As someone who writes about online culture, I spend a fair bit of time researching the internet’s shady corners – and it’s hard to be surprised by anything any more. But, last year, there was something uncanny about seeing conspiracist attitudes usually reserved for the screen – comment sections, forums, chat boxes on Facebook and on any trending hashtag on Twitter or Instagram – spilling over into the physical world in the form of protests, both individual and collective.
We’re all familiar to an extent with the Covid-sceptic worldview: one that stretches from claims that the pandemic itself is a “hoax” to the notion that the vaccine rollout is part of a sinister plot by world governments. This, coupled with a number of rightwing commentators in the US and the UK downplaying the threat of Covid-19 to hundreds of thousands of followers, meant that 2020 wasn’t just about navigating a major global health crisis – for many people, it was about partaking in a culture war premised on notions of freedom. It’s a “debate” that’s largely been created and defined by the internet.
No more clearly was this shown than in November, when Sinead Quinn, a hairdresser from West Yorkshire, was issued with fines totalling £17,000 for breaching national lockdown rules, put into place in an attempt to slow the rate of Covid-19 infections across England. Quinn’s salon, like others, had not been considered an essential service. But in an act of defiance against the local council and, by extension, the government, she kept it open.