Inside the echo chamber: the nasty side of Facebook’s traffic jam groups

In 2019 the New Statesman reported how local history groups on Facebook – normally innocent networks where older people swap yellowing photographs and reminiscence about the good old days – have a darker side, sometimes acting as a magnet for racists posting abuse against immigrants, the Left and the “political elite”. The Guardian reports that a Facebook group for people buying and selling small plots of land has been taken over by Far-Right “Supporters of free speech against Big Tech Fascism.” The same now seems to be happening to Facebook groups formed to discuss equally innocuous matters: bus lanes, cycle routes and road closures in south-east London.  

A few months ago, for reasons that are unclear, I was invited by an old acquaintance to join a private Facebook group named Greenwich Road Closures. It’s six years since I moved out of Greenwich (a London borough I was a Labour councillor in from 1998 to 2014) and I now live 70 miles away. But I still have close links to the place: my Mum and Dad, and many friends, live there and I rarely turn down a chance to keep myself posted on what’s going on. I naively thought the forum might be a place for civilised debate about the pros and cons of Low Traffic Networks (LTN) measures in Greenwich to impede rat runs, increase space for pedestrians, and open new cycle lanes.

Instead, it soon became clear the group is dominated by conspiracy theorists, keyboard warriors and trolls. Car ownership may be falling in Greenwich, as in many other boroughs, as public opinion is shifting towards the need to restrict the use of the private car to avoid gridlock and help to halt climate change. But there are still clearly many angry motorists out there, for whom traffic jams are always the fault of someone else – mostly politicians. Road rage, plus lockdown cabin fever, are a potent mix.

It’s undeniable that there have been traffic problems in Greenwich since August 2020, thanks to the conjunction of three new schemes: a ‘Hills and Vales’ road closure programme to the west of Greenwich Park, the closure of the road through the park itself, and the completion of a new cycle lane, Cycleway 4, eastwards from Greenwich to Woolwich. But the traffic jams also resulted from many other factors: unscheduled Blackwall Tunnel closures caused by breakdowns, only one of two boats operating on the Woolwich Ferry because of problems with the vessels’ mooring equipment, and more people commuting by car for fear of catching Covid on public transport.

All these factors now seem to be ammunition in a new kind of culture war. Warning: much of the language that follows is not for the faint-hearted.  

Much of the abuse is directed at Danny Thorpe, leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich (as Greenwich Council now formally styles itself), who is – horror of horrors – a cyclist. And, apparently, a killer who must be held responsible for the fatalities of those who can’t be reached by ambulances or fire engines delayed by road closures (fact check: research has found that emergency response times aren’t lengthened by road closures, or may even be improved). “There will be deaths as ambulances cannot get through and what about firemen, people will die in burning homes, please everyone vote this monster out of the borough, even if you just lend your vote,” says one comment. Economic Armageddon is another accusation, as if cycle lanes are a bigger threat to London businesses than a Covid pandemic. “He [Thorpe] is killing Greenwich slowly, business by business, generation by generation”, “The naval gazing scum don’t care [sic]. Vote them OUT. Easy”, and “What do you do, when no matter who you vote for, you get an absolute pile of useless shysters!?” say others.

The bile spills over into the neighbouring borough of Lewisham. Hilariously, Lewisham’s Labour mayor Damien Egan – a centrist who beat off a strong Corbynite challenge to get selected in 2017 – is described as “a keen cyclist and far Left politician” who is deliberately trying to stop people travelling to get their Covid vaccinations. “This man is putting politics before lives – what do you think?” one comment asks. Others level abuse at Labour politicians like Egan, Thorpe, and Greenwich and Woolwich’s MP Matthew Pennycook at random: “Vote the evil rat out disrespectful POS” and “I think he’s a nob just like the rest of the rotting bunch” are typical comments.

Anyone who points out that LTNs have much bi-partisan support, and are being implemented by both Labour and Conservative councils with funding from a Tory government, is shouted down. “… And there she is still spouting the same old tosh. Mrs Liebour [sic] BLM supporter,” says one comment, in response to someone who points out that “Although it is a Tory directive, all the main parties are signed up to it because of the climate emergency.”

Quite how Black Lives Matter (BLM) is relevant to a discussion about air pollution and road closures is anyone’s guess. But one black life that has been lost due to air pollution is cynically exploited by these Facebook trolls. A recent inquest has found that Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who died following an asthma attack in 2013, was killed by exposure to air pollution from the South Circular Road, which runs near her home. Some in this Facebook group suggest that the inquest verdict has somehow been generated by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and other politicians who are keen to justify new traffic controls. “Khan is gonna use this fully to his advantage that’s for sure,” says one comment. Another descends into racism: beneath a photograph of Kissi-Debrah’s mother Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who is now an anti-pollution activist, someone has posted “Ian Wright in disguise? Lineker must have had a word. Check out the background of any ‘activist’. Don’t think I’ve ever seen one that’s ever done a days work”.

Other comments suggest that road closures implemented in 2020 are somehow to blame for the death of child seven years earlier. Although Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah has expressed concerns about a new LTN in Lee, which she says may push more traffic onto other roads, she’s argued sensibly for London-wide measures to control traffic, such as the LEZ (Low Emission Zone), proposed by Sadiq Khan to keep the most polluting vehicles from London’s streets – not a free-for-all. Members of this Facebook group are more concerned about trolling London’s Mayor rather than learning lessons from a child’s death, however. “But it’s alright for the so called mayor being driven round in a gas guzzling Range Rover around London. And yet… the Ltn’s, 20mph, and traffic light phasing still is the cause of the excessive congestion and pollution and people are still blaming the car…” says one comment.

Oddly, drivers like these never consider that their own car use might be part of the problem. “Treat the cause not the symptoms,” starts one comment, encouragingly. But its author then abandons reason. “No one, not you, not me, not the government, not these councillors will ever change the fact people need cars, vans, lorries for transportation. You cannot force people to walk or cycle and trying to get people to use public transport is plain stupid, its to unreliable, to costly and too inconvenient. If the government and councils are serious about air pollution and ‘getting the economy moving’ they’d stop ploughing millions into these stupid green plans and plough the money into infrastructure. Free flowing moving traffic is miles less polluting than cars stacked up in traffic.”

While many motorists say the cost of fuel and taxes is too high, this driver rightly recognises that London’s public transport fares are among the highest in Europe. But rather than better transport reliability or lower fares, for him (and it normally is a “him” in this Facebook group) the answer is urban highways that even the Motorway Box fanatics of the 1960s would baulk at.

Some comments – presumably from long-distance commuters – complain about hour-long car journeys now taking three hours or more. But many of these drivers are clearly used to driving very short distances: “Ffs a 10 minute drive to my bank in Greenwich now takes 45 mins this is not on,” says one. OK, if you’re taking cash to a bank it may be unwise to do so by bus or on foot, pandemic or no pandemic. Yet many other comments come from those who drive to and from work on routes which are exceptionally well-served by train or bus. “It’s a nightmare takes an hour from Plumstead to Deptford every day I thought pollution was a concern shutting the park and all the side roads in bloody ridiculous,” says one comment (fact check: a train from Plumstead to Deptford takes just 18 minutes, with up to six trains running each hour during the day). “Took me 2 hours to get from elephant and castle to home in erith today… Said it was quicker to go over the water then back over again,” says another (fact check: Erith to Elephant Castle only takes 45 minutes by train and then tube). “4 and half hours yesterday from Bermondsey to abbey wood fuckin joke xx” says a third, who forgets that Abbey Wood to London Bridge – a short walk from Bermondsey – is just 29 minutes by train.

“I gave up my management placement coz spending 4 hours a day travelling from Charlton to Southwark everyday done me in and on top of a 10/11 hour shift!” says one. “It broke me in the end! Again control we need to all shout louder!!! Other Boroughs r turning this around why ain’t we??” It is unclear why this despairing driver doesn’t commute by rail: the fastest trains from Charlton reach London Bridge in only 15 minutes.

If these trolls were people who had to drive a car or van for work, or people who normally commute by train but have gone back to the car for medical reasons during the Covid pandemic, you might be sympathetic. But none of them explain why they have to drive. Some blame anyone apart from themselves for their own decision to drive in rush hours to do their weekly shopping. “It’s crazy took me five hours to get home from Asda and I only live on Trafalgar road. I ended up leaving the car or I would of still been stuck in it it’s horrendous out there,” says one. “Citizens have a right to shop in their cars Danny!” says another.

Bizarre conspiracy theories proliferate. Someone opposed to LTNs in Lee accuses (without evidence) an unnamed Labour councillor in Lewisham of “spraying a white liquid all over my car”. Some argue that the LEZ is a social engineering tool, aimed at clearing the roads of poor people so they can be used exclusively by the rich: “Will this new LEZ… keep all of us poorer people off the road so rich people, who can afford newer cars, can enjoy the freedom of the road[?]” asks one driver (who forgets that 50% of households in Greenwich – by and large the poorest – don’t own cars).

Others allege that Greenwich Council – which has been widely criticised for its support for the new Silvertown Tunnel and a mooted road bridge at Thamesmead – is now deliberately creating gridlock as part of a secret plan to oppose the new road crossings. “Bring on the east London crossing – I think this attempt to muck up the local roads / traffic is to build a case to say that the crossing isn’t suitable for royal Greenwich – more behind this,” runs one comment. Even more loopy is another theory that Danny Thorpe wants to deliberately screw his own borough up so he is forced to resign, with a generous redundancy payment for leaving office (believe me: they don’t exist): “All part of Danny Thorpe’s master plan to fuck with Greenwich before his big payout to move on!”

Loopiest of all is the theory that a Conservative government, Labour councils and Extinction Rebellion are all secretly plotting against motorists: “there was an orchestrated campaign against motorists where the Government spurred on by XR and looney cyclists lobbyists met in town halls and the cash was on the table jump in or get left out,” runs one comment. Someone else alleges that this political cabal are not just trying to attack motorists, but annihilate them: “authorities are using the covid virus to deliver the final blow on its war against motorists.” I’ll have whatever hallucinogen they’re having, please.

Others are clearly habitual speeders who are angry that new 20mph speed limits mean they have to drop down from fourth gear in their manual cars. “Driving at 20mph means dropping down to 3rd gear for most modern cars which, in turn, causes more pollution because the engine requires more revolutions to cover the same distance so how they think this is helping the environment is beyond me,” says one comment (fact check: independent research shows that as well as reducing collisions, 20mph zones lead to no net increase in emissions). Others simply have a pathological, Jeremy Clarkson-esque hatred of cyclists: “If you don’t pay to be on the road, get off of the fucking road!” yells one comment. “Bollocks to them. Get off the bloody roads and leave OUR roads to the people who pay for them. The motorist!” yells another. “Arseholes! Cyclists. Do not belong on the roads!” is the pithiest of the lot.

To be fair, some commentators on this Facebook group raise legitimate gripes: for example, those who were encouraged to buy diesel vehicles that may soon fall afoul of the LEZ’s new rules. Some of those who raise concerns about LTNs – such as the Greenwich Gone Too Far Group – argue persuasively that the closures are too patchy and have simply displaced traffic from one set of local roads to another. Unregulated “e-bikes”, particularly when ridden on pavements, can be a pain, and some cyclists are indeed selfish and arrogant (as a councillor in Greenwich I was once trolled by a cyclist for supporting the closure of an alleyway habitually used by muggers and fly-tippers, which he argued was part of a vital cycle route from central London to Newhaven and thence to France).

But voices of sanity and moderation in this Facebook group are rare.  “I do find it hilarious that this post links cycling to the far left, while another recent post in this group says cycling is the exclusive preserve of the far right. Of course both are equally ridiculous. Please can we stop trying to turn this into a left/right issue and let’s all work together regardless of political strip to try to improve the state of our roads for everyone?” reads one exasperated comment. “I cycle. I also own cars and drive. I pay road tax on my cars. I have third party liability insurance for when I’m cycling…. All of these comments about cyclists not paying for roads is a load of rubbish,” reads another.

These sane voices are often drowned out by others who seem to be taking leaves from the Donald Trump playbook. “Everyone is aware what’s going on and the majority will be heard via the next ballot box. Where upon hopefully these vindictive agenda driven arseholes will have to enter the real world whereupon they can go crying to Mummy. Meanwhile back in the real world??????,” says one. Another seems to advocate a Capitol-style blockade of Woolwich Town Hall until Greenwich Council dismantles all road closures, cycle lanes and bus lanes. “We need to block off all entries and exits to the Town Hall – use anything and everything available – stop these council idiots going about their business like they are stopping us”. Another warns, QAnon-style, of a “day of reckoning”: “LBofG LTN planners you are a complete bunch of clowns. A day of reckoning will come when you atone for your sheer lack of competence and wasted public funds on this fiasco. I really hope you people get prosecuted for the stress you cause to the road users, the even higher pollution levels you have created and the lives you put in danger every day when emergency services are delayed”.  

As if that was not deluded enough, some seem to think Greenwich Council’s leadership (which has been ‘Old Right’ on the Labour spectrum for as long as anyone can remember) is in the grip of some kind of Maoist re-education cult: “These Councillors live in cloud cuckoo land, a place where everything is perfect and goes according to plan, where extreme left socialist theory provides the light that guides us gently along the path of righteousness, where nobody accumulates sufficient wealth to be able to afford a fascist, people killer (car) but instead we all travel together in harmony wearing identical uniform-of-the-worker clothes on the buses-for-the-people, chanting praise for our glorious leaders”. Greenwich’s political culture, known for its bullying, is far from perfect – as I’ve argued myself on this blog – but believe me, it’s not too left-wing: I always found its Labour Group to be deeply (small c) conservative. I found few “paths of righteousness”, but many bureaucratic dead ends.

****

There’s nothing new about this kind of trolling on Facebook of course, but it’s surprising that some of the more extreme comments have survived moderation. Below a link to a story in Greenwich Info (the councils quarterly propaganda rag) illustrated by a photograph of councillors on bicycles, someone has posted a GIF of a masked figure operating a flamethrower.

Another comment suggests that Greenwich is controlled by an elite that delights in frustrating the ordinary man: “Does anyone else feel like we are mice in a maze being played with? 😂 everyone we get over an event in Greenwich the over lord scum think of a new way to screw us”. Once again, Sadiq Khan (who is not directly responsible for borough-level LTNs) is singled out for the worst vitriol. “Just vote the leech out when the mayor’s elections come around, sad Khant [sic] hasn’t a clue” says one comment. “The aim seems to be to rid London of the TRUE Londoner and swamp it with the Elite… We’re being driven out by the council’s making living here so miserable…. There won’t be any cockneys in a few years time. So sad!” says another, who seems to seriously believe that opening cycle lanes and closing rat-runs is part of a grand plan to encourage “white flight” to the outer suburbs.

As often with Facebook groups on emotive topics, this one has had its fair share of internal rows – and purges. “What’s shared in the group should stay in the group”, says Greenwch Road Closures’s Twitter feed, which has taken issue with a story on local news website 853 (which pointed out that the emergency services were not entirely opposed to LTNs as Greenwich Road Closures has alleged, only that they favoured CCTV enforcement to roadblocks). Whoever Tweets on Greenwich Road Closures’ behalf has very strange views on what is and is not trolling: “The reason we changed the group from a public to private domain was due to incessant trolling from those in staunch favour of changes to Greenwich road infrastructure, causing delays to emergency service vehicles and an increase in pollution as a result,” he or she explains.

Over in Islington a similar anti-LTN Facebook group, the ‘Ludicrous Road Closures community Group’ (LRC), has descended into a People’s Front of Judea style feud, with claims of a “hostile takeover” by “members of the WeAreIslington FB Group” and complaints that £500 has gone missing from a GoFundMe page. LRC has accused rivals of getting posts “removed for violating Facebook‘s terms and conditions”, and argued that “sabotage was at play” and that LRC’s foes are guilty of “malignant behaviour in the extreme”. Optimistically, an LRC post before Christmas ended with a reassurance that “The flash demo group – the brain child of Harvey (Dam ludicrous)- is thriving” and was due to hold a demo outside Islington Town Hall on 12 December: “Let’s show the powers that be that we are bigger, stronger, and more unified than ever.”

This airing of dirty linen in public would be amusing if the issues at stake were not so serious. London is in the grip of a pandemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Acting on medical advice, London’s politicians have urged people to stay at home, avoid travelling to work if possible, and have made it easier for people to walk and cycle for the journeys that cannot be avoided. The Covid pandemic has highlighted the need to do something about air quality in London: many of those have died have had underlying health conditions caused by air pollution, most of it due to motor vehicles. There is a growing sense that as the city returns to some form of normality, it must be made easier to walk and cycle around.  

Like all rushed measures, some of the schemes that London boroughs have introduced have been botched, counter-productive, or silly. Some have indeed caused new traffic jams, and many have been adjusted as a result. But there is no evidence that they have lengthened ambulance response times, increased overall air pollution, or that they have been part of a secret Labour plot to drive out London’s “true cockneys”, sabotage Covid vaccinations, or destroy the case for the Silvertown Tunnel (if only).

I’ve accidentally been exposed to a lot of bile on Facebook thanks to an invitation to join a group that’s become infested by deranged petrolheads, conspiracy theorists and borderline racists. They all forget that London’s poorest people don’t have the luxury of being stuck in traffic jams: they can’t afford to drive at all. The real victims aren’t car drivers stuck in traffic jams, but poorly-paid retail, cleaning and care stuff who have no option but to carry on catching trains or buses to work in the midst of a pandemic. A small minority of drivers, entitled to drive wherever they like and furious at any measures to help pedestrians or cyclists, have appointed themselves as champions for the poor and dispossessed, spewing out misinformation and hate speech. Donald Trump would be very proud.

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1 Response to Inside the echo chamber: the nasty side of Facebook’s traffic jam groups

  1. B says:

    I enjoyed reading this as I’ve found much the same issue on the local Facebook and Nextdoor groups in neighbouring Southwark. Huge amounts of anger about LTNs, ULEZ, cycle lanes, cameras, roadworks and traffic lights, wrapped up with a dash of casual racism and the odd conspiracy theory. I got kicked out of two such groups for trying to call out a QAnon post, and for supporting the building of a cycle lane.

    My hope is that these Facebook warriors really are a small minority, and that local and central government listen to a full range of opinions.

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