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Carlos Moreno Wanted to Improve Cities. Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for Him.

Researchers like Carlos Moreno, the professor behind a popular urban planning concept, are struggling with conspiracy theories and death threats.

For most of his 40-year career, Carlos Moreno, a scientist and business professor at Sorbonne University in Paris, worked in relative peace.

Many attacked Mr. Moreno, 63, directly. He faced harassment in online forums and over email. He was accused without evidence of being an agent of an invisible totalitarian world government. He was likened to criminals and dictators.

For the first time in his career, he started receiving death threats. People said they wished he and his family had been killed by drug lords, told him that “sooner or later your punishment will arrive” and proposed that he be nailed into a coffin or run over by a cement roller.

“I wasn’t a researcher anymore, I was Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler,” Mr. Moreno said. “I have become, in one week, Public Enemy No. 1.”

Mr. Moreno’s work has not been focused on the pandemic, though his 15-minute cities idea has become more popular since it began. Like many of his academic peers who have faced harassment and disinformation campaigns, he is at a loss for ways to protect himself.

“I’m not totally sure what is the best reaction — to respond, to not respond, to call a press conference, to write a press release,” he said. Academics, he said, “are relatively alone.”

Mr. Moreno, who grew up in Colombia, began working as a researcher in a computer science and robotics lab in Paris in 1983; the career that followed involved creating a start-up, meeting the Dalai Lama and being named a knight of the Légion d’Honneur. His work has won several awards and spanned many fields — automotive, medical, nuclear, military, even home goods.

Mr. Moreno did not face harassment, however, until conspiracy theorists mistakenly conflated 15-minute cities with the low-traffic-neighborhood idea in Britain.

The result, according to misinformed conspiracy theorists: A nightmare scenario in which residents would be confined in open-air prisons fenced off into siloed zones. On Feb. 18, when an estimated 2,000 demonstrators converged at a protest in Oxford, some carried signs claiming that 15-minute cities would become “ghettos” created by the World Economic Forum as a form of “tyrannical control.”

“Conspiracy-mongers have built a complete story: climate denialism, Covid-19, anti-vax, 5G controlling the brains of citizens, and the 15-minute city for introducing a perimeter for day-to-day life,” Mr. Moreno said. “This storytelling is totally insane, totally irrational for us, but it makes sense for them.”

The multipronged conspiracy theory quickly became “turbocharged” after the Oxford protest, said Jennie King, head of climate research and policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies online platforms.

“You have this snowball effect of a policy, which in principle was only going to affect a small urban population, getting extrapolated and becoming this crucible where far-right groups, industry-sponsored lobbying groups, conspiracist movements, anti-lockdown groups and more saw an opportunity to insert their worldview into the mainstream and to piggyback on the news cycle,” she said.

The vitriol currently directed at Mr. Moreno and researchers like him mirrors “the broader erosion of trust in experts and institutions,” Ms. King said. Modern conspiracy theorists and extremists turn the people they disagree with into scapegoats for a vast array of societal ills, blaming them personally for causing the high cost of living or various health crises and creating an “us-versus-them” environment, she said.

Mr. Moreno said he did not understand the intensity of the hate directed at him.

“I am not a politician, I am not a candidate for anything — as a researcher, my duty is to explore and deepen my ideas with scientific methodology,” he said. “It is totally unbelievable that we could receive a death threat just for working as scientists.”

Category: Technology

Source: NYTimes Technology

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