How COVID-conspiracists and anti-vaxxers are getting organised and making money

·17-min read

It's easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists who say COVID-19 doesn't exist, or that we are all living through a "plandemic" - an event orchestrated by the evil and powerful.

But NHS workers and the police have told Sky News the people who spread those theories are a "genuine problem", whose "fake news" may damage generations to come.

The Police Federation told Sky News currently around three quarters of protests are against lockdown restrictions. Worryingly, the remainder are largely organised by COVID-conspiracists and anti-vaxxers.

Sky News took a detailed look at those promoting COVID conspiracy theories in the UK - online and offline.

We found endless groups and pages circulating conspiracies, but three organisations dominate the landscape - Stand Up X, Stop New Normal and Save Our Rights UK.

These groups seek to generate money, often through donations. The leader of one group has amassed at least £45,000 from the public. Other groups have launched paid-for social media platforms and a shop.

Our investigation into these three groups shows they push an array of including that coronavirus is less harmful than science says, to denying COVID-19 exists at all, to the debunked dangers of taking the vaccine.

We also sought to find out if these sprawling and noisy groups have a harmful impact on our safety.

Stand Up X

Stand Up X are conspiracy theorists whose primary focus has been organising and leading weekly anti-lockdown protest marches in cities across Britain.

The street activists - who can be identified by their orange logo with crossed fists forming an X shape - describe themselves as anti-lockdown, anti-COVID vaccine and anti-5G.

The group gained attention by posting videos of its protest rallies on social media channels, some of which were shared in the mainstream press.

Stand Up X is a nationwide collective with regional groups. Its members range from lifelong conspiracy theorists to those who formed their beliefs during this pandemic.

Its Instagram account has amassed more than 23,000 followers - more if you count the support their regional pages have gained, of which there are at least 30 additional accounts.

One viral video shared by Stand Up X showed members of the group confronting shoppers wearing masks in a supermarket in Peckham, south London, in August last year.

In the video one of the group's members, an office worker who calls himself Nacho, preaches to shoppers about (untrue) dangers of masks. Nacho has been part of Stand Up X since its inception in May last year and often acts as an unofficial frontman for the group, speaking at rallies, on social media and on podcasts.

Another key figure in the group is Kelly, whose social media suggests she runs a mobile tanning business in southwest London. Kelly features in videos on Stand Up X's most popular pages and, like Nacho, has been with the group since the beginning.

She is listed as an admin on some of the its main channels on Facebook and Telegram, using the pages to promote Stand Up X events and share instructions for members.

While Stand Up X has previously concentrated on street activism, dwindling numbers at recent rallies has led them to review its tactics.

A new Telegram channel was set up by the group to create "an online army" to lobby companies and public figures who it feels are attempting to undermine its views or curtail its freedoms.

Since its inception in May last year, Stand Up X has established various local groups which have held protests in Liverpool, Bournemouth, Basildon, Manchester, Hull, Brighton and more.

These groups vary in size, but the national and regional cells have their own social media pages across different platforms, including alternative sites like Bitchute and MeWe.

Of the 31 active Stand Up X accounts we found on Instagram, followers ranged from 154 to nearly 24,000. On Telegram, we found at least 44 groups and channels associated with Stand Up X with membership ranging from 34 people to 4,700.

We found Stand Up X channels claiming to be international affiliates - in Germany, Australia and Ethiopia, among other places.

In September 2020, its 40,000-strong Facebook group was removed. A new group created in December has just over 2,000 members.

As part of our research, we looked at what COVID-denier and anti-vaxxer content was appearing in mainstream media, including on Sky News. This enabled us to see what was reaching beyond their own bubbles and breaking into a nationwide audience.

As well as rally videos, on some sites we found speeches from conspiracy theorists uploaded with no attempt by the publisher to challenge the misinformation in them, as well as videos where those involved attempted to agitate or bait others to react, for example, to the person filming not wearing a mask.

People connected to Stand Up X kept cropping up, including those who promote content on their own channels which is more extreme than those advocated by the group. This includes ideas associated with the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon - a belief that a secret agent is trying to reveal a global sex trafficking ring run by the world's most powerful people.

Hope Not Hate, an advocacy group which researches extremism, has been monitoring these groups.

David Lawrence, a researcher at Hope Not Hate, said: "Whilst some groups in the broad UK conspiracy theory street movement have suffered setbacks recently, many continue to thrive on alternative social media platforms and messaging apps, and their networks remain organised and strong.

"We are seeing a shift of focus away from simply holding street demonstrations, and on to other forms of activism, such as distributing propaganda online and offline, making forays into communities and engaging in letter writing campaigns.

"This is of concern as these groups are vulnerable to exploitation from the far right and other antisemites. The ideas they spread constitute not only a risk to public health, but have the potential to lead some towards even more dangerous, discriminatory territory."

When approached for comment, a representative of Stand Up X said: "Stand Up X are a huge group of individuals united across the country in standing up to a government that does not represent the UK's best interests."

He added: "There are no 'main players' despite how previous press articles have spun it, and we march with many other groups across the UK in solidarity for our basic God-given freedoms."

Sky News also looked at Stand Up X's methods of funding.

A donation page on the group's website directs you to a PayPal pool for "Expenses" with the description: "All monies donated will be used to enable us to grow."

It's not possible to know how much has been raised through the PayPal account.

Stand Up X denies it received any funds from other crowdfunding pages, even if the group name was listed in the details.

One Stand Up X member posted on Facebook a now-deleted link to a JustGiving page seeking £1,500 to fund "a car and expenses" in order to "travel to councils in England to serve notice of criminal coercion and treason".

The crowd funder's main image was the Stand Up X logo and some commented to say they had donated. However, the post received some backlash - with one comment asking "Why do this stand up x keep asking for money not right" and another accusing them of running a "con".

This backlash prompted the person asking for donations to say it was for her "personally", as opposed to for the wider Stand Up X group's use. Stand Up X's spokesperson denies the group was involved in this crowdfunder.

One other avenue to raise funds is through selling merchandise. Stand Up X has an online store selling hoodies for £26 and T-shirts for around £17.

Its website says the shop helps fund leaflets and equipment.

Stop New Normal, led by Piers Corbyn

While seeking funds doesn't appear to be a prominent area of activity for Stand Up X, fellow anti-vaxxer Piers Corbyn is the listed recipient of tens of thousands of pounds in donations, while also directing people to "donate" by paying him through his own website.

The brother of former Labour leader Jeremy, Mr Corbyn has moved away from denying man-made climate change to campaign on a more fashionable conspiracy - that the pandemic is fake and the vaccines for COVID-19 are dangerous.

When approached for comment ahead of the publication of this article, Mr Corbyn strongly denied that he or any groups he is involved in are conspiracy theorists.

He said he and his groups "are releasing the scientific truth", and claimed Sky News is a "a propaganda lying tool for the government".

Mr Corbyn says he accepts that COVID-19 exists but denies that the coronavirus is anything but a type of flu. This is factually incorrect as they are different viruses, COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2 and flu is caused by the influenza virus.

In his email to Sky News, Mr Corbyn added "there is no pandemic", while leaflets distributed on his conspiracy website call for "end all Covid Vax" [Vaccines] and "The Covid - symptom virus doesn't EXIST!... There's no proof!".

Mr Corbyn runs a group called Stop New Normal, although it is not a group in the traditional sense and more of a brand built around him. For example, many of the Stop New Normal social media pages are called some variant of "Piers_Corbyn_stopnewnormal".

Mr Corbyn, 73, is something of a "COVID-denier influencer", touring the country, popping up as a "headline act" at rallies and protests from London's Hyde Park to Sheffield.

He even has a cameo in a COVID-denial rap video where he plays an evil GP administering an enormous vaccine, before breaking into a jig while the rapper performs down the lens.

Mr Corbyn, who announced he will run for London mayor, has been repeatedly fined and arrested at COVID-related protests.

Although some charges against him have been dropped, Mr Corbyn has been arrested on COVID-19 offences nine times, six of them are outstanding and there are at least five Fixed Penalty Notices outstanding. He was also hit with a £10,000 fine.

Most recently, he was arrested on 3 February on suspicion of malicious communications and public nuisance following the distribution of a leaflet with his name on.

A statement from the Metropolitan Police said: "The leaflet contained material that appeared to compare the COVID-19 vaccination programme with the Holocaust."

When approached to comment on this, Mr Corbyn said he is not antisemitic and that he does not believe the leaflet related to his recent arrest was offensive.

One supporter set up a crowdfund to pay his £10,000 fine. It has amassed more than £13,200. With around 640 donations, the average sum given to Mr Corbyn is around £20 per person.

A link to the fund is one of the first things you see on the Stop New Normal website.

Mr Corbyn also set up his own funder on Crowdjustice, writing: "We are raising £5,000 to pay for the legal costs of my defence. I need your support: please contribute and share this page now!"

The total raised currently stands at £31,250.

This means Mr Corbyn has amassed around £45,000 in donations since he began spreading conspiracies about COVID-19.

Asked about these donations by Sky News, Mr Corbyn argued he is not the sole recipient as money is paid directly to his lawyers or dispensed by him to pay his own costs.

Other fundraisers set up for Stop New Normal (rather than Mr Corbyn specifically) or with others as joint recipients are worth at least £3,700.

Mr Corbyn has also sought donations to be made via his weather forecasting site (which publishes misinformation denying that man-made climate change is real), repeatedly making appeals on social media.

He wrote: "PLEASE also urgently help funding the Campaign

"Buy WeatherAction LongRange forecasts. It's the quickest way to help campaign Costs in the #Plandemic."

He has also suggested donations could be made to Stand Up X through his site.

For example, in this reply to a tweet made by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, Mr Corbyn wrote: "manmade climate change / Global-Warming doesn't exist…. BUY NOW & DONATE StandUpX via Special Button".

We looked at the form Mr Corbyn is using to ask people to send him money through and found over time he renames the listings.

For example, on 18 July 2020, there was an option for "DONATE StandUpX as Research/Forecast" as well as a few options for "lockdown deals".

But on 21 January 2020, there is no mention of Stand Up X, instead an option reads: "DONATE#StopNewNormal as Research", as well as three other options for repeat payments with the word "StopNewNormal" or "StopNewNormal*Deal*" listed.

There is no way to know how much he raises through the site he has consistently advertised to his 40,000 Twitter followers.

Analysis using an open-source tool that estimates how many visits happen on a website suggests WeatherAction receives around 5,000 unique visitors a month.

Save Our Rights, led by Louise Creffield

The third group we looked at is masterminded by a mum-of-four from Brighton called Louise Creffield. She previously worked for Labour MP Lloyd Cameron Russell-Moyle.

In a comment to Sky News, Ms Creffield stridently denied that Save Our Rights UK (SORUK) is a conspiracy theory group, saying: "We are a human rights organisation, and that is our focus and our purpose.

"Some of our members discuss what is often deemed by publications such as yourselves as 'conspiracy theories'; however, our members' views cannot be held as the official stance of Save Our Rights UK."

However, evidence shows the group has shared media calling into question the pandemic, has appeared alongside well-known conspiracy theorists and encouraged people not to take the vaccine.

SORUK has shared images with its 11,000 Instagram followers which say coronavirus is "a scamdemic" and "plandemic".

Despite the UK surpassing 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths, Ms Creffield has said the pandemic is not "deadly", commenting in one recent video: "Even if there is a super deadly virus out there, I would argue there isn't a need for an imposed lockdown."

She adds: "I know if there was a deadly pandemic out there I would take my kids and stay inside."

In a comment to Sky News, Ms Creffield and her co-director Vincent Dunmall said they "do not encourage people to not take the vaccine" and seek to help people be "informed" and "maintain their freedom of choice".

However, SORUK has shared a platform with COVID conspiracists and anti-vaxxers, including Mr Corbyn and David Icke, who has been banned from Twitter and Facebook over COVID misinformation.

Both men also appear on the group's social media feeds. One image of Mr Corbyn on SORUK's Instagram also shows a banner with the SORUK logo on calling to "End all Covid Vax".

In a Facebook video from November, Ms Creffield repeats unfounded claims made on her website that the vaccine has been "rushed".

She adds: "I know Piers Corbyn is calling for all MPs to have it first, and then we'll wait a year and we'll see how many have died... I am fully in support of that idea."

Save Our Rights also campaigns on other topics, including what it identifies as "media bias" and that "we do not live in a democracy". These are listed as "issues" on the site.

It also raises concerns which are rooted in fact, such as the unintended harms of lockdown, including domestic abuse rates and missed medical treatment.

It regularly posts videos to its Facebook page, which has 60,000 followers. A video interview with senior Conservative MP Desmond Swayne was picked up by Sky News and the national media.

Save Our Rights suggested this was another conspiracy, alleging the MP was on a media "hit list" or that it had been reported as part of a "diversion".

Save Our Rights has been funding itself through donations, but in January Ms Creffield launched a new social media platform called Autarki.

She says its selling point is you can speak freely and you don't have to hand over your data, something Hope Not Hate has observed is a genuine concern for many belonging to these types of groups.

To join you must pay £20 for a year's fee or £2 per month.

It's not possible to know how many have signed up since it has gone live, but Ms Creffield claims "hundreds" had within the first couple of days. Posts underneath her video indicated some signed up, while others criticised it as a money-making scheme.

She has signed both her group and business on the UK's company register. Both are registered to London addresses - with Save Our Rights registered to an address less than a mile from the NHS Nightingale hospital in east London.

The real world impact

"Just because the information is online it's easy to think it's not actually a real-life problem but it really is," said Dr Chris George, an NHS worker in southwest London.

"It's quite a significant problem because what we're seeing in clinical practices is people come in distrusting medical information and don't come forward for the treatment they sometimes need because of this distrust that's been created through fake news."

One dramatic viral video was filmed by a maskless man confronting NHS staff in a hospital COVID ward and trying to take a sick patient home.

Dr George, a GP who is part of the Healthcare Workers Foundation which was set up to help support NHS workers since the pandemic, said he wasn't surprised by the video but said it's a "slap in the face" to NHS staff who have been working flat out fighting the pandemic.

He said: "I think it's very selfish... I completely understand people are frustrated and they've read stuff online out of desperation and everyone wants the best for their relatives. But we have to remember to use credible sources of information and to trust the medical staff and the researchers and scientists."

In recent months, a number of videos of rallies or confrontations from these groups have gone viral and made it into mainstream press.

Simon Kempton, operational lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales said of the protests: "They are a genuine problem, a small problem at the moment but potentially growing.

"They're heavily staged. And [the rally videos are] staged in a way that probably makes them look better attended than they actually are."

One notable clip shared by a Stand Up X member appeared to show a woman being arrested just for sitting on a bench, when in reality she had attended an illegal protest earlier in the day and refused repeated requests to leave the area.

Looking ahead, Mr Kempton believes as lockdown ends and vaccines begin to work, the number of protests will reduce but says that "hardcore" theorists will continue to see conspiracies despite the success. What happens with COVID-deniers is harder to tell, he says.

For Dr George, he has a real concern about the long-term impact of this misinformation.

He still sees patients with concerns about vaccinating their children following the now debunked 1998 paper which used falsified data to link vaccines to autism.

"My concern is that actually these groups will continue to grow short term because they're shouting quite loud, and then long term, it's really hard to undo the damage."