How One Old News Story Convinced Conspiracy Theorists Tesco Is Hiding 20 Million People
The British "population truther" movement keeps referring back to one article from 2007.
There are people who are so convinced that the government is lying to them that they believe the UK population is almost 20 million higher than officials say it is.
The only thing is, there's absolutely no evidence for it.
Rather than trusting the official stats which place the UK population at 64 million, this band of UKIP-ers, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted migration obsessives are adamant that you can really tell the UK population from the amount of food bought – and the amount of sewage which goes out the other end.
The source of this belief appears to be just one article written in the Independent on Sunday almost 10 years ago, which has, recently, been given a new lease of life on anti-immigration Facebook groups.
The article, written by Martin Baker in 2007, cites an anonymous source within an unnamed supermarket who, on the basis of food consumption, estimated that there were at least 80 million people living in the UK.
Baker wrote that his secret sources were too scared to come forward and tell the truth:
My sources for the above statement [that there are 77-80 million people in the UK] are good, but scared of admitting the truth for fear of incurring the wrath of Whitehall. It's like the best way of monitoring illegal drug consumption: forget the pious statements from ministers – the foolproof method is to sample our water and the effluent in it. That's easily the best way of monitoring what the nation has been consuming. Consumption – that's the thing. Based on what we eat, one big supermarket chain reckons there are 80 million people living in the UK.
Since Baker's article from 2007, online anti-EU campaigners have seized upon it to prove that immigration into the UK is too high.
The article has been shared thousands of times and transformed into memes by English nationalists.
It's been shared on forums, where commenters place more faith in the alleged supermarket estimate than government statistics because "you don't need to show an NI number or ID to shop at Tesco".
Shortly after the article, Tory MP Greg Hands repeated the figure in a blog post on a now-defunct website. "A leading figure at Tesco recently told one of my parliamentary colleagues that they estimate the population of the UK to be closer to 80 million, based on the volume of certain staples they sell," wrote Hands.
"Tesco are probably a world leader in understanding their consumer market, so it would be foolish to disregard their opinion."
And the unnamed supermarket in the piece has, through rumour alone, become Tesco.
As with many conspiracy theories, it's tempting to dismiss the population truther movement as irrelevant internet hearsay. However, at the UKIP conference in Doncaster last month, many delegates, when asked, said they believed it – whether they had read the original article or just heard about it from people within the party.
The UKIP-ers were much more inclined to believe the unnamed supermarket source, which has been cited and shared among their online communities since it was published, rather than believe official government statistics. With the looming referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, these are some of the people who will be attempting to convince others to vote 'out'.
"We've read it in the newspapers," said UKIP delegate Peter Stanley. "On the basis of how much we eat, Tesco think the population is 80 or 90 million and I'm more inclined to believe them than the government."
"The government play around with the figures," added fellow delegate Mike Byron. "They'll do anything they can to manipulate them. We treat the government estimate as the minimum and add about 20 million on top of that on the basis of food sales, how much tap water we use, and how much sewage is treated here – things like that."
Even elected UKIP politicians believe in the theory. David Coburn MEP said you just had to look at UK food sales and the "turd count" to prove the official figure was wildly inaccurate.
"Of course the government fiddle the population figures," said Coburn. "From living in Britain and using my eyeballs, what the government say about immigration is absolute twaddle. Tesco is in the business of making money and in the business of finding out who's here. I believe them."
The problem is that Tesco has never claimed any such thing, and in fact is increasingly frustrated at being wrongly cited as the source for the conspiracy theory. When contacted for a comment by BuzzFeed News, the supermarket firmly but politely declined on the basis that they weren't named in the original news story.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS), the government body which is responsible for producing the official number of the UK population, was scathing of Baker's article for not providing any kind of source or methodology, and said it is confident its calculation of 64 million is much more accurate than Baker's anonymous informant.
"That article is from 2007," said an ONS spokesperson. "Since then we have had another full census in 2011, which has produced very robust estimates that ONS is confident in. In addition we produce mid-year population estimates every year, using the census as a baseline with additional data on births, deaths, and migration from a number of sources.
"In terms of saying how the article is inaccurate, that is difficult as the author does not cite his sources or their methods."
Even if the unnamed source is correct in saying UK food consumption is much higher than it needs to be for 64 million people, it's much more likely that people are simply eating and wasting too much food rather than there being 20 million secret people in the country.
WRAP, which carries out research into food wastage in the UK, estimated that 15 million tonnes of food are wasted in the UK each year, which amounts to around £470 spent on unused food in each household each year. In 2012, it estimated that 24 million slices of bread were thrown away each day, alongside 1.4 million bananas, and 1.2 million yoghurts.
Regardless, people are continuing to share the article as cold, hard evidence that the UK population is around 80 million.
And there's nothing anyone can do to convince them otherwise.