cited the 15 Minute City as inspiration for its vision for the city in 2040. As the two government bodies noted in an attempt to debunk the rumours, none of the proposals involves physical barriers. One concept aims to limit cars, while the other aims to bring daily necessities closer to residents.

Yet Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist with four million Twitter followers, suggested that 15 Minute Cities were “maybe the worst perversion imaginableof the idea of ​​walkable neighborhoods. He linked to an article about the “Great Reset,” an economic stimulus package proposed by the World Economic Forum that has spawned hordes of rumors about a pandemic-fueled plot to destroy capitalism.

A member of the british parliament said 15 Minute Cities was “an international socialist concept” that would “cost us our personal freedoms.” QAnon supporters said the derailment of a train carrying dangerous chemicals in Ohio was an intentional move meant to push rural residents into towns 15 minutes away.

“The conspiracy theorists have built a complete story: climate denial, Covid-19, anti-vax, 5G controlling citizens’ brains and the city in 15 minutes to introduce a perimeter for everyday life,” Mr Moreno said. said. “This storytelling is totally crazy, totally irrational to us, but it makes sense to them.”

The multi-pronged conspiracy theory quickly became “turbocharged” after the Oxford protest, said Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies online platforms.

“You have this snowball effect of a policy, which in principle would only affect a small urban population, extrapolating and becoming this melting pot where far-right groups, industry-sponsored lobby groups , conspiratorial movements, anti-lockdown groups and more saw an opportunity to insert their worldview into the mainstream and graft onto the news cycle,” she said.

The vitriol currently directed at Mr Moreno and researchers like him reflects “the broader erosion of trust in experts and institutions”, Ms King said. Conspiracy theorists and modern extremists scapegoat people they disagree with for a wide range of societal ills, blaming them personally for causing the high cost of living or various health crises and creating an “us versus them” environment, she said.

Rising rhetoric and disintegrating safeguards have caused many in the academic community to flee forums like Twitter for niche sites like Mastodon, Ms King said. Last year, the American Psychological Association published an article suggesting that universities create security offices to help professors filter threatening messages, remove their personal information from the Internet and access counseling.

Mr. Moreno said he did not understand the intensity of the hatred directed against him.

“I am not a politician, I am not a candidate for anything – as a researcher, my duty is to explore and deepen my ideas with scientific methodology,” he said. “It’s totally unbelievable that we could receive a death threat just for working as scientists.”


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