Dr Özge Özdüzen, Bogdan Ianosev & Dr Billur Aslan Ozgul

Freedom or self-interest?: Motivations, ideology and visual symbols uniting anti-lockdown protesters in the UK

Anti-lockdown protests are ongoing global protest movements against lockdown regulations and the Covid-19 vaccines, even if there is nuance in the ways they have been organised in different geographies and expressed on digital platforms. The anti-lockdown protests in the UK started in central London during the first lockdown in April 2020 but spread across the country soon after, including Bristol and Glasgow. The UK protests have been called “unite for freedom” protests by the protesters. While the protests sparked as a reaction to the lockdown measures such as masks and social distancing, they soon after responded to the so-called “vaccine mandate”. Although freedom was the main message of protesters, there are different motivations that unite them.


Who are the protesters and what unifies them?


Middle-aged and older white generations were at the forefront of the protests both in terms of holding banners and giving public speeches in the UK in 2020 and early 2021. With the introduction of less strict Covid-19 regulations, minority groups have also become visible not just during the anti-lockdown marches but also during other acts of protests, such as the shopping mall and park occupations. The diversity of the protesters can also be read from their ideological orientations. Our interviews with anti-lockdown protesters in London reveal that the protests unified citizens who previously voted left, conservative, ultra-nationalist and/or anti-establishment parties.

The most important message underpinning online and onsite anti-lockdown protests and unifying these different groups was “freedom”. Protesters have blamed the government for using the Covid-19 crisis to expand its power and restrict the freedom of its citizens. Often the anti-lockdown protesters in Bristol, Glasgow and London viewed the pandemic in no way different from the common flu, cautioning that there is no need to overreact, and claiming that instead of combatting the virus, rather it is the government and the media who are ‘the true virus’. They also urged the public to “look at [so-called facts about] masks and testing [while reassuring them that] you are fine, just take off your mask!”. A certain level of anxiety surrounding the future and the possibility of even harsher incoming restrictions can be discerned behind this call, as protesters urged the public to stand up now or never.

Another theme unifying the protesters was their grievance against mainstream media. The protesters identified BBC as a complicit power, aligning with the government - a dishonest power that fails to defend the freedom of expression. As the BBC coverage centred on violence and arrests in the anti-lockdown protests and followed a delegitimizing pattern, the anger towards the channel proliferated. Some of the anti-lockdown protests thus took place in front of the BBC broadcasting house. Apprehensive about how their voices will not be heard on mainstream media, the protesters heavily relied on social networking sites in communicating their aims. The protests were loosely organised on Telegram, Instagram and other social media platforms. Other than using their own profiles on social media platforms, such as “standup”, the protesters engaged in simultaneous hashtag activism to inform the wider public about their grievances on the lockdowns and vaccines, such as the “CanceltheLockdown” hashtag on Twitter.


Visible symbols, banners and flags


From the ground, we observed that the prevalent theme of protecting one’s freedom was also reflected by many slogans, chants, banners, and hashtags such as “my body, my choice” related to the “vaccine mandate”. For example, one protester carried a quote by the famous American libertarian writer, journalist, and activist Hunter S. Thompson. Protesters chanted “Stand up, get your freedom back!”. There were also calls to protect freedom of speech and that “freedom is a human right”, and in one protest, there were representatives of the Freedom Alliance Party seeking votes for the upcoming local elections from anti-lockdown participants, which also accounts for the visibility of specific communities and organisations amongst this diverging crowd.

However diverse the protest crowds were in London, union jacks, flag of Wales and other national symbols of British history were discernible across different demonstrations. The flags were an opportunity for protesters to highlight their national identity and show the world that they refuse the government restrictions just like their counterparts in other geographies. In line with the perception of the BBC as a threat to personal freedoms, among the most visible banners was ‘fake news, fake virus, fake vaccine’. The protesters commonly used images and chants against mainstream media, such as ‘take down the BBC’. Protesters also repurposed the city under lockdown by distributing anti-lockdown manifestos printed on flyers and applied stickers with their messages (e.g., media is the virus) on walls, trash bins, underground stations, and traffic lights.


A unifying ideology?


While it is hard to pinpoint the unifying ideology of the protesters, what all anti-lockdown arguments have in common is the scepticism towards the messages coming from the authorities, scientific sources and mainstream media. This scepticism led to the refusal of solutions introduced by these authorities. The protesters claimed that lockdowns and vaccines are plagued by “bad science”, that “vaccines are not necessary”. This reflects an overarching feature of many changing anti-lockdown arguments: they are specifically tailored to invalidate whatever the official government and scientific advice of the day may be. For instance, first it was the case that ‘the virus does not exist’, but after masks were introduced by the UK government as a measure, protesters replied that ‘masks didn’t work’, when social distancing was introduced, social distancing ‘didn’t work’, and when there was talk of producing Covid-19 vaccines, protesters countered that ‘vaccines don’t work’. Many of these detailed anti-lockdown claims were mostly backed either by cherry picking of available scientific data gathered on social media platforms, by pseudoscientific claims, and even by straightforward fake news shared online.

Anti-lockdown protesters therefore seem to oppose the lockdown not because the official arguments for imposing the lockdown may have been wrong in the first place, but rather because the desire of protesters to oppose authorities’ advice may have existed prior to finding the arguments to support this desire. This could explain why anti-lockdown reasons changed over time, but the desire to end the lockdown remained constant. Finally, judging from our preliminary analysis of the protesters’ online and onsite communication, their struggle for freedom during the self-entitled freedom marches seems irreconcilable with the prevention of interpersonal harm. Although there are no longer lockdowns in place, anti-lockdown ideas continue to hack attention, shape public opinion and inflict harm by disrupting the vaccination efforts of the government. To prevent the health threats anti-lockdown ideas can cause, more studies are needed to explore what fuels the science and media scepticism of anti-lockdown protesters.


Author biography


Dr Ozge Ozduzen is Lecturer in Digital Media and Society in the department of sociological studies at the University of Sheffield. Ozge studies media activism, visual politics, urban communication, and online anti-publics and serves as the principal investigator of a H2020 project entitled “D.Rad: Deradicalization in Europe and Beyond: Detect, Resolve, Reintegrate”.

Twitter: @ozgeozdu

Bogdan Ianosev is a PhD candidate at the Glasgow School for Business and Society, at Glasgow Caledonian University, working as a researcher for the “Demos: Democratic Efficacy and Populism in Europe” H2020 project and studying the cognitive processes behind populist discourse surrounding the Brexit referendum for his dissertation.

Dr Billur Aslan Ozgul is Lecturer in Political Communication at Brunel University London. She is the author of the book Leading the Protests in the Digital Age, Youth Activism in Egypt and Syria (Palgrave, 2020) and co-author of the book Psychology of Democracy (Routledge, 2021).

Twitter: @billuraslan


Ozge, Billur and Bogdan’s project is a part of our PSA Research & Innovation funding. Our aim was to help scholars complete innovative research and engagement projects, and further the aims of our association. Find out more about the PSA's Research & Innovation Fund Projects 2021 here.