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.
This story made headlines because of the particular form her rebellion took. Quinn cited a specific article from an early version of the Magna Carta to claim that she was well within her rights to keep her store open – and had displayed a copy of a document saying as much in her shop window. In 1215, the clauses gave permission to 25 wealthy barons to dissent and rebel if they believed the crown was acting unjustly. Today, the document is considered by most lawyers to be an “ornament, not an instrument”, and while the document is historically significant, it is legally useless. Still, this hasn’t stopped other English businesses, including a bookshop and a soft-play centre, citing the medieval document in the belief that by doing so they are exempt from government restrictions.
Why have some small business owners tried to safeguard their livelihoods with an antiquated 13th-century treatise? A simple answer is that social media platforms, in particular Facebook, are to blame for allowing the easy spread of misinformation regarding the law. In November, Full Fact traced a number of viral Facebook posts claiming that article 61 of Magna Carta gave British citizens legal permission to defy the government. In October, a number of videos showing business owners citing Magna Carta to police officers were being shared across social media platforms, with hashtags such as #knowyourrights and #donotconsent.
It might be easy to laugh at things like this. “Don’t believe anything you read online” is pretty much an unwritten rule of being online – one that most of us who grew up with the internet were constantly reminded of. But as social media has taken up more of our lives, and, during the pandemic, become the primary way to have any form of a social life, abstract and exaggerated forms of posting, designed to captivate users into sharing and retweeting, are more than common among anyone looking to get noticed.
People who know how social media platforms work can create content they know will go viral in spite of its inaccuracies – while people less attuned to the psychological incentives of the platform, who are less aware of how to identify what’s real and what isn’t, believe in the content’s veracity through their instincts.
Digitally literate users often mock those who publicly show their lack of online street-smarts. But the effects of this can have darker consequences. In far-right spaces of social media in particular, Magna Carta is also invoked as a digital rallying cry, not just against the British government, but pretty much anyone considered to be an “elite”. References to Magna Carta are often posted on right-leaning social networks such as Parler. Meanwhile, groups such as the British Freedom party, led by former Britain First leader Jayda Fransen, have referred to 2020 as “the year of the Magna Carta” and even made merchandise based on the aesthetics of the document.
The Magna Carta delusion might not just be a type of misinformation affecting struggling small business owners, but a symbol that – promising freedom, security and fixity amid the turbulence of the pandemic-racked free market – converts discontent into a dangerous politics.
Seemingly absurd-sounding memes, like the notion that an ancient document allows you to disobey the law, can take root in people’s imaginations, if the conditions are right, and bleed into the real world. Take the “love jihad” trope in India, a conspiracy theory that argues that Muslim men are deliberately targeting Hindu women in order to convert them via marriage. The conspiracy, which spreads primarily via WhatsApp, has led to vigilante groups forcibly preventing weddings and forcing newlyweds into hiding – and its influence has also led to state politicians seeking to pass laws regulating interfaith marriages.
It’s important that we don’t dismiss the seemingly ridiculous. While the Magna Carta phenomenon might give some light comic relief or evoke some sympathy, it highlights the fact that many people are prone to exploitation by dubious groups and characters that thrive in a society in which unedited information flows freely while people are stressed and locked-down.