‘Cosmic Scousers’ and the rise of the covid conspiracy theorists

For a number of years now, a 36-year-old electrician from Anfield has been posing as a workman to stencil simple but distinctive paintings onto electrical boxes and phone booths throughout the city.

Sine Missione, as he calls himself, has become known for his stencilled murals of popular cultural figures such as John Lennon, Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix or Bill Shankly – alongside uplifting quotes.

Stroll through any given area of Liverpool for long enough and chances are you’ll happen across one of his murals, tagged with his brand.

There is not much anyone could consider objectionable in these stencilled artworks, and indeed they have become part of the furniture in the city.

But the man behind the art is a much more divisive and complicated figure.

Sine Missione has made no secret about being a committed and passionate believer in what most would regard as dangerous and unfounded conspiracy theories about covid and vaccines.

Speaking to the ECHO, Sine Missione, who also runs a fashion label, confirmed that he believed the risks of covid were wildly exaggerated, that vaccines are dangerous and that many of the tens of thousands of deaths attributed to the virus were from other causes.

Sine Missione artwork in the city. Photo by Colin Lane
Sine Missione artwork in the city. Photo by Colin Lane
(Image: Colin Lane/Liverpool Echo)

The artist is a prime example of a loose but distinct sub-culture with strong roots in Merseyside, sometimes jokingly described as “Cosmic Scousers”, which has emerged since coronavirus spread across the globe last year.

A shared distrust of mainstream scientific advice has taken a strong hold in a minority of people often with interests in health and wellness, fitness and anti-establishment ideas.

But this movement has dangerous potential in a Liverpool City Region tentatively preparing to re-open after a bleak period involving around 4,500 deaths from covid, and with the Indian variant causing increasing alarm.

Last year, large anti-lockdown rallies were held in the city where conspiracy theories about 5G, vaccines and unrelated theories such as Q-Anon – which claims the existence of a cabal of satanic child eating paedophiles in world governments – were promoted.

For the majority of people determined to join the public health effort and prevent hospitals collapsing under waves of desperately ill patients, it was a shock to see hundreds gathered in the city centre, and there were a number of arrests.

And the rallies were not just attended by locals.

Prominent national figures known for spouting dangerous conspiracy theories gave speeches, including Piers Corbyn – the brother of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Protesters at Clayton Square were addressed by Piers Corbyn, brother of the ex-Labour leader
Protesters at Clayton Square were addressed by Piers Corbyn, brother of the ex-Labour leader
(Image: Geoff Davies)

The ECHO has looked at who these covid sceptics are and how these ideas spread in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.

Public defiance

Julie Saunderson

In Liverpool, some very public cases demonstrated how committed some people are to the belief that covid is either fake or exaggerated.

Formby mum Julie Saunderson, 42, found herself going from a beauty salon owner to one of the causes célèbres of the anti-lockdown movement.

In September, Mrs Saunderson stuck posters in the windows of her salon Skin Kerr on Aintree Road, Bootle, stating covid was “bulls**t”, demanding “no masks” and suggesting “you can’t catch what doesn’t exist.”

The posters led to visits from Sefton Council’s Environmental Health teams, and later fines for breaching lockdown rules by seeing clients without social distancing or PPE measures.

But Mrs Saunderson, rather than apologise or accept her mistakes, embraced the support of fellow conspiracy theorists.

Images of a party posted by covid denier Julie Saunderson, owner of Skin Kerr salon in Bootle
Images of a party posted by covid denier Julie Saunderson, owner of Skin Kerr salon in Bootle

In a video shared to the Skin Kerr Instagram account, she attached one of the fine letters from the ACRO criminal records office to a firework – much to the enjoyment of her followers.

Mrs Saunderson has also made appearances on a podcast run by another prominent anti-lockdown believer – Laurence Easeman.

Mr Easeman, in his Youtube series/podcast Eyes Wide Open, has hosted interviews with very well known conspiracy theorists including former Coventry goalkeeper David Icke – now known for promoting the existence of a cabal of shape shifting lizards – as well as Piers Corbyn.

He made headlines in 2014 when he was due to appear alongside comedian, actor and author Russell Brand at a book launch.

However Mr Brand cut ties after social media posts by Mr Easeman were shared online, raising questions over his political views.

Mr Easeman, who did not respond to a request for comment, later sued a local blogger for libel and was awarded damages.

Mrs Saunderson hit the headlines again in February when she shared footage of herself and several others at what appeared to be a birthday party during lockdown.

Images from the bash received dozens of supportive comments including from the account of Real Housewives of Cheshire star Leanne Brown.

Ms Saunderson, who declined to comment, has also shared pictures of herself with Mr Corbyn and others at anti lockdown rallies.

Nathan de Asha

In February, in an incident which inspired a wave of publicity – gym owner and champion bodybuilder Nathan de Asha was arrested after keeping his gym open during lockdown.

Nathan De Asha leaving Liverpool Magistrates' Court
Nathan De Asha leaving Liverpool Magistrates’ Court

When Merseyside Police raided the gym, videos emerged of Mr de Asha being taken to the ground in what many argued was excessive force.

He was later ordered to close to his Speke based gym Prophecy Performance Centre for seven weeks at Liverpool Magistrates Court.

Since then he has shared dozens of posts containing anti-vaccine and covid conspiracy theories to his more than 250,000 followers.

Bodybuilder Nathan De Asha
Bodybuilder Nathan De Asha

The rallies, with some of the biggest coming in October and November last year saw other relatively well known figures from the Liverpool anti covid scene make appearances.

Mark Cowell

Mark Cowell, who runs the events page OnamissionMC, had made positive headlines for carrying out organised litter picks across the city prior to the pandemic.

But Mr Cowell, from Sefton, has also become a committed believer in covid denial conspiracy theories, claiming the virus “does no harm”, and frequently shares anti-vaccine posts.

On his page yesterday he shared posters to a rally in Manchester, arranged for today, by a Telegram group named Freedom Fighters.

The poster states: “We are fighting for our human rights and medical freedom. We do not accept the new world order and will not stop fighting against the corrupt government and MSM [Mainstream Media]”.

The poster also states: “Arrest Matt Hancock”.

Mark Cowell
Mark Cowell
(Image: Mark Cowell)

Mr Cowell spoke at the rallies, where other local figures made appearances including Reiss Davies, the owner of health food and products business Konscious Konsumption.

Mr Davies, whose products are stocked at a number of health food and vegan shops around the city, spoke at St George’s Hall and has shared anti vaccine and covid denial misinformation.

On his Instagram page, Mr Davies, a confident and charismatic speaker, shares questionable pseudo-scientific theories about his products and about cellular biology.

He declined to comment when approached by the ECHO.

‘Those in power are not good people’

Conspiracy theorists with a deeply ingrained distrust of government institutions are not new.

Neither are scandals provoking justified anger towards politicians, resentment towards the “mainstream media”, and apathy over democratic elections.

But in the years leading up to the arrival of Covid-19, public trust has been poisoned by a creeping cocktail of disinformation, legitimate anger, and the well-documented problems with regulating social media and search engine results.

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When speaking to Sine Missione for example, distrust of authority appears to be central to his belief system – and an easy doorway to covid denial.

He told the ECHO: “When I see what is happening to the economy, what is happening to people’s mental health, it breaks my heart.

“And all for a virus with a 99.9% recovery rate.

“The rich already have money, when something like this happens they just get richer. The people running the country, they are not good people.”

Crisis in public trust

Dr Patricia Rossini, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool and an expert in disinformation, said that distrust is an important ingredient in the spread of covid disinformation.

She described how much of the harmful disinformation that becomes embedded in people’s belief systems spreads through friends and family – people they may like and trust – in private settings such as WhatsApp or Telegram messages.

But misinformation also spreads on public platforms, with the potential to be seen by thousands.

Dr Rossini said: “When they go to more open spaces like Facebook then the matter of trust, and political trust, and trust in institutions and even trust in the media right? The BBC or the ECHO, that actually is what comes into play…

Protesters in the city centre
Lockdown protesters in the city centre
(Image: Andrew Teebay/Liverpool Echo)

“It’s not that people are unaware of unable to check this information is true or not, it is the sources that are telling them something is not true, are not sources that they believe, and they keep going and believing their own sources.”

The origins of conspiracy theories related to covid are harder to judge, and could involve a combination of economic incentives, such as an attempt to discredit damaging lockdowns, efforts to undermine governments or simple trolling.

Dr Rossini said: “People are challenged in knowing who to trust and people are having a very hard time in determining what is true and what is not.

“Part of it is to do with institutional trust, this idea that politics and politicians have their own intentions and their own motivations and are not doing things on your behalf.

“But also trust in other institutions such as the media; that the media is not fully reporting or covering the things they should because again they also may have their own political or economic motivations to do so.

“The crisis of disinformation about covid or other topics is also a crisis of public trust, and in particular trust in the different institutions that uphold democracies; and that is a pretty difficult problem to solve and a very difficult challenge to fix.”

Down the rabbit hole

In Liverpool, one of the main sources for Covid disinformation has been Instagram – where accounts with thousands of followers share memes, quotes and stories.

One of the more worrying things that emerged in research into this article was how following a prominent covid denying account, such as the group Stand Up X, prompted recommendations for more similar accounts such as Piers Corbyn, Stand Up Manchester and Save Our Rights UK.

Dr Rossini told the ECHO she did not believe that social media companies are doing enough.

She said: “Social media companies and Facebook in particular have not been very forthcoming in taking a stronger stance.

“They say it is important to allow free speech, and people can say what they want, but also these are private platforms and they do regulate whatever they think they should.

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“So the suggestion that this is about free speech doesn’t really seem to work when they do very forcefully remove types of content, for instance child abuse or pornography.

“So it’s not that companies lack the tools to deal with problems I think it’s more that they don’t really want to deal with these problems or don’t feel that they should.”

The ECHO contacted Instagram UK, which is owned by Facebook, to raise concerns about users being led down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories.

A spokesman said: “We are running the largest online vaccine information campaign in history, labelling every vaccine post with the latest accurate information.

“During the pandemic, we’ve removed 16 million pieces of harmful misinformation about Covid-19 and approved vaccines from Facebook and Instagram and we work with 80 fact-checking organisations globally to debunk false claims.

Police arrest a protester on Church Street
Police arrest a protester on Church Street.

“We’re also working on improvements to Instagram Search, to make accounts that discourage vaccines harder to find.”

The firm also said it employs a global safety and security team of 35,000 people whose job it is to limit harmful content – and explicitly said it actively removes false claims about vaccines.

Despite the promises of big tech, there are still enormous challenges.

The past year has seen some political movements, particularly around Donald Trump in the US, flirt with and sometimes actively promote conspiracy theories around Covid.

Dr Rossini and her colleagues conducted research in Brazil which suggested around 40% of people believed at least one out of a set of 10 false claims about the virus.

She said: “I am fairly pessimistic because I think that the past few years in several countries, politicians and political parties are themselves engaging in this battle to want to polarise the public more.

“It becomes even more difficult for us to have these shared points of reference in who to trust and what to believe and hence this tribalism in politics, and strength of identity in politics.

“What it ends up doing is poisoning people’s ability to navigate information systems that they’re in.

“I am not the most optimistic about where we are going.”

Liverpool Echo – Liverpool News