Covid grifting vs. mundane but worthwhile priorities


You might have seen this tweet, posted by John O’Connell, and read the lengthy thread attending it:

Its author purports to have uncovered evidence of a covert government operation, to create false NHS profiles – in order to encourage support for its Covid policies.

You may be among the 30 thousand or so people who believe this claim has merit – but please don’t.

Instead of taking the author’s tweets on this theme at face value, let’s ask some questions of them instead.


O’Connell claims in a subsequent tweet that, of these fake NHS accounts, there are:

128 confirmed, 9 probables and 14 possibles, and amongst those, there are 16 which do not claim an #NHS connection. 43 accounts use actual photos of actual NHS staff”.

If there were 128 confirmed fake accounts, why does O’Connell provide only the one screenshot?

If there were 16 which did not claim an NHS connection, how did he discern they were fake NHS accounts? How did he verify that 43 of the photos featured in these profiles were genuine staff members?

O’Connell claims to have contacted 7 people, who confirmed their identities were being used without authorisation. So, why not present the evidence for this?

Could people check into the matter themselves, however? Unfortunately not. As bad luck would have it, O’ Connell further tweets:

“The accounts have now mostly gone, not suspended by Twitter but deleted by the account holder(s) in one simultaneous mass cull a few days ago … At the click of a button. Which itself, goes to prove the singular control of all the accounts”.

And the time-frame for all of this palaver? Half an hour – in between the beginning of O’Connell’s tweet thread; and claiming that most of the phoney accounts had been deleted.

Yet, surely if at least some of these profiles remained – as O’Connell intimates – he could publish screenshots of them?

He goes on to explain his reasons for not doing this. Firstly, legal concerns:

“We’re analysing the data and seeking a way of presenting it while protecting ourselves from legal issues. We know what happened to those that blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica. More to come”.

What data needs analysing, though? Screenshots of fake twitter accounts – and ones which supposedly no longer even exist?

And what did happen to Cambridge Analytica’s famed whistleblower, Christopher Wylie? He went on to a high-profile media career, off the back of his revelations. There is no public record of anything untoward arising in consequence.


Furthermore, O’Connell suggests the evidence is just too complicated for the public to understand:

“This is not ready yet for questions to be asked. Way too data-heavy for non-geeks. We are determined to gold-plate this and present as a fait accompli”.

But why would data, supposedly relating to one account under “singular control”, be too heavy for anyone? Could O’Connell not present his evidence anyway; and then leave people to draw their own conclusions?

Seemingly not. O’Connell repeats his claim about legalistic worries:

“I am currently taking legal advice to protect my sources, methods of data gathering, and of course those who do the collating and analysis of the data”.

The method of data gathering was a skeg around Twitter – and seemingly O’Connell acting alone. Why would legal advice be necessary for either aspect of that?

It wouldn’t, of course. O’Connell is almost certainly making this up. His claims are nebulous, self-contradicting, and devoid of evidence. One of them is demonstrably untrue:

This seeming influx of malfunctioning spammers turned out to be people making fun of putative ‘Boris bots’ on Facebook.

The fact O’Connell cites it as evidence to the contrary would suggest he does not know what he is talking about; or is making it up as he goes along. Either way, his condescension is misplaced [1].

What’s worse, anyone accusing Britain’s government of serious wrongdoing is hardly going to struggle for material to work with, in the current circumstances.

Which is precisely the point. There is no need to invent stories in order to criticise the Prime Minister, and the Conservatives, for their incompetent response to the Coronavirus.


So why do people go along with untenable conspiracy theories, when they are being promoted by unreliable individuals?

Perhaps because an element of truth makes these claims plausible, unless they are examined properly.

The Conservative government, in particular, has a track-record of dishonest online campaigning, and dirty tricks. Its supporters are not above astroturfing, either [2].

So it is entirely within the bounds of possibility that Conservatives would create a misinformation wheeze, as part of a PR exercise. But that does not mean it has actually happened.

The persistent, and renowned, lack of truthful clarity from politicians may also be leaving people prone to believing superficially persuasive explanations, from less prominently dishonest counterparts.

Moreover, journalistic gossip and speculation, derived from anonymous sources, is not entirely distinguishable from conspiracy theories, in tone or content [3].


Disturbing events often leave people feeling helpless, and it is possible that these kind of theories seem helpful.

The Covid crisis has had a shocking impact on public life – just as the outcome of the EU referendum did; and the Presidential election of Donald Trump had done.

Those events both saw certain individuals post sensational claims – or write interminable twitter-threads; and advance paranoiac theories to identify what was supposedly afoot.

It’s not difficult to explain what these commentators were doing: exploiting credulous people, to further their own political/career ends.

What’s arguably worse is that their claims ignored actual explanatory factors behind support for Brexit/Trump – such as racism, media coverage, the dishonesty of politicians, and the way corporate lobbying has corrupted politics [4].


Conspiracy theories are also quite exciting. Which supposition is more stimulating? Brexit, and Donald Trump’s presidency, arose because:

a) Russia’s government used online adverts to provoke an insurgency, replete with murky operatives, and various other hallmarks of thrilling espionage.


b) your friends, relatives, and neighbours have been reading tabloids, then voted as they were encouraged; due to baseless grievances levelled at foreign people, who they’ve been convinced to resent.

But speculation about Russian interference in the UK and US ignores material problems in our societies, which actually need addressing in order to prevent harmful events unfolding continuously.

The same is true of Covid-grifting.

It does not remedy issues which have been brought to light by the Coronavirus pandemic. Such as chronic underfunding of the NHS. Or the reasons why BAME people have been disproportionately affected. Less still, the growing pressure on people to not challenge the government – and the implications this has for democracy.

Conspiracy theories do not help anyone to achieve meaningful improvements. Instead, they are apt to preoccupy people with inane disputes, instead of focusing on catastrophic government policies.

The pandemic is not merely a natural phenomenon at work. It is also a political crisis, and political decisions have meant that particular communities of people are more likely to suffer harm, to lose their jobs and homes; or to die.

People still have to pay rent, and utility bills. Many are required to attend non-essential jobs. Others have to live on poverty-level benefits. Still more suffer precarious finances, while caring for people who are ill.

The government is not doing all it can. It has continuously failed to pursue effective testing and tracking programmes; or to supply basic protective equipment to front-line hospital staff. It has also neglected to provide support for care homes, and care-workers. The consequences of these failures are not benign.


So, with all of this in mind, a brief selection of do’s and don’ts:

• Do demand action on rent, and protection from debt or homelessness.

• Do demand the closure of all non-essential workplaces, until the risk of infection is manageable.

• Do demand benefits are raised to a level people can live on, safely.

• Do demand social security payments are fast and efficient.

• Do demand that harmful immigration policies are ended.

• Do demand protective equipment supplies for front-line workers.

• Do demand testing and tracing programmes, which work.

• Do demand proper social-care for people who are currently isolated, mentally ill, and housebound.

• Do demand proper oversight of the police, given their reported abuse of new powers.

• Do demand international support for people in refugee camps.

• Do donate to support people who are homeless, or workless, going without food, or otherwise desperate for financial support.

• Do confront the racism, which right-wing activists are exploiting the Covid crisis to fuel.

• Don’t waste time on conspiracy theories.

• Don’t fall for petty grifts.






[1] O’Connell’s claim about uncovering a network of fake NHS accounts was refuted by Twitter. Full fact also stated that no evidence supported his claims. While O’Connell did not subsequently adduce his supposed data, he did find time to write a rebuttal to his critics; though it merely repeated the assertions of his tweet-thread. I think the case can be left there.

The screen-shotted account itself is notable, but not for the reasons O’Connell suggests. Its creator’s fairly snide references to the anti-Brexit FBPE campaign, along with disability/trans issues – and a pun about banning the clap – would seem to be hallmarks of trolling; rather than anything with actual purpose.

It is also herd-immunity, not herd-mentality, which had been the government’s policy. Their advocates have since tried to mislead the public about this; once its disastrous consequences became clear.

Of note, O’Connell’s tweet-thread alludes to a pair of individuals who both work for the Department of Health and Social Care. He suggests that they were responsible for this operation, as supposedly proven when they retweeted fake NHS accounts; but neither have been active on Twitter during this period.

One appears not to have posted anything at all; and the other has not tweeted since 2018 (though they have ‘liked’ two tweets since then – one in 2019, the other in March 2020). Meaning they were unlikely to notice if O’Connell tagged them into his tweets, of course.

The two people’s names can be found easily on the Civil Service department’s website – but I’m not linking to it here, as it includes their work emails.


[2] For a particularly silly exhibition of suspect Twitter campaigning, see various Tory MPs conducting a synchronised whinge about the new Labour Leader, Keir Starmer.

Starmer had supposedly “misjudged” the government’s attempt at blaming NHS staff, for their own PPE shortages.

Starmer has “badly misjudged” the matter, according to ToryHealth.

He has “terribly misjudged” it, in the view of Chris Clarkson MP.

“Surely misjudged”, says Eddie Hughes MP.

“Misjudged” – Anthony Mangnall MP.

“Misjudged”- Stuart Anderson MP.

Then back to “badly misjudged” – Lee Anderson MP.

Similarly, the Guido Fawkes website has been doxxing NHS workers, after they criticised the government’s failure to provide them with protective equipment. It must come as a source of comfort to doctors and nurses that an absence of PPE no longer places them at risk of infection, as long as they have left-wing political views.

I am not suggesting that Labour are entirely free from making misleading claims, or engaging in similar online conduct, by the way. That’s a discussion for another time, however.


[3] The quality of professional journalism on the Covid crisis has not always been particularly brilliant.

It would be generous to call early media commentaries about the onset of the pandemic facile. Several of them broadcast harmful misinformation. Others published sycophantic paeans to the government. Some continue in this vein.

It seems that the function of many journalists is to project the views of government to the general public – rather than hold government ministers to account, on behalf of the public interest.


[4] A lobbying effort is currently underway to end the Covid lockdown in Britain, before it is safe. The pretext is personal freedom, and economic well-being. The actual reason will be profiteering. It is not clear yet who is funding these efforts.

However, the Daily Mail unwittingly provides one indication, in its piece about six Tory donors urging Boris Johnson to “ease” the lockdown.

There is little-to-no analysis of this overall campaign in UK media, as far as I can tell. In fact, several newspaper commentators are actively engaged in it, at some level.

While the lockdown has had a significant impact on mental and physical health; the insincerity of avowed concern from these pundits can be discerned from their indifference towards the huge and avoidable cost of life that Covid has borne.

For the US version of this lobbying campaign, see the New York Times’ article about conservative groups astroturfing, via protests to end the lockdown. Arstechnica have also written about this practice.

I think the issue of corporate lobbying is worth peoples’ time and attention, in a way that conspiracy theories are not.