Inside the White Rose: from stickers and graffiti to an online Covid conspiracy ecosystem

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Michael Marshallhttp://goodthinkingsociety.org/
Michael Marshall is the project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He is the co-host of the long-running Skeptics with a K podcast, interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast, has given skeptical talks all around the world, and has lectured at several universities on the role of PR in the media. He has been the Editor of The Skeptic since August 2020.

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In a previous article, I wrote about the White Rose, the Covid conspiracy movement which is plastering lampposts, bins, and bus shelters across the world with misleading, misinformed and manipulative stickers designed to question the reality of the global pandemic. The stickers, with their simplistic black-on-white style and internet-meme imagery, aim to encourage doubt in the general public by appealing to a gut level of understanding of the pandemic, fomenting mistrust in the government and public health institutions with arguments that have the patina of common sense.

While the primary aim of the stickers is to disrupt the daily compliance of the public with basic counter-pandemic measures, the virality of the graffiti campaign relies on recruiting more and more people to the cause, and teaching them how to print and distribute the stickers for themselves. To that end, every White Rose sticker includes a link to the movement’s Telegram channel, with some stickers affording space for a QR code for extra ease.

Naturally, as a skeptical investigator keen to understand the growth of conspiracy movements, I was keen to learn as much as possible about the White Rose, and so, in early May, I joined the White Rose’s Telegram channel.

The White Rose: 37,134 subscribers

Since its creation on November 25th 2020, posts from the White Rose channel have by and large followed the same format: a photograph of one or more of the White Rose stickers spotted somewhere in the wild, along with step-by-step instructions on how to become a White Rose activist yourself. These instructions are incredibly simple, the last two of which deserve to be quoted verbatim:

  • Step 1: buy a small label printer (the Covid conspiracy connoisseurs’ choice appears to be anything from the Brother QL range)
  • Step 2: download a zip file of all of the sticker artwork (a link is conveniently pinned to the top of the channel, which made it very easy for me to write my first article on the White Rose)
  • Step 3: “Print hundreds of stickers per minute, for DIRT cheap, from the comfort of your home”
  • Step 4: “Wake up the sleeping giant!”
The Brother logo - white background, blue text reading "brother"
Did Big ‘Brother’ cause the pandemic in order to sell printers? It’s no less plausible than the White Rose‘s conspiracy theories.

The simplicity of getting active in the White Rose appears to be the key to its success as a decentralised activist movement – all it takes is a Brother QL label printer that costs around £50. Given how many people around the world have been putting up White Rose stickers, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that sales of those printers must be booming during the pandemic. If the conspiracy theorists’ motto of “cui bono” was as universal a maxim as they like to think, the real organisation behind the pandemic may well be Big Brother.  

For those who follow even these simple instructions, most recently the White Rose posts have included a link to their relatively new website, which gives would-be conspiracy activists more information on the cause:

We are decentralized and amorphous. We have no centralized leadership, membership list or hierarchical chain of command. Each White Rose participant is an independent free agent, entirely responsible for his or her own actions. We do not exist as any kind of tangible organization, but rather as an idea; a concept; a methodology.

As best as I can tell, this does appear to be a truthful, if somewhat self-aggrandising, account of who the White Rose are. While it’s tempting to look for a power behind the throne and a dark organisation sowing dissent and distrust, the White Rose do appear to be a decentralised group of individuals, somewhat like the Anonymous movement, or (less charitably) like a collection of terrorist cells.

We are strictly non-violent. We do not condone any offensive acts of violence, nor the destruction of property.

We welcome all skin colors, races, creeds, and walks of life, so long as the individual’s behavior and beliefs align with our mission and principles.

We do not subscribe to partisanship, identity politics, or the false left/right political paradigms created, by design, to divide and conquer us, and to attempt to subjugate us under the control of those who falsely believe they own our bodies, minds, and souls. We do not condone, and moreover, we condemn racism of any kind.

Without getting into spoiler territory, as I intend to write a whole other article on what non-Covid material gets shared in the White Rose ecosystem, it’s fair to say we’ll see why the White Rose falls short of these particular aspirations.

Other than the regular posting of stickers in the wild, along with instructions on how to add to them, the White Rose channel itself posts very few other messages. One of these irregular messages suggests a new guerrilla technique for getting the message out: hijacking radio phone ins. The White Rose encourage people to “bypass the censorship” by looking for call in shows about innocuous topics, calling them to pretend you have an opinion relevant to the subject at hand, and then once on air immediately start talking about the “real issues” – such as how the governments of the world are in violation of the Nuremberg Code for peer pressuring people into getting vaccinated, how there will come a reckoning where the politicians are held accountable for crimes against humanity, and how the Covid death toll is artificially inflated. The post promises “bonus points for saying Join the White Rose before they cut you”. So far, to my knowledge, nobody has succeeded in this gambit.

Another message subscribers will see periodically is a listing of all of the Telegram group addresses of local White Rose chapters – 46 of which are in the UK, ranging from Dorset to the Lothians, and a further 45 in the US. Also represented in the list are 5 groups in Australia, and one each in Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland. Of the 46 in the UK, one of them was the White Rose – Merseyside.

The White Rose – Merseyside: 154 members

A poster in the Liverpool Fight for Freedom group spreads the conspiracy theory that Boris Johnson received a saline solution instead of a vaccine. The pinned messages prompts users to join another conspiracy theory group.
A poster in the Liverpool Fight for Freedom group spreads the conspiracy theory that Boris Johnson received a saline solution instead of a vaccine. Note how the pinned messages prompts users to join another conspiracy theory group.

While local White Rose groups are understandably orders of magnitude smaller than the global group, unlike the global group they allow members to post directly into the channel, giving a clearer insight into how members of the White Rose see the world. The Merseyside chapter of the White Rose is run by a pseudonymous account with the bio: “just a libertarian against the new world order”. Frequently in the channel, he’d cross post from his other channel, “Liverpool Fight For Freedom” (258 members), and before I knew it I’d been automatically added to that channel, too.

Both channels seemed to interchangeably share all manner of conspiracy claims. The user “T.J.”, whose avatar was an image of a smashed syringe with the slogan “Unvaccinated lives matter”, posted a link to an article about Boris Johnson getting his second vaccine shot. “More like a saline solution”, T.J. opined, implying that Boris knew not to get the real vaccine.

Later in the channel, one user posted a video featuring a woman at a lockdown demonstration, wearing a “Free Hugs. Mental Health Matters” T shirt, who told the camera:

In my hospital that I work for in the NHS, our ICU is currently full of patients that don’t have Covid, but they have bacterial lung infections and bacterial face swabs from wearing masks. One patient that is currently in hospital fighting for his life has four different bacterial agents in his bacterial system.

It’s hard to know quite what she might have meant when she says wearing masks gave patients “bacterial face swabs”. The idea that the masks caused bacterial lung infections is nothing new – there’s a sticker for that – but it’s a claim that’s been comprehensively debunked. It was also, at the time, a handy way of explaining why hospitals were filled with patients experiencing respiratory illnesses – after all, it can’t have been Covid, because to the White Rose follower Covid either isn’t real or isn’t dangerous.

Another poster, simply going by “R”, shared a post from notorious anti-vax conspiracy site Natural News, forwarded from the Telegram channel of its founder, Mike Adams. The post claimed:

Bombshell – Bombshell – Confidential Pfizer research document. Translated from Japanese to English. “Biodistribution” study of mRNA vaccines. PROVES the mRNA moves from the injection site to the blood, then circulates spike proteins throughout the body, attacking the ovaries, liver, neurological tissues, other organs. This is the study that will result mRNA vaccines being pulled from the market. Absolute proof of system-wide dangers to the body.

A man with a huge smile on his face is standing beside a police car. Both the man and the car are covered in White Rose stickers. The man is pointing at the car with one hand, with the other he is holding a white rose sticker against the car - either removing it, or placing it. In the background, a street in central Liverpool.

To back up these striking claims, the post included a link to a PDF… which bears no sign that it’s authentically from Pfizer, is missing a large chunk of its characters, does not support the claims made about it and in no way appears to be the “bombshell” it was claimed to be. Perhaps “R” is better at interpreting scientific papers than I am; or perhaps the user hit share without ever checking what they were sharing.

The local White Rose group was also where the anti-lockdown march through Liverpool was organised, and where photos of the march where triumphantly shared. In one photo, a White Rose activist smiles for the camera while putting stickers all over a police car (though another admin joked that clearly the photo was of a concerned citizen trying to remove the sticker graffiti).

From the same protest, there were photos of children as young as 10 holding signs saying “Fight for my Freedom”, and one woman marching through the street carrying a sign saying “Gather in Groups, Swap Microbes and Build Immunity, Save Lives.

Elsewhere at the march, they had a large banner, held by five children, which said “Stop Harm to Children! Justice 4 Children.org.uk. The Children’s voice”. You might be wondering what harm to children the march was referring to – two ladies elsewhere in the march made it clear, with their banners which read WWG1WGA and simply “Q”. But that’s a thread to tug at in my next article – for the time being, I want to focus purely on the Covid conspiracy elements of the White Rose and adjacent channels.

in a covered shopping street in Liverpool city centre a group of people walk - two women hold aloft signs that read "WWG1WGA" and "Q"

While the White Rose suggested I join White Rose – Merseyside, and the latter group suggested I join Liverpool Fight For Freedom, that formal recommendation is not the only way in which members of one group are encouraged to branch out into the conspiracy ecosystem. Occasionally, someone you’ve never spoken to at any point will invite you to join another group, and you can click through to accept the invitation. On other occasions, I was automatically added to a group, which I’d then be a member of until I made the active decision to leave – which is how I came find the Covid Vaccine Victims group.

Covid Vaccine Victims: 127,396 subscribers

This was a group that shares reports of anyone they could find who was vaccinated but later died… including people whose deaths were unrelated.

At one point I saw users had posted social media screenshots of someone called Thomas Lee Flanigan, who had posted about his vaccine in January and February, before he died at the end of April. Their evidence of his death was a blog post he’d written, to be released after he died, which started with:

Well, that’s it. I have completed my shift as the great American cliché… I have joined the likes of Princess Diana, John Belushi and Steve Irwin in leaving while still at the top of my game as an iconic superhero who seemed almost too good to be true

It was a long, light-hearted blog, in which Thomas thanked his wife and kids, joked about how proud he was to have seen the pyramids AND the invention of air fryers, and told all who knew him that they owe him big time because of how great he was. It didn’t seem like the kind of letter you write in the two months of suffering from lethal vaccine side effects. USA Today later confirmed that he died from an undiagnosed aortic dissection, nothing to do with the vaccine. Still, his story was picked up as a Covid Vaccine Victims, and he was claimed as a victim of the vaccine.

The irony here should be clear: the argument of the Covid deniers has long since been that the Covid death tolls are inflated, because people are dying ‘with’ Covid rather than ‘from’ Covid, with some even alleging that car accidents were being intentionally included in Covid mortality statistics. While that isn’t actually true, it is precisely what Covid Vaccine Victims is guilty of: find an obituary, look for evidence that the person was vaccinated, and if they were, add them to the list of victims – regardless of what caused their death.

A screenshot of the telegram group which discusses Thomas's death - the messages are quoted in the main text of this article. The bottom of the screen shot reads "sending messages is not allowed in this group"

While the channel itself claims to be dedicated to memorialising those who they feel are victims of the vaccine, each of the channels posts attracts hundreds of comments, not all of which share the sombre and respectful tone. Some of the comments below the posting of Thomas’ death included:

  • “He got what he deserved”
  • “He died for his belief in this new religion”
  • “Dude thought he was a smartass, turned out he was a dumbass. Rest in peace, dipshit, we fucking warned you”
  • “So Mr Doctor, the microchip works perfectly to hell. Welcome to hell. Who cares.”

This is what the channel mourning Covid Vaccine victims is filled with – every post has hundreds of comments, and they all contain plenty mocking the deceased for having died. It’s bitter, grim and honestly stomach-churning.

It’s not uncommon for channels which restrict subscribers from posting to have conversation take off in the comments beneath each post – in fact, this is often the case in the global White Rose channel itself. After viewing the comments under several of the posts, I was auto-added to a channel which compiles the various comments into a single place.

The White Rose Chat: 7,006 members

The White Rose Chat is by far the busiest of the Covid conspiracy channels I joined – or was involuntarily added to – with thousands of messages each day. The chat gives a fascinating insight into where people get their information: alongside Natural News, regular sources include Joseph Mercola, the anti-vax former nurse Kate Shemirani, the anti-5G activist Mark Steele (who I interviewed in a recent episode of Be Reasonable), David Icke, Toby Young, and the far-right thug Tommy Robinson. When a user called Pav asked for advice on how to ‘wake up’ one of their friends, a user called Pebbles replied:

James Delingpole podcast with Ilana Rachel Daniel. Also his podcast with Dr Mike Yeadon and Naomi Wolf are really good starting points

Keeping on top of the conversation in the White Rose Chat is an impossible task, but what is striking is how quickly the discussion goes off topic, and how people who are drawn to White Rose have more than just their response to the pandemic in common.

A screenshot from the white rose chat group depicting the section of text described in the article where a poster points at effects of climate change and suggests that "Mr Musk believes he can rescue maybe a million people off the planet".

For example, one extraordinary 600-word post speculated that it makes no sense that we’d all be forced to wear a mask for a virus with a survival rate of 99.6% (a reminder: anything that leaves one in every 250 people dead is a Very Bad Thing), but it makes sense when you consider that we are in a period of high volcanic activity – clearly, the poster reasoned, the government knows a catastrophic ash cloud is coming, and they want to prepare us all for wearing masks in an emergency. Assuming, of course, that when the devastating ash cloud comes, there isn’t a decentralised group of disaffected contrarians who tell people the ash isn’t real and isn’t harmful, and that it’s the masks we need to watch out for.

The poster wasn’t done, however. He explained that you merely need to factor in the underground seed vault, plus the seed vault on the moon, plus Elon Musk building a tunnel underground, plus the crazy weather events we’re starting to have (I have an alternate theory about what might be going on with those), and it all becomes clear: Elon Musk wants to rescue a million people from the planet before it gets destroyed by a massive electrical discharge which will “reset the universe”. What does all of this have to do with vaccines, you might ask?

People ask well why the vaccine. My answer is this. Well I have two possibilities.

1) It’s a mass depopulation tool prior to the event as they can’t save everyone. So is it better to put many to sleep rather than suffer.
2) It’s for tracking survivors of the aftermath.

This time we are about to experience is going to be hard. It’s going to be a mental and physical battle. And only those who are prepared spiritually will survive. But hey that’s just my outlook on the situation. Maybe I’m wrong.

Sadly, nobody raised the question as to why ‘They’ would want to save people from death in the great ash cloud / massive electrical discharge by… killing them. Still, this idle speculation over the impending reset of the universe and subsequent mass depopulation of earth was soon lost in a sea of a thousand more conspiracy theory posts, like seeds scattered from a lunar seed vault.

The volume of misinformation in the White Rose Chat is genuinely bewildering, but it’s not even the most troubling aspect. What I found most disturbing was the way in which Covid-related misinformation was constantly forwarded from all manner of other channels, along with invitations to join those channels. For example, the cartoon someone posted of a woman spinning a wheel consisting of names of countries, with the caption: “Time to determine where the next variant comes from”.

Although it might not have been clear to a casual observer, the cartoon was crossposted from the QAnon+ channel, including an invite to join the channel. Which I obviously did… but I’ll save that story, and some of the other deeply disturbing material I found on channels crossposting with the White Rose, for the concluding part of my investigation.

This is part two of a three part investigation – the final part looks at the health misinformation and extremist propaganda using the White Rose to recruit new followers.

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