Lewis believed Covid was a conspiracy. Now he's changed his mind.
‘It does hurt the ego to figure out that you’re wrong’
By Harry Shukman
If Lewis were to blame anyone at all for his belief in conspiracy theories, it might be the actor Will Smith. He starred in Enemy of the State, a 90s thriller that’s got rooftop chases, murders and a deep state plan going all the way to the top. Would it have been so compelling without the charismatic star at its helm? Perhaps not. Lewis was 10 when he taped the blockbuster off the TV and watched it more than a dozen times, entranced by Smith’s character uncovering a dangerous cabal at the heart of the US government.
Aged 17, he began checking out a new site called YouTube, and stumbled across all these clips saying the Illuminati was secretly in charge of global affairs or that 9/11 was an inside job. Remembering the plot to Enemy of the State, Lewis had a frame of reference for those YouTube videos. He thought: “Whoa! The government aren’t to be trusted. They’re the bad guys.”
Lewis is now 32 and one of the most active organisers in Merseyside’s anti-vax scene, running an activist group called Merseyside Resistance. They gather once a week to hand out anti-vax newspapers outside the Hilton and attend demonstrations in the city. Sometimes there are social meet-ups, where they hang out in the pub or at each other’s homes.
But the 400 members of Lewis’s group spend most of their time sharing Covid conspiracy theories on Telegram, a social media messaging app. Is the disease real? Are vaccines poisonous? Are lockdowns a tool of oppression? They also share non-Covid conspiracy theories, which all boil down to the idea that a small group of omnipotent people are in control of everything. Some of the more imaginative ones claim the Pope is actually the Antichrist, or else that Donald Trump and Princess Diana had a secret daughter called Sarah who lives in New Zealand and will one day be Queen.
I first got embroiled in Liverpool’s anti-vax movement while writing an article about activists harassing head teachers over Covid jabs last year. I saw that Lewis and his followers opposed this tactic and rankled at being associated with the more extreme organisers. He kindly agreed to meet up with me to discuss his activism.
While I didn’t really have a plan for our interview, I was mindful of two things before we spoke. The first was that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to feel like they possess a secret knowledge that makes them “awake”. Any contradictory evidence — for example that vaccines are safe or that Covid is real — can be dismissed as establishment propaganda. No fact, it would seem, can ever be convincing enough. Dr Daniel Allington, a social scientist at King's College London, says it is vanishingly rare for someone who strongly believes in conspiracy theories to change their mind. He describes them as “lost” to reason, adding: “It’s accepted that there’s no point trying to argue with hardcore believers.”
Secondly, I have my doubts about the efficacy of insulting anti-vaxxers as a means of persuasion. Take a glimpse at social media, and you’ll see a lot of tweets and posts calling anti-vaxxers “clueless”, “retarded”, and “scum of the earth”. It might be tempting for vaccinated people to vent their frustrations on individuals like Lewis (I’ve had three Covid jabs, and have certainly felt exasperated when hearing claims that vaccines are the mark of the devil). But your political views are heavily informed by your trusted friends and family and if a stranger calls you a moron on the internet, it’s probably not going to convince you to hear them out.
With all this in mind, I didn’t think that I would be able to sway Lewis. I certainly never expected Lewis to come meet me wearing a face mask, and over cappuccinos in the cafe underneath St George’s Hall, to tell me he may have been wrong all this time.
Rats in the night
Lewis is tall, smiley, and sports a Peaky Blinders haircut. He tells me he has been into conspiracy theories for years and so we run through a list of popular ones. How about the moon landings, I ask. Were they real? “I am more inclined to believe they were real,” he says. “But there are funny things about it.” Was Diana murdered? “People should look at the evidence but I am not going to accuse anyone in high places of foul play.”
He says a lot of these things with a grin on his face, and that’s because leaving open the possibility that Prince Charles’s fingerprints were all over the 1997 Pont de l’Alma crash delivers a forbidden thrill. “When you have a boring life and are stuck in a boring job, it can be very exciting to read these things,” he says. Currently in between jobs, Lewis has worked as a bricklayer, an eBay trader, a quality assurance analyst, a firmware tester, and a cleaner. It was during a night-time security job before the pandemic that conspiracy theories took over his life.
Back then, he endured 12-hour night shifts of lonely boredom, occasionally punctuated by moments of terror — a stranger pounding the fences screaming to be let in so he could throw himself off the roof; a coked-up man booting in the front door to look for his sister. Sometimes while patrolling buildings in the early hours, he would shine his torch on giant rats guzzling discarded takeaways. Now and again he noticed acid flashbacks dancing in the periphery of his vision.
Otherwise weeks would pass and nothing would happen. “Once all the tenants go to sleep you’re just like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, walking round buildings,” he says. “It drives you insane. You have got no stimulation. At first I was reading books to pass the time but I got so tired, the words didn’t even make sense anymore. What else have you got except going on YouTube and looking up conspiracy theories?”
The night work gave Lewis insomnia — which he still has — and heightened his paranoia. The conspiracy theories offering evidence about the existence of secret societies felt a bit like the night shifts themselves — moments of horror piercing the tedium, proof that there was something very wrong with the world. To ease the boredom, he browsed message boards, internet forums and Telegram. That’s when he started hearing about this weird respiratory illness coming out of central China.
The resistance begins
At this time Lewis vacillated between thinking that the pandemic was real, and thinking that it was a hoax, especially when lockdowns began shuttering life across Europe. Was the government using coronavirus as an excuse to take more power? He joined a national Covid conspiracy group called The White Rose (current membership: 62,000). It encouraged followers to plaster their towns with stickers that said there was no such thing as Covid-19, that masks were a form of social control and harmful to wear, and that the lockdown was stage one in a genocidal campaign.
It’s hard to count exactly how many people in the UK are not yet vaccinated because they think the Covid jab is unsafe, but Lewis is one of them. Liverpool, where 71 percent of eligible people have received one vaccine, has been more hesitant to get the jab compared to the rest of the country. England's total percentage of vaccine uptake is 80 percent.
In October 2020 he set up his own group, which has been through several iterations and is now called Merseyside Resistance. When he created the Telegram channel, Lewis wrote: “There is no censorship here and this will be totally laissez faire.” His idealism was challenged six months later when he noticed that antisemitic links were pouring into his group. Amid the hundreds of messages appearing every day, Lewis saw posts saying the Holocaust never happened, that Israel controls foreign governments and that Jews created the pandemic. Lewis wanted his group to have total free speech and yet wanted it to be free from bigotry. The centre would not hold.
Then Lewis realised that it wasn’t just a few of his followers dropping in the odd link about Jews being evil. It was a coordinated effort by far-right groups to siphon off his members. Activists from Patriotic Alternative, a white nationalist group headed by a self-described “Nazi-sympathiser”, openly said they were trying to recruit anti-vaxxers.
Merseyside Resistance was getting out of hand. To prevent far-right content appearing in his group, Lewis installed software to block links from undesirable sources. Seventy-six channels are now blocked, but new groups always pop up using esoteric terminology to describe antisemitic conspiracy theories. For instance, instead of Jews, members would talk about the crimes of “Khazarians”, a Caucasian people falsely believed to be the ancestors of Ashkenazi Jews.
No matter how hard Lewis tries, white supremacist links continue to slip through the net. He says he has been approached by progressive activists — a Black Lives Matter organiser and a Liverpudlian drag queen — who were curious about getting involved in his group but were ultimately deterred by far-right entryism.
A week of turning points
As Lewis was grappling with how to moderate his group, Liverpool’s anti-vax scene was becoming meaner, angrier, and more aggressive. One decisive week was in winter last year, when Lewis attended two events that went sour. The first was on November 29th, at a night organised by the Roscoe Circle, a discussion group whose guiding principles are “truth, reason, tolerance”.
They invited four local politicians — a councillor from the Greens, another from the Lib Dems, and two representatives from the SDP and Reform UK — to the Quaker Meeting House to debate vaccine passports. Anti-vaxxers, mistaking these very minor politicians as architects of the New World Order, piled in.
One woman, after being given the floor, shouted about the inefficacy of PCR tests and child abuse:
I just want to ask youse lot up there one question. On the CDC website, it’s informing us that the PCR tests cannot distinguish between a common cold, the flu and Covid-19. Therefore probably no-one that's been diagnosed with the Covid has actually had Covid. You're sitting there while our kids are getting abused! The lotta ya! You’re sick!
Five days later, on December 4th, an anti-vax demonstration ended up in a branch of Tesco — the supermarket chain had been subjected to a boycott after their Christmas advert showed Santa Claus carrying a vaccine passport. At the demo, one of the protesters began aggressively shouting at the staff.
Lewis was unsettled by what he had seen that week. As he watched his fellow activists berating checkout assistants and local councillors, Lewis wondered if the genie had been let out of the bottle. “They were so obnoxious and adamant that they were correct,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, is this what I'm aligned with now?’”
Lewis was thoroughly uncomfortable with what the anti-vax movement had become, and wanted to act. For a hardcore conspiracy theorist, what he did next would be tantamount to betrayal. He contacted the man who is the enemy of anti-vaxxers across the UK — Michael Marshall, co-founder of the Merseyside Skeptics Society which debunks junk science.
Michael had recently published a series of articles exposing the far-right turn that The White Rose group had made, just when Lewis was noticing that his own channel was overrun by white nationalist content. Michael had been dropping into Merseyside Resistance and challenging the members. In one exchange, Michael asked “How many people do we think will die from the vaccine in the next three months?” And Lewis responded “I can’t put a number on it. I don’t think all of them will. I just think millions.”
Anxious that he was speaking to the enemy, Lewis nonetheless opened a conversation on Telegram with Michael. At first, he apologised for banning him for snooping on Merseyside Resistance, and said he was keen to chat about the movement and where it was headed. On his podcast, Be Reasonable, Michael interviews the wackiest flat earthers and herbal healers. He never makes fun of their beliefs but politely questions them, trying to get them to interrogate their own positions while defending them. Michael took this approach with Lewis in private, gently querying his views. Did he really have the statistics to back up the claims he was making? Were those stats being interpreted correctly? Was he sure?
Partly thanks to Michael’s conversations, Lewis came around to the idea that Covid was real. He looked at ONS data about deaths for the past few years, seeing an enormous spike in 2020 — meaning something had been killing Brits in large numbers. He kept going, accepting that masks can reduce the chance of infection. He stopped believing in QAnon, the sprawling American fantasy about satanic paedophiles running the government, after realising that none of the millenarian predictions it made had come true. After noticing that 48 million Brits have been fully jabbed and did not die, he came to realise that maybe vaccines weren’t so bad. He’s still mulling it over, but Lewis says he is now open to the idea of getting vaccinated. Leaving the security job has helped. Lewis says he has recently been sleeping better, and feels stronger in his mental health. “With all the data I’ve built a pattern of conclusion that is more balanced,” he says. “We do not have the proof to make these claims about vaccines being deliberately made to harm people.”
These might sound like pretty small conclusions to arrive at, especially as Lewis still isn’t jabbed. But given the lack of critical thinking in the anti-vax world, and how rare it is for someone to change their mind after years of swallowing conspiracy theories, these minor realisations were as momentous as epiphanies. Lewis says they did not come easily. “It can be hard when you’ve invested a lot of your time in an idea,” he explains. “It does hurt the ego to figure out that you’re wrong.” Lewis praises Michael for his help, arguing that he has been a major factor in his position changing. “He has challenged my beliefs in a way that a good friend would do.”
Michael says he will continue to encourage Lewis on his ideological journey and hopes he will step away from a lot of this in a few months’ time. Doing so would be good for him, Michael says — he thinks Lewis has been damaging his mental health by being involved in the anti-vax movement. “He genuinely wants to be as close to reality as possible,” Michael explains. “His instincts are leading him to sense-check what he’s seeing, certainly at the moment. He’s pulling back from that world.”
Lewis now faces an uncertain future in the movement. A week after we met, he left Merseyside Outreach, a secret Telegram channel for the region’s most active anti-vax campaigners. Merseyside Outreach had decided to team up with Liverpool People’s Resistance, an 800-strong activist group that harassed head teachers over Covid jabs, which The Post uncovered last year. After hearing that Merseyside Outreach and Liverpool People’s Resistance were both organising a rally outside the Royal Hospital, Lewis quit. He didn’t want to be associated with them anymore.
He now fears that the anti-vax scene, in which he has a lot of friends, is becoming too violent for him. “I’m afraid that the most extreme voices are becoming the most dominant ones,” he says. He anticipates a day in the near future when his stance on vaccines and his calls for moderation will earn him the title of “shill” for Big Pharma and make his leadership role untenable.
The funny thing is, Lewis is almost looking forward to that day. He even speaks about it in the present tense. “I can just crack on with my life,” he says. “The activism has taken over. I’m going to get a job and worry about bettering myself instead rather than just being online all the time.”
On the morning we meet, Lewis is gearing up for a demonstration called “Worldwide Rally for Freedom: Mass Non-Compliance”. It’s the last anti-vax protest he’s going to attend — he can’t say forever, but certainly for now. He gets nervous that far-right agitators will turn up and cause trouble. Sure enough, an activist moves through the crowd distributing leaflets that advertise For Britain, a far-right party that wants to ban Muslim immigration. A skinhead turns up wearing camouflage trousers, carrying an England flag — Lewis clocks him as an old member of the BNP — and is hustled out of the protest.
If Lewis stays involved in Merseyside Resistance, Lewis hopes that he will be able to steer it in a more moderate direction. He now calls himself vaccine hesitant — which loosely describes someone who isn’t necessarily against jabs but wants to delay getting this one. However, the activists I met from his group believed Covid jabs are being deliberately filled with toxic chemicals.
Lewis introduced me to his friends gathering outside for the demonstration, who were thrilled at the large turnout. Matthew, a 51-year-old government worker, told me vaccines are “an attack on the whole of humanity”. Larry, a 52-year-old entrepreneur, dismissed government guidance as “propaganda”. 62-year-old natural therapist Krista compared the national Covid response to the oppressive communist regime that her Hungarian father fled. Matthew, Larry, and Krista all beamed when discussing Merseyside Resistance and the community they found in each other. Krista called it “a family” and “a life saver” during the lockdowns that kept them isolated from their friends.
The social bonds that tie Merseyside Resistance together could make it hard for Lewis to leave. He says that the group has been helpful to him psychologically and that he enjoys spending time with its members. He now faces being stuck in a no-man’s-land. Because he’s not yet committed to getting jabbed, there will still be people who think he’s a misguided anti-vaxxer. And while he has friends outside the conspiracy world, if he quits Merseyside Resistance, he might lose the activist companions he speaks to every day.
The last we see of each other on the afternoon of the protest is on Castle Street. Hundreds of people are streaming past us chanting about resistance, defiance, and non-compliance. Whenever a car beeps its horn, the crowd cheers. If someone walks past wearing a face mask, the protesters shout at them to take it off. A QAnon sign flashes ahead, warning of a coming storm. We say goodbye, and Lewis rejoins the march as it heads to the docks.
When we next speak, I ask if he would ever push the self-detonate button on Merseyside Resistance. “If it got out of hand,” he says. “If everyone got completely suckered into extremist views and they were willing to take action on those views and I couldn’t stop them.” He pauses. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”