Back in April, during the height of the second lockdown, anyone taking their government-permitted recreational stroll along the river in Liverpool might have been surprised to see every other lamppost adorned with cheaply-produced stickers calling into question the legitimacy of the pandemic.
It might have been easy to write off the stickers – with their claims that the global pandemic is merely a confection by the UK government in order to curb civil liberties – as merely another case of the “cosmic scouser” phenomenon, except these stickers had been popping up in cities around the UK, and indeed across the globe.
The stickers, it transpired, were part of a concerted Covid denialist movement intent on getting the world to “wake up” and recognise the reality: that COVID-19 is a hoax, that masks are unnecessary and potentially dangerous, and that vaccines are a cynical attempt to control the population.
By plastering their messages in public places, the White Rose aimed to capitalise on the frustrations felt by many during the lockdown, in an attempt to recruit them to a conspiracist cause. Each sticker included a link, and sometimes even a QR code, taking the viewer to the White Rose channel on the secure messaging app Telegram, where more ‘information’ about Covid could be found.
The White Rose are not the first organisation to come up with the idea of using covert graffiti as method of distributing protest material, and in fact the current group take their name from a non-violent resistance group which operated in Nazi Germany. The organisation, which was led by a group of students from the University of Munich, including Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell, conducted an anonymous leaflet campaign calling for active opposition to the Nazis, until the leaders of the group were discovered and executed in 1943.
The implication is clear and deliberate: to the members of the modern day White Rose telegram group, they are standing up to the fascist tyranny of pandemic control measures, and those who call for social distancing and mask wearing are the modern day Nazis.
While it’s not unusual to see examples of online conspiracy theory activism – from flooding social media accounts with messages to co-opting existing campaigns and subverting their meaning in favour of conspiracist interpretations – it’s rarer to see these decentralised tactics at play in the real world, and for that reason the White Rose are worthy of more attention and investigation than most online movements.
Which is why, a couple of months ago, I decided to join the White Rose channel on Telegram, to understand what is driving the growth of the movement and the proliferation of their conspiracy propaganda in the real world. In future posts, I intend to highlight the process of radicalisation I witnessed within those channels, but for now it’s best we focus on the entry point into the White Rose world: those stickers on lampposts.
Periodically in the Telegram channel, sometimes multiple times per hour, an admin posts White Rose stickers found in the wild in locations across the globe, with each post an opportunity to share the latest zip file of sticker artwork, along with advice on how to get started (in case you’re wondering, the conspiracy theorist label printer of choice is the Brother QL-810W – the subsequent increased sales in that particular printer raises the distinct possibility that the group behind the pandemic and profiting from it might well be big Brother). When I first came across the sticker archive, there were 230 different stickers available, my favourites of which can be collected into several categories or themes.
‘There is no virus’
This category stickers, broadly speaking, posit that Sars-CoV-2 is a fictional virus, that the resulting COVID-19 disease is a fictional condition, and that the pandemic simply isn’t real. For instance, there’s the claim that it’s all just an act of psychological warfare by “your own government”:
Which, of course, to be true would have to apply to all governments, as the pandemic has been accepted as real by every government on earth.
There is the claim that the pandemic can’t be real, because if it were real there wouldn’t be groups like the White Rose doubting the existence of a pandemic:
“I must be right, because if I wasn’t right, I’d have to be an idiot to be doing this” is not quite the gotcha I think the White Rose and their members would like to think it is.
There’s the plenty of messaging that misunderstands the nature of asymptomatic transmission:
A popular belief from the Covid conspiracy movement has been that there is no example in history of a virus capable of asymptomatic transmission – despite plenty of examples, including HIV, HPV and (infamously, for Mary Mallon) Typhoid. However, when you dispute this readily-accepted point in epidemiology, you have little place to go, which is why the White Rose repeatedly spreads the message that if you don’t currently have symptoms, you must be healthy and free from any disease:
Naturally, given the tone of the White Rose content, the conversation quickly moves to vaccines, including claims like:
This was a particularly interesting example to see in the sticker pack, given that nobody in the UK has been offered any incentives to take the vaccine (unlike in parts of the US). What’s more, at that time these stickers were being seen in the wild, many people couldn’t possibly get the vaccine, given the rollout by ages in the UK meant they were ineligible.
As you scroll through the White Rose stickers, it’s hard not to get the impression that the vast majority of their pandemic information comes from fictional depictions of plagues, leading to this kind of message:
Obviously, COVID-19 is not a disease which causes people to collapse and die en masse in the middle of the street, and the reason the streets aren’t lined with dead bodies is, in part, due to the very social distancing measures and lockdown the White Rose group was set up in response to. In effect, the argument is often “if my house really was on fire, how come so many parts of it are wet?”, failing to make a causal connection to the presence of a fire engine.
And finally in this “the pandemic isn’t real” section we get our first hint as to what the real agenda is:
Vaccine passports remain controversial and widely opposed even in 2021, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the between January 2020 and January 2021 a lot changed in the world – a pandemic happened, for example.
This was a particularly interesting argument to be making in April 2020, before most people had been vaccinated; today, as over 90% of UK adults have had at least one vaccine dose, vaccine passports have still not been introduced, and their introduction looks unlikely. If The Powers That Be really did invent a global pandemic purely to facilitate the introduction of vaccine passports, they’ve clearly done an awful job getting over the final hurdle.
‘The virus is real, but masks are bad’
The requirement to wear facemasks to prevent the spread of Covid has been a constant source of paranoia for conspiracy theorists throughout the pandemic, with ‘lockdown sceptics’ jumping on even the flimsiest evidence to claim their objection to wearing a mask is based on anything resembling science. It’s no surprise, then, that the White Rose fundamentally misunderstand the value of face coverings in slowing the spread of the virus, missing the point that masks primarily work by preventing you from spreading the disease to someone else. This plays out in their sticker pack in a number of ways:
Obviously, the point that’s being missed here is that masks don’t have to be 100% effective in order to be useful, but are helpful in conjunction with a range of other measures (such as social distancing and limits on group sizes).
If doubting the efficacy of masks isn’t enough, some parts of the conspiracist world invent dangers in mask usage, including the incorrect belief that mask wearing reduces oxygen intake to harmfully low levels, and the falsehood that masks capture a dangerous mix of bacteria which the wearer then inhales:
At least this sticker acknowledges the possibility of being made ill due to a pathogen that’s been inhaled – perhaps we can consider that progress.
Interestingly, a surprising amount of the White Rose’s opposition to masks isrelatively transparent: as many of their stickers show, they primarily dislike masks because of the way people look in them.
Likening masks to muzzles is of course ridiculous: muzzles would do nothing to stop you exhaling an airborne pathogen, and cloth masks would do little to deter anyone sufficiently determined to bite you. Still, the sense of superiority is palpable, and occasionally spills into very “kids today” criticisms:
I’d like to think that if you offered men in 1941 a piece of equipment that would reduce their chances of dying by a reasonable amount, the majority would feel sufficiently comfortable in their masculinity to wear it. Perhaps therein is the real generational difference.
‘The virus is real, but vaccines are bad’
The black and white, all-or-nothing, binary reasoning behind the White Rose’s approach to facemask efficacy is equally present in their approach to the vaccine. For example:
What these stickers clearly miss is that a vaccine could reduce your chance of contracting Covid from 100% down to just 5%, but that still leaves you with a 1 in 20 chance of contracting (and, subsequently, spreading) the virus. Analogously, some people die in car crashes even though they were wearing seatbelts – this doesn’t render seatbelts ineffective, as your chances of avoiding serious injury in a car crash are VASTLY improved if you’re securely fastened in. To the Covid Conspiracist, if it’s not 100% effective, it’s worthless.
Sometimes, the arguments deliberately misrepresent the relative risks involved in vaccination:
Both sides of the argument presented are grossly misrepresented. On the one hand, it simply isn’t true that 99.9% of people have had their lives “destroyed” by lockdown – while some have clearly borne the brunt of the restrictions harder than others, the vast majority of people will emerge from Covid restrictions in a reasonably good place… and, crucially, alive. Meanwhile, it simply is not the case that 1 in 1000 people “die from the vaccine”. According to the CDC:
“More than 334 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States from December 14, 2020, through July 12, 2021. During this time, VAERS received 6,079 reports of death (0.0018%) among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine. FDA requires healthcare providers to report any death after COVID-19 vaccination to VAERS, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause. Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem. A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines. However, recent reports indicate a plausible causal relationship between the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and TTS, a rare and serious adverse event—blood clots with low platelets—which has caused deaths.”
Protecting the vulnerable 0.1% at a cost of a fraction of 0.0018% is a far more reasonable proposition than a meme printed on a sticker on a lamppost would have you believe.
The efficacy of the vaccine is not the only thing the White Rose fundamentally misunderstand – the mRNA technology involved in many of the vaccines are also subject to misinformed rumour-mongering:
Needless to say, COVID-19 vaccine will not alter your genes, that is not how the vaccines work. And I’d also add, as someone who has removed dozens of White Rose stickers from various places around Liverpool, the claim that the sticker is removable is almost as dubious as their understanding of vaccine technology.
‘But, Bill Gates’
The pandemic has seen a huge amount of misinformation linking Bill Gates to the virus, the vaccine, and the former CEO of Microsoft has a desire to either track people or kill them. Gates’ supposed belief in the need to depopulate the planet is a regular theme in White Rose stickers:
These stickers miss crucial context, selectively quoting Gates in order to distort his point, when Gates actually said:
First, we’ve got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That’s headed up to about nine billion. Now, if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15 percent.
Clearly, Gates was not talking about reducing the current global population by 15% – he was referring to efforts to prevent the overpopulation by slowing population growth. Giving people (and women in particular) better access to reproductive health means fewer unplanned pregnancies, and better health services and vaccines mean a higher percentage of children survive into adulthood, meaning families need to have fewer babies in order for their family to continue. This is obviously very different from the idea of killing 15% of the people on the planet, and deliberately editing Gates’ quote in order to imply a mass slaughter is obviously disingenuous and deceptive by the White Rose.
‘The bigger picture’
While much of the White Rose content is explicitly Covid-related, it’s clearly not the only concern members of the conspiracy theorist group have. Many of the stickers urge people to stand up to other conspiracy theories, including the Great Reset and the New World Order:
It’s fair to say members of the White Rose see the lockdown measures as the first stepping stone on the path to totalitarianism:
Although not all of their conspiracy theories can be boiled down to a few words, and explaining them on a sticker proves challenging at times:
Elsewhere, White Rose members warn against the perils of 5G, chemtrails and TV:
What point do YOU think you’re making?
Scrolling through the entire archive of White Rose stickers, it’s hard not to be struck by a complete lack of self-awareness. For example:
This, from a movement trying to persuade people there’s a massive global conspiracy by putting stickers on every lamppost they see.
Again, from the movement trying to persuade you that the government, big business and Bill Gates want to put a microchip in you and/or kill you.
And this is from the movement trying to persuade people based on stickers they didn’t write containing facts they haven’t checked.
In part two of my look at the White Rose, we’ll go into the Telegram channel itself, and see exactly where following the stickers on the street can end up. Until then, there’s no better way to conclude a look at the White Rose sticker archive than by paying heed to the wise words of the White Rose themselves:
It’s hard for a skeptic to put it any better than that.
This is part one of a three part investigation – the second part looks at the Covid conspiracies spreading on the White Rose Telegram group.