Today
Mon 18 October 2021

Nafeez Ahmed reveals how COVID pseudoscience and anti-lockdown groups have morphed into a sophisticated, well-funded global network

The former lead psychologist of Cambridge Analytica – the notorious digital analytics firm which disseminated fake news on behalf of the Brexit and Donald Trump election campaigns – is advising some of the leading pandemic disinformation platforms in Britain and is connected to COVID-19 conspiracy theory groups in the US, South Africa and elsewhere, Byline Times can reveal.

Many of these platforms and groups have direct ties to hard-right politicians in the Conservative Party and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Patrick Fagan, a behavioural and consumer psychologist, was head of psychology at Cambridge Analytica from October 2017 to May 2018. He worked on “local and presidential political campaigns in Europe, Africa and North America”, according to his own website

He is currently the chief scientific officer for Capuchin Behavioural Science, which claims to “apply a range of scientific behavioural methods including psychometrics, implicit testing, eye-tracking, facial coding, EEG, and more to deliver measurable commercial results”.

In late 2020, Fagan joined the advisory board of an obscure website called the ‘COVID-19 Assembly’, quietly set up in August 2020 to serve as a “centre point for all anti-lockdown groups worldwide”.

The project is run by David Fleming, who has worked as a consultant environmental health officer for Dacorum Borough Council in Hertfordshire as part of its food, health and safety team, among other local authorities. Fleming incorporated the project as a profit-making company in November. 

Patrick Fagan is listed on the COVID-19 Assembly website as an “advisor” to the project. This is alongside Professor Martin Kulldorf, a principal co-signatory to the Koch-backed Great Barrington Declaration drafted by a MOD contractor; Toby Young, fake news publisher of pseudoscience blog ‘Lockdown Sceptics’; and Francis Hoar, a leading junior barrister at Field Court Chambers who represented the failed legal challenge to social distancing measures by multi-millionaire Brexiter Simon Dolan. 

Dolan holds the distinction of having executive produced Renegade, a feature film promoting its co-producer – the conspiracy theorist David Icke. The film also features the latter’s son Gareth Icke, who is linked to Save Our Rights UK Ltd.

Last year, Gareth Icke spoke at an anti-lockdown, anti-vaxxer, anti-mask, anti-5G protest in Truro, Cornwall, organised by Save Our Rights UK Ltd. The same group interviewed Conservative MP and chief whip Sir Desmond Swayne. 


The Alt-Right Lawfare Brigade

Francis Hoar was among 10 signatories (including Simon Dolan) to an open letter to the FBI and other Western security agencies released in January 2021, titled ‘The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Lockdown Fraud’.

Apart from working with conspiracy theorists and cranks, Hoar has received some attention as a credible voice, being interviewed by the New Statesman and writing op-eds in the Telegraph.

Patrick Fagan was lead psychologist for Cambridge Analytica – the firm which appropriated the personal data of millions of people from their Facebook profiles. Yet, since August 2018, Hoar has acted as sole counsel advising Facebook on its compliance with UK electoral law. He is also advising Sean Bailey and the Conservative Party’s (postponed) campaign for the London Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections. 

In 2019, Hoar provided legal representation defending hard Brexit stances for the English Democrats – a nationalist party which nibbles “at the fringe of the far-right”, according to anti-racism watchdog Hope Not Hate – as well as for the Leave Means Leave campaign run by Richard Tice and Nigel Farage. 

Cambridge Analytica’s Patrick Fagan admitted that he subscribes to a range of ‘tinfoil hat conspiracy theories’ about the pandemic.

Hoar sits on the committee of Lawyers for Britain, set up to support the Brexit campaign. There is also connection back to UsforThem, the ‘parents’ pressure group receiving PR support from a top Conservative Party lobbyist who also manages the ‘COVID Recovery Group’ faction of Conservative MPs from the hard Brexit European Research Group. 

When Lawyers for Britain was first set up in 2016, one of its founding committee members was Slaughter and May lawyer Eric Phillips. Slaughter and May partner Ben Kingsley, a financial services lawyer, is married to former corporate lawyer Michelle (‘Molly’) Kingsley, who previously worked at the firm, and who founded UsforThem in May 2020. Her husband is currently an advisor to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on its scheme to support film and TV productions impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Patrick Fagan is also on the advisory team for PCRclaims.co.uk – a project claiming to offer legal support for claims that result from PCR testing. Although no longer listed on the website, the affiliation is evident from deleted archived web pages identifying “Our Spokespeople: PCRclaims is proud to officially represent and rely upon the most eminent spokespeople and their expertise. They are all agreed that the inappropriate use of Pillar 2 PCR & LFT testing must end immediately”. Patrick Fagan was listed as an expert under its ‘Public Health’ section.

Represented by solicitor Joanna Rogers via her company Navistar Legal, PCRclaims.co.uk links to websites actively purveying disinformation – including Dr Clare Craig, who denies that there is a pandemic. On her LinkedIn profile, Craig describes herself as “between jobs but working full time on the COVID false positive problem”. As Conservative MP Neil O’Brien has documented, Dr Craig has deleted the entirety of her tweets from 2020 which had spread “dangerous disinformation”, disproven by actual events. PCRclaims.co.uk’s Twitter handle has similarly deleted previous tweets discredited by the real world.

PCRclaims.co.uk, too, has links to the Conservative Party and the Government.

One of its ‘experts’ on economics is Jeffrey Peel, previously an area vice-chair of the Conservative Party, a business spokesperson for Vote Leave, Northern Ireland chairman of Brexit campaign group Business for Britain, and an advisor to the Department for International Trade from 2017 to 2020 – where he led a team on getting overseas start-ups to invest in the UK. 


The South African Strain

Both COVID-19 Assembly and PCRclaims.co.uk are working with a separate COVID-19 pseudoscience platform: Pandata19.org (PANDA: Pandemics Data and Analytics).

PANDA is run by Nick Hudson, founding CEO of the South African private equity fund Sana Partners. His PANDA co-founder is Peter Castleden, a senior executive at another South African financial services giant, Sanlam – the largest insurance company in Africa. 

PANDA’s team largely consists of people from finance and industry: Russell Lamberti, managing director of ETM Macro Advisors, a financial advisory firm based in Cape Town inspired by the Austrian school of extreme market economics; Carey Haynes, sales manager for Delta Air’s South Africa branch; Vincent Anthonyrajah, managing director at financial advisory firm Differential Capital; Rowan Burger, head of strategy at Momentum Investments; Samantha Bailey, a doctor in New Zealand who spreads fake news about PCR tests; Janet Schuiling, former lead geophysicist with Tullow Oil, which has lost half of its market value since early 2019; Joel Smalley, a former JP Morgan Chase derivatives trader turned chief technology officer at blockchain start-up Supermoney Ltd; among others. 

PANDA’s scientific advisory board is made up primarily of the founding signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration – which advocated for a natural ‘herd immunity’ approach to the Coronavirus pandemic.

It includes Patrick Fagan’s colleague at the COVID-19 Assembly, Dr Martin Kuldorff; and Donald Trump’s former COVID-19 advisor Dr Scott Atlas, who systematically spread misinformation about the pandemic that was even condemned by the Stanford Faculty.

In December 2020, PANDA published a pseudoscientific report denying the efficacy of vaccines by Dennis Rancourt, a disgraced physics professor who had been sacked by the University of Ottawa. Rancourt, who is also a climate science denier, claimed in his PANDA report that “vaccines are inherently dangerous”.

PANDA’s disinformation has had a deleterious impact on South African discourse about the pandemic response. In May 2020, its founders Hudson and Castleden sent a letter to the President claiming that their actuarial model proved lockdown would be “nearly 30 times more deadly” than the disease. The letter made headlines in South Africa.

Hudson would go on to provide ‘expert’ commentary on the pandemic for mainstream South African news platforms, constantly pressuring the Government to remove restrictions. PANDA’s efforts appear to have played a role in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to lift restrictions from mid-August, paving the way for the country’s devastating second wave which began escalating in November, prompting new restrictions as hospitals rapidly became overwhelmed. 

South Africa, like the UK, is now home to a new COVID-19 variant which scientists say was enabled by the occurrence of ‘chronic cases’ – along with 1.4 million infections and more than 40,000 deaths. The country is finding it so difficult to cope with the death toll that it has run out of coffins.


Tinfoiler, and Proud of It

In a September 2020 podcast interview, Patrick Fagan admitted that he subscribes to a range of “tinfoil hat conspiracy theories” about the Coronavirus pandemic.

Boasting that “I don’t wear a mask, I haven’t actually worn one at all”, while gleefully discussing ways of avoiding mask-wearing on planes and other public settings, Fagan agreed with his host that Britain was now at the “end” of the pandemic, discounting the idea of a second wave. 

When asked about the Government’s social distancing interventions, Fagan said: “Again, with my tinfoil conspiracy hat on, these things all distance us and isolate us from each other and make us easier to control I think.”

Aghast, his host asked whether social distancing measures are really just about creating a more “compliant population”. Fagan replied: “I think so, yes… This segment of the public who have been complaining about fascism since 2015. Now it’s literally here. You’re under house arrest. The internet is being restricted. You have to wear masks outside, or you get fined. It is literally here now, and they’re cheering it on.”

Fagan’s claims were false on all three counts, but based precisely on using manipulative language to conflate emergency measures in response to a global pandemic with a fascist conspiracy. In reality, we are not prevented from leaving our homes – only requested to avoid doing so if unnecessary. The very fact that Fagan was perfectly capable of freely airing his views on a podcast disproves his claims about the internet.

But, by couching these false claims around issues which all of us quite understandably feel negatively about, he attempted to leverage and connect with that emotional sentiment to push listeners into accepting his conspiratorial beliefs without evidence.

“I talked to these groups on a pro bono, personal basis, about the Government’s concerning use of psychological manipulation,” Fagan told Byline Times. “Behavioural psychologists have a responsibility to foster a wider discussion about these techniques.” 

He did not acknowledge how these techniques were being used by the groups he is advising. Byline Times also asked his firm Capuchin Behavioural Science if it was leveraged by Fagan in these advisory roles, but received no response.


Unlocking the Alt-Right

On 15 December 2020, Fagan joined his fellow PCRclaims.co.uk advisor, Dr Mike Yeadon, on a recently launched Facebook talk show, Unlocked United Kingdom, to criticise the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

The show also included Job Dobinson, of the lobby group Time for Recovery, which Byline Times has previously found is connected to Nigel Farage, pro-Trump donors in the US, and the Conservative Party. Time for Recovery had also provided PR support to USforThem.

The Unlocked show is another COVID-19 pseudoscience platform boasting some 50,000 Facebook followers. Despite portraying itself as an independent “common-sense media channel for those abandoned by the MSM [mainstream media]”, the platform is no such thing. 

Corporate records confirm that the channel is incubated by alt-right politicians affiliated with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (which has attempted to rehabilitate itself as Reform UK). 

Incorporated as ULUK Limited last May, Unlocked registers its ‘nature of business’ as ‘web portals’ and ‘activities of political organisations’. Its chief host and director is Martin Daubney, former Brexit Party MEP for the West Midlands and prospective parliamentary candidate for Ashfield, as well as a men’s rights activist linked to misogynistic groups using violent language against women. 

Unlocked’s chairman and co-director of ULUK Limited is former Conservative Party donor-turned-Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, a property tycoon who is CEO of First Property Group.

Even more alarming is the way in which right-wing activists have been attracted to COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

While Fagan’s fellow advisor at the COVID-19 Assembly is Free Speech Union founder Toby Young – a staunch defender of scientific racism promulgated by a neo-Nazi eugenics foundation in the US – Fagan himself is a contributor to the flagship alt-right publication Taki’s Magazine, run by unabashed racist and antisemite Taki Theodoracopulos, and which launched the career of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. Theodoracopulos writes a column for The Spectator, where his career blossomed under Boris Johnson’s editorship despite frequent forays into xenophobic bigotry.

“The media empire of the modern-day alternative right coalesced around Richard Spencer during his editorship of Taki’s Magazine”, proclaimed Breitbart News in March 2016. In fact, Spencer had coined the term ‘alt-right’ in Taki’s Magazine

The intersecting organisations with which Cambridge Analytica’s Patrick Fagan is affiliated – from Unlocked to Taki’s Magazine, the COVID-19 Assembly to PCRclaims.co.uk, and through them, the Great Barrington Declaration, Lockdown Sceptics and PANDA – shows how COVID-19 pseudoscience is morphing into a sophisticated, well-funded global network.

Far from being an authentic grassroots movement, the creation of front group after front group is a form of ‘astroturfing’ – a strategy to mask the sponsors of a message or organisation to manufacture an impression of a multiplicity of voices in a grassroots movement, when such a movement does not really exist. 

The most significant backers of this global COVID-19 disinformation network are not ordinary working people, but a cross-section of wealthy investors, corporate lawyers, shady big business owners and alt-right political movements with ties to Nigel Farage and the hard right of the Conservative Party.

The network is using tried and tested techniques of psychological propaganda to manipulate the public and cast pressure on governments. It has already arguably paved the way for more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in the UK – and will likely lead to many more.

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