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The Mayor of London Enters the Bullshit Cinematic Universe

It’s a slate-gray Tuesday morning in January, and Sadiq Khan is marching through Camden Market trailed by a caravan of officials, press officers, and the hulking presence of his Metropolitan Police protection unit.

The mayor of London bustles with a sleeves-rolled-up, CEOish energy. The 53-year-old is short—famously so—but bantamweight trim, sharp-suited but approachably tieless. When he pauses in front of a row of arcade claw machines to take questions from local media, he answers fast, in full sentences—lawyerly and reasonable—dropping his “t”s and “g”s in a way that was once a popular affectation of British politicians but which in Khan’s case is authentically South London.

In contrast to the shambolic upper-classness of his predecessor in City Hall, Boris Johnson, Khan is something of a throwback: a politico of the Tony Blair era. But the questions show how much has changed. The subjects are a jarring mix of the hyperlocal and the geopolitical: Can he comment on a fatal bus crash in Victoria? How will he help small businesses through the cost-of-living crisis? Should a “Chinese” transport company be allowed to run the Elizabeth Line? What is his view on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza?

Khan hangs around for an hour, swapping affable banalities with traders and colleagues—on vegan food, vinyl records, dogs—and recording a video to announce a new policy on small business funding. It’s a routine stop; mundane, even. Khan’s banter with jewelry designers and record stall owners has a scripted feel, the gentle fictions of small politics. It’s a sharp contrast to the Sadiq Khan discussed on social media and on the conspiracy-inflected right-wing channels that dominate political coverage in the UK.

Since the UK’s highly divisive 2016 vote to leave the European Union, the country’s political discourse has spun wildly off center. The economy is in deep decline, the cost of living has spiraled, and public services are collapsing—water deregulation has left Britain swimming in a moat of its own excrement. The national conversation has been dominated by the Conservative government’s cartoonish policies and culture wars over gender, “wokery,” and climate change. The ruling party has abandoned the political center ground to govern from the fringes. In doing so, it has thinned the membrane that separates the mainstream from the dark currents of far-right extremism and misinformation that flow online.

In that bullshit cinematic universe, Khan is a recurring character, a unifying figure for a dissonant global coalition of racists, conspiracists, anti-vaxxers, and climate change deniers. There’s a fictional Sadiq Khan who lives on the internet and in the heads of the far right, and a fictional London that he runs—a “Londonistan” given over to migrants, extremism, and knife crime; a dire warning of the cost of liberal leftist rule. This is partly why Khan needs that police protection. Threats to his life are routine now, part of the violence that has returned to British politics for the first time in decades.

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Last summer, one of Khan’s flagship policies—a benign pollution reduction measure—was fused with the global conspiracy, sucked into a nightmarish mass delusion about climate authoritarianism, and co-opted by populist culture warriors to justify a rollback of carbon emissions targets. The chaos that ensued shows how the drip of online conspiracy and radicalization, driven by algorithms and exploited by opportunists, has warped political discourse in democratic societies. It is now much harder for elected leaders to manage the compromises needed to keep cities—and countries—together and functioning. That battle is becoming ever more one-sided, fueled by conspiracy theorists and cheap and convincing deepfakes. Khan’s bid for reelection in May will be the UK’s first major vote in this strange new world, a precursor to a national election happening some time this year—and, quite possibly, a warning sign of how dangerous the merging of populism, extremism, and technology has become.

It started innocuously enough. In 2014, Khan ran the London Marathon. While in training, he found himself breathless and wheezing—more than a man in his forties should have been. His doctor diagnosed him with adult-onset asthma. Khan admits that he’d previously had little passion for environmental causes. The diagnosis started him on a journey of revelation.

At the time, he was in his second term as the Labour member of parliament for Tooting, the area of South London where he’d grown up—the son of a bus driver and a seamstress who had emigrated to the UK from Pakistan in the 1960s. He’d already spent more than a decade combining his career as a human rights lawyer with an unglamorous, poorly paid role as a local councillor—the lowest rung of elected office.

In 2016, he ran for mayor. He leaned into his origins in his campaign—a local boy who reflected the diverse reality of London in the 21st century. While his Conservative opponent was accused of using racist dog whistles to try to turn Hindu and Jewish communities against the Muslim candidate, Khan’s message of consensus won him the mayorship. Six weeks later, the UK veered the other way, voting to leave the European Union. After Khan took office, he spoke out against then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, sparking a rolling spat with Trump that continued for years. Soon, Trump-supporting US media was amplifying stories about knife crime in London and mocking the mayor. Khan was more focused on something that was actually harming thousands of his constituents.

Air pollution contributes to the early deaths of an estimated 4,000 Londoners a year. According to City Hall, 99 percent of the capital’s residents live in areas that fail to meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for pollution from small, dangerous particles known as PM2.5. Public health experts warn about a buildup of invisible conditions, limiting children’s development and causing early deaths. Kids exposed to high air pollution have smaller lungs and higher blood pressure. King’s College researchers estimate the economic cost to London in treatment and lost working hours to be as much as £3.7 billion ($4.7 billion) a year.

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Most of the pollution comes from cars. The roots of the problem are in London’s geography and the compromises made by previous generations of politicians and urban planners. Since the 1920s, plans have been made and scrapped for an expressway around the city center. Instead of a single road, the capital’s main arteries—the North and South Circular—are a patchwork of urban streets where 21st century traffic is jammed onto aging infrastructure. Going clockwise, the southern half starts in the old docklands in the east of the city, running through warehouse districts now given over to the hipster overspill of Shoreditch and Deptford, to banker pads and “golden brick” investment properties. It loops southwest, heading through suburbs that have been slowly agglomerated into the urb, clusters of sewage works and bus depots and the low-rise residential hinterlands of South London: Lewisham, Dulwich, Streatham. At Brixton, in the south, an air monitor set up over the high street often hits the annual legal limits of nitrogen dioxide before the end of January.

“Everyone knows a kid with asthma. Everyone does,” says Jemima Hartshorn, founder and director of Mums for Lungs, which launched in Brixton in 2017 and campaigns to reduce the amount of traffic on inner-city roads. It was partly the group’s lobbying that inspired Khan’s administration to focus on schools in its attempts to understand and tackle air pollution. “A lot of our schools were built in Victorian times,” Khan says. “And subsequently, for the last 100 years roads have been built outside the schools. So when kids go and play in the playground they breathe in poison.”

So, starting in 2019, City Hall invested in new monitoring tools, including backpacks with air quality monitors and GPS tags that were handed out to primary school children. Pollution data was made publicly available so that citizens could see for themselves how bad things were.

The data revealed not just the scale of the problem but also how unevenly distributed it is, in a city where about half of households don’t own a car. “It’s those least responsible who are dying, those least likely to own a car: Black, Asian, minority ethnic, because they live on main roads rather than side roads,” Khan says. “These environmental issues are also health justice issues, social justice issues, and racial justice issues.”

Addressing the problem would mean asking or compelling generally wealthier, whiter people to change their behavior to benefit everyone. And it threatened the sanctity of car ownership, which has been associated with British reactionary conservatism since before the terms “culture war” and “woke” entered the country’s political lexicon. But Khan was hopeful that most people would be happy to compromise for the greater good. “It’s difficult because there’s a lot of noise being made from the extremes,” he says. “But people in the middle just want to know what’s going on, what the evidence is, and so forth.”

Khan dusted off an old proposal from his predecessor, Johnson, to charge the most polluting diesel and petrol vehicles a fee to enter the very center of the city—a small area that had already been covered by a congestion charge since 2003. When it was launched in 2019, the scheme was given the blandly descriptive title of the “Ultra Low Emissions Zone,” or ULEZ. Two years later, it was expanded to fill the area bounded by the North and South circulars. According to Transport for London, 1 million vehicles enter that zone daily, but TfL estimated that only 14 percent were old or polluting enough to actually be subject to the charge. Khan introduced a “scrappage” scheme to help drivers replace their old bangers with newer, cleaner vehicles. Mostly, he says, people were concerned until they realized they wouldn’t actually have to pay.

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By February 2023, nitrogen dioxide emissions had fallen by 46 percent in Central London and by 21 percent in the expanded ULEZ area. That, Khan says, means 4 million residents breathing cleaner air. There were protests—including one, in April 2023, attended by notable conspiracy theorists—but they were largely small, local affairs. Air pollution campaigners were almost unanimous in their support. The scheme was due to expand further to cover London’s outer limits in August 2023, encompassing another 5 million people. It felt like the battle had been won. But something weird and violent was simmering out of sight.

The reality of the mayorship is that crises are often thrust upon the city. Britain’s biggest political rupture of the century so far, Brexit, was imposed on London (largely against its will—a majority of Londoners voted Remain), disrupting communities, wrecking businesses, and cutting off a flow of young migrants from Europe. Khan calls Brexit “an aberration.” The reason the mayor needs a view on the war in Gaza is that its aftershocks play out on London’s streets—in protests and counterprotests, in rising antisemitism and Islamophobia.

At the same time, the UK’s decline is magnified on London’s streets. A cost-of-living crisis has sent households and companies to the wall. Homelessness is rising precipitously. Public services are crumbling. Holding the city together is hard enough without people trying to make the cracks bigger. But the nature of conspiracy and misinformation, and the binaries of modern politics, means things that should be unifying—like a quest for cleaner air—suddenly aren’t.

In June 2023, Boris Johnson, who had resigned as prime minister the previous September, also quit his seat in Parliament, jumping before he was pushed amid an investigation into his conduct in office. That triggered an election in his former seat, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, on the outer edge of London, and inside the soon to be expanded ULEZ area.

Polling suggested that Labour had a good chance of winning the seat from the ruling party. But the Conservative candidate, Steve Tuckwell, ran on a platform opposing the expansion of the ULEZ zone. He held on to the seat by just 500 votes, but in the circumstances it felt like a much bigger victory. The government’s media machine seized on the ULEZ narrative, taking the opportunity to divert attention from its rolling omnishambles. Right-wing commentators pushed the idea that emissions restriction was “wokeness”; the imposition of elite concerns on the embattled working class.

ULEZ found its way to conspiracy groups on Telegram, where it merged with well-established fantasies about elites using environmental concerns as cover to impose their will on the masses. The pandemic unleashed a cloud of virulent conspiracy theories centring on vaccines, 5G, mind control, and Bill Gates. These overlapped with older “elite control” and antisemitic tropes about shadow governments, with a racist conspiracy theory that alleges white Europeans are being deliberately displaced by immigrants, and with newer, internet-native conspiracy communities, like QAnon, whose central belief is that an elite cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs the US via a “deep state.” By the middle of the pandemic, this new meta-conspiracy had a name: The Great Reset.

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Online conspiracy groups habitually cross-pollinate in this way. Just as commercial brands try to jump on trends, conspiracy influencers work to attach their big idea to new conspiracy fads or to some news event that can be shoehorned into their narratives. Often, they’ll look for international examples that can provide what researchers call “social proof” for their ideas. American commentators looking for “proof” of social collapse will point to knife crime in the UK (despite the fact that London’s homicide rate is less than half that of New York’s); those looking to demonstrate the socially corrosive impact of emissions targets will highlight farmer protests in the Netherlands.

This can lead to some bizarre moments, where global figures suddenly direct their enormous audience to somewhere ill-prepared for the attention. In early 2023, influential alt-media commentators, including the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, boosted a conspiracy about “15-minute cities”—an innocuous urban planning concept based on providing services to residents close to where they live. In the bizarro world of the conspiracy theorist, the 15-minute city was reimagined as a plan by shadowy elites to force us all to stay in our neighborhoods, depriving us of our freedom of movement. Soon, protesters including members of the 1990s pop band Right Said Fred descended on Oxford to oppose the city’s traffic control measures on the basis that they were a gateway to tyranny.

Social media algorithms drive the madness. When mainstream media and politicians start using the same terminology as the conspiracy groups, it can drive a flywheel of attention. It also helps to have a unifying figure who brings together multiple conspiracy constituencies. Which is how Sadiq Khan—liberal, left-wing, Muslim—got sucked into the vortex.

“He is a tool that’s used as a way of eliding two battles that otherwise have very few things in common: The hatred of Muslims and the desire not to take action on climate change,” says Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an advocacy group. “He’s an enemy, a figure they can use to bring them together. It allows them mutual amplification, succor, support … It’s a way of cross-fertilizing extremism.”

ULEZ is now an established franchise of the conspiracy. A cursory search for the term on X brings up a parade of far-right and conspiracist accounts, pushing climate lockdown conspiracies related to the “Great Reset,” including restrictions on movement and bans on meat and car ownership. “If you saw some of the banners, there were some really disparate issues,” Khan says.

The fury wasn’t just online. Groups of vigilantes who call themselves “Blade Runners” now roam the outskirts of London, destroying the license-plate-recognition cameras that have been set up to monitor vehicles entering the ULEZ. By November 2023, the Metropolitan Police had investigated nearly 1,000 incidents of vandalism. In December, two men in their sixties were arrested for allegedly using an improvised explosive device to blow up a camera in the London suburb of Sidcup.

Campaigners against air pollution have been subjected to incredible levels of abuse. Supporters of ULEZ or 15-minute cities get sent images from Soviet gulags or Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied cities on social media. “It’s really scary,” says Hartshorn, the air pollution campaigner. “I am significantly more careful about who I tell where I live.”

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Political violence is returning to the UK, bursting out of the morass of conspiracy and extremism online. There is at times a Blairish elusiveness to the way Khan talks—broadcastable sound bites, reversions to cliché, and a genial caution in the phrasing of his answers. But as we talk about the loss of the rational center, he leans in to interrupt. “Look, I was mates with Jo Cox,” he says. “She was one of my best friends.”

In 2016, Cox—a Labour member of parliament for the northern constituency of Batley and Spen—was murdered by a white supremacist who subscribed to the Great Replacement theory. In 2021, Conservative MP David Amess was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist who had become radicalized online. “I’ve got a protection team. I live it every day, the consequences of this, the violence,” Khan says. “What I will not allow is to be cowed by those threats, because that’s what they want. They want for me to be scared.”

Khan insists he’s an optimist. Despite the “hysteria” and the culture wars, he believes there’s still a middle ground where people can be persuaded with facts, where conflict can be resolved with discussion. Biden beat Trump in 2020, he points out; the moderate Emmanuel Macron saw off a far-right challenge from Marine Le Pen in France.

On the other hand, the Islamophobic politician Geert Wilders is close to power in the Netherlands after winning the most votes in elections in November, running on a nativist, anti-immigration, climate-skeptic platform. Trump is ascendant again in the US, and the British government has made clear that it’s planning to fight a general election in 2024 by doubling down on hard-right policies.

In fact, the UK government seemed to take inspiration from the ULEZ spin cycle. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced a list of “common sense” policies, which included rolling back a fictional “meat tax” and ruling out forcing households to divide their recycling into seven bins—something that had never been seriously under consideration. In September, Sunak announced he was “slamming the brakes on the war on motorists,” attacking speed limits and traffic reduction measures, before rolling back net-zero emissions targets, including delaying a planned phase-out of new diesel and petrol vehicle sales in the UK. In January, The Guardian reported that government ministers had cited 15-minute cities conspiracies around freedom of movement when making transport policy.

Nervous of the backlash, Khan’s own Labour party, which is likely to defeat the Conservatives in a general election this year, shelved climate spending targets after distancing itself from the ULEZ policy. “The misinformation was accepted by all the parties except the Green Party, and so it became normalized,” Khan says. “My concern with addressing climate change, or addressing air pollution, or these sorts of green issues, is that politicians may be vacating the pitch because they’ve learned the wrong lessons.”

It’s hard not to interpret this as a victory for bullshit. Populist politicians have co-opted the language of conspiracy—the Old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates who make up much of Britain’s ruling class now rail against elite control. In February, the former cabinet minister and Conservative Party grandee Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg gave a speech decrying the “international cabals and quangos telling hundreds of millions of people how to lead their lives.” Former prime minister Liz Truss shared a stage with Steve Bannon to attack the “deep state” that she claims brought her down after 44 disastrous days in office. Lee Anderson—a prominent Conservative MP and, until January, the party’s deputy chairperson—said in a TV interview that Islamists had “got control of Khan and got control of London.” Anderson was eventually suspended from the party.

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Khan’s Conservative opponent in the mayoral election, Susan Hall (who has made scrapping ULEZ a major pillar of her campaign), is a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, retweeted a post on X referring to London as “Londonistan,” and alleged that Jewish Londoners were frightened by Khan’s “divisive attitude,” sparking rebukes from Jewish groups and anti-racism charities.

Khan says it’s too early to call the fight. “If you vacate the pitch, then you’ve got people with messages that are basic lies who will occupy that space,” he says. He comes back to that slogan several times during our conversations. Asked what politicians can do to steer the discourse away from algorithmically driven rage cycles, he talks about his belief in the fundamental decency of people. All he needs to do to prevail in May’s election is to win the argument, he says—“The public is never wrong.”

But that optimism feels brittle. He has no agency—few levers to pull. Like many politicians, Khan is trying to reason with a maelstrom of unreason. The real decisions about the future of democratic discourse are being made in California, or not being made at all. The tech companies whose algorithms helped spread and popularize conspiracy theories have slashed thousands of jobs, including many responsible for protecting integrity. Increasingly, they’re following the lead of Elon Musk’s X and taking a noninterventionist approach to political misinformation.

At the same time, the proliferation of artificial intelligence tools has made it far easier to author massive bot campaigns or create convincing deepfakes. Research in January found more than 100 deepfake advertisements of Rishi Sunak being used to promote investment scams on Facebook. Faked audio of opposition leader Keir Starmer berating his staff spread on X in October last year. In November, the UK’s National Security Council warned that AI could amplify the existing dangers of misinformation during an election or help foreign powers interfere with the process. Khan says that the UK has to urgently consider new laws to confront the risks. “We need to act now, not once the horse has already bolted,” he says.

Although the UK government has occasionally said it would put in place rules to tackle misinformation on social media, it hasn’t. “I feel like I can’t overstate how bleak it is,” says Kyle Taylor, founder of Fair Vote UK, an NGO that works on election security and reform. “We had years and years and years for governments to do something. And they have just not done it.”

Disinformation isn’t always about favoring a particular side. It helps hostile authoritarian states like Russia—or domestic authoritarians like Trump—undermine the foundations of governance, causing people to lose faith in democracy itself. “The objective is to get a society to the point where nobody knows whether something is real or not, and therefore, that society cannot function,” says Taylor. Sometimes chaos is the only goal.

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There was an awful perfection to the Sadiq Khan deepfake when it inevitably arrived. It began circulating on X on November 10, the eve of Remembrance Day, a sacred event in British public life as the nation honors those killed in combat since the First World War.

The atmosphere leading into this solemn day was unusually tense. A march in support of Gaza had been scheduled for the same day. Government ministers wanted the Metropolitan Police to stop it from happening. Suella Braverman, then the home secretary, wrote a controversial op-ed that alleged the march was “an assertion of primacy by certain groups—particularly Islamists.” Far-right groups—emboldened by Braverman—announced their own march.

In the fake recording, an authentic-sounding version of Khan’s voice could be heard calling for the ceremony at the Cenotaph war memorial in London to be called off in favor of the Gaza rally. “I don’t give a flying shit about the Remembrance Weekend,” the voice said. The mayor, it said, controlled the police.

The message pressed every button on England’s paranoid fringes: an insinuation of support for Hamas, an apparent denigration of British history and memory by a Muslim left-winger, and a sense of backroom deals being done. A secret woke plot that plugged straight into the grand online conspiracy that unites the far right, anti-vaxxers, and climate deniers.

On November 11, far-right groups gathered in Westminster, drinking, chanting, and preparing to “protect the Cenotaph” from a march happening a few miles away. When the attack never came, they took matters into their own hands, fighting the police for the right to defend a monument to peace from an anti-war protest. Large groups charged barricades; masked soccer hooligans shot fireworks into police lines at head height. Two officers were hospitalized. More than 120 people were arrested.

The Sadiq Khan deepfake didn’t cause the violence, but it added to a general sense of chaos—of control slipping away, the center crumbling. “We can’t overstate the grave danger this new technology poses to our politics and democratic freedoms,” Khan says. “The legitimacy of elections and the very viability of our democracy is at stake if we allow these deepfakes to be misused and weaponized.” But the grim truth about politics in the AI era is not that one deepfake will change the course of an election, but that the existence of sophisticated, commodified lies will unravel people’s trust in everything they see and hear. The triumph of bullshit over fact.

With an election in May, Khan’s support for ULEZ has left him at the mercy of powerful forces that he can’t control—a tornado of exhaust smoke and black mirrors, a cacophony of bullshit. It reverberates far beyond the South Circular. The UK will vote this year; so will India, Mexico, South Korea, Ghana, and four dozen other countries. The US goes to the polls in November. We’re all in the vortex now.


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