Damaged cabling and telecommunications equipment is pictured following a fire at a phone mast attached to a chimney in Huddersfield, northern England, on April 17. | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
Despite what the internet might be telling you, cellphones did not cause the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first link John Gregory saw pushing a connection between 5G and the coronavirus pandemic was on a French conspiracy website called Les moutons enragés, which loosely translates as “The rabid sheep.” A January 20 post floated that the millimeter wave spectrum used by 5G technology and Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, could be related, pointing to reports about Wuhan installing 5G towers before the outbreak. Three months later, conspiracy theorists making similar claims were setting cellphone towers on fire in Europe.
Gregory, a senior analyst at the internet trust tool NewsGuard, caught an early glimpse of the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory, but it didn’t take long before the fake news started to spread. Two days after the French blog post, a Belgian newspaper called Het Laatste Nieuws published an interview with a local doctor, who floated the unfounded claim that the coronavirus outbreak could be linked to 5G cellphone towers installed near Wuhan in 2019. The article was taken down within hours, but the theory had already spread to English-language Facebook pages. Gregory wasn’t surprised.
“There’s been a crowd that has been saying that 5G is harmful to human health for years, ever since 5G was first being proposed [and] well before any towers or networks were online,” he told Recode. “This is just their latest attempt to push those claims, tying them onto this current news story.”
Initial theories about the relationship between the coronavirus and 5G have now ballooned into all sorts of wild speculation. Some suggest that 5G networks cause radiation, which, in turn, triggers the virus. Others float that reports of the novel coronavirus were actually a cover-up for the installation of 5G towers. A few accounts push the idea that 5G and Covid-19 are part of a broader effort to “depopulate” Earth. Some think it might be connected to the American agriculture titan Monsanto.
As out-there as all this seems, it’s also dangerous. As certain people fall for these theories and act out, they stand to harm themselves and others. By early April, conspiracy theorists were setting cell towers on fire in Europe and starting to intersect with other conspiracy-minded communities like anti-vaxxers, raising fears that the towers could pose a threat to public health. In the face of these fears, it remains unclear if the platforms where these ideas are spreading — Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — can do anything to stop the madness.
5G conspiracy theories have been around for years
The loose and incorrect reasons some have connected 5G technology to the coronavirus outbreak are myriad and maddening. Some seem to think that both 5G and the coronavirus are new, so they must be connected somehow. Others point to suspicious sources like misunderstood legislation as evidence that the government is hiding something in this global crisis. But ultimately, most of these ideas draw on an established well of confused concern about 5G technology and longstanding fears about new cellular technologies.
“This really crosses the spectrum — lots and lots of political leanings and different types of conspiracy theory can find something in the 5G theory,” explains Tom Phillips, the editor of Full Fact, a UK-based fact-checking organization, pointing out that similar fears were expressed during the introduction of 3G and wifi. “A lot of those fears were just transplanted onto 5G when the rollout of that began.”
Tinfoil-hat types have found company on the internet from the early days of the technology. There are the 9/11 truthers, the people who call mass shooting survivors “crisis actors,” and those who believe contrails (water condensation left in the sky by airplanes) are actually odious chemicals. The theories, however untrue, tend to bleed into one another, and they can feed on crises where we still lack answers to many basic questions. The Covid-19 pandemic is no different.
The genre of conspiracy theories linked to wireless technology has been around for decades, and the debate over whether things like cellphones lead to brain cancer or mind control has gained newfound relevance with the rollout of 5G technology. Some theories postulate that 5G, like earlier generations of cellular technology, also causes cancer or, somehow, kills birds. Others are more extreme, suggesting that the technology can cause “electromagnetic sensitivity,” bringing about headaches and harming the immune system.
Last year, the New York Times traced the present 5G anxiety to a Florida physicist named Bill Curry, who published incorrect research showing a correlation between rising frequency of radio waves and tissue damage in the brain. Curry failed to account for the fact that human brains are shielded from such radiation by their skin and skulls, but a chart he made about the theory has become canon in the world of cellular technology conspiracy theories. The Russian television network RT has pointed to such ideas to push theories about the dangers of 5G technology, as has Infowars founder Alex Jones. Infowars even sells a “5G Kills” T-shirt.
Many of the sites that promoted 5G conspiracy theories are now steering their audiences toward the 5G coronavirus connection. The “uncensored health news” website Natural News, for example, has long warned of the supposed dangers of 5G technology. Lately, the site has run headlines like: “Did the 5G rollout in Wuhan damage the innate cellular defense cells of the population, putting the people at risk of complications and death from coronavirus?”
And as the initial spread suggests, the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory has certainly found supporters on social media. Many Covid-19 conspiracy theories have festered on anti-5G Facebook groups, like the nearly year-old, 8,000-member-strong group “Stop 5G Global Community” and the three-year-old “Lawful Stop5G Rebellion No Violence,” which has almost 35,000 members. Twitter and YouTube similarly are hot spots for spreading 5G misinformation, and Bloomberg reports that there is some evidence of a coordinated effort to push 5G coronavirus content, though the details and origins of such a campaign remain unclear.
This idea went mainstream because influential people amplified it
It looks like the earliest posts linking 5G and Covid-19 popped up in mid-January. That newspaper article about the Belgian doctor is often cited as an inciting incident.
Still, it’s difficult to find the precise origin for the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory. Zignal Labs, an impact intelligence platform that studies online discourse, identified a Twitter account that on January 19 tweeted, “Wuhan has 5,000+ #5G base stations now and 50,000 by 2021 — is it a disease or 5G?” while retweeting a Russia Today article about a new, flu-like virus in China. Although the post got little engagement, it’s a sign that the theory had already been spreading to some degree. The 5G coronavirus conspiracy nevertheless festered on the internet for two more months before it started to surge in mentions, according to Zignal Labs data collected from Twitter and other platforms.
The plot really took off when celebrities started to tell their followers about the supposed link between of 5G and the pandemic. In March, interest spiked around the time that singer Keri Hilson tweeted:
People have been trying to warn us about 5G for YEARS. Petitions, organizations, studies…what we’re going thru is the affects of radiation.
5G launched in CHINA. Nov 1, 2019. People dropped dead. See attached & go to my IG stories for more. TURN OFF 5G by disabling LTE!!!
Interest surged again at the start of April, when the attacks on as many as 50 cell towers in the UK became an international news story, and eventually leading executives of companies like Verizon and Vodafone to ask government officials to intervene.
The flurry of celebrities amplifying the conspiracy theory continued. Rapper Wiz Khalifa tweeted on April 3: “Corona? 5g? Or both?” That same day, actor Woody Harrelson posted a video about the theory on Instagram, where he has more than 2 million followers (these posts have since been deleted). British rapper M.I.A., boxer Amir Khan, actor John Cusack, music producer Teddy Riley, and TV personality Amanda Holden all shared thoughts about the conspiracy with their millions of followers around this time. As recently as April 20, conservative commentators Diamond and Silk were warning their millions of followers of the supposed link between 5G and coronavirus.
QAnon supporters have also gotten involved in promoting the 5G conspiracy. One Q follower has argued that the symptoms of Covid-19 are suspiciously “similar to exposure to 5G,” which is not true, and has linked the rollout of 5G in Italy to the country’s high infection rate. She said in a tweet, “If you try to connect the dots from Covid-19 (which I am implying is a made-up illness to explain the side effects of the 5G rollout) to 5G, the media will tell you it is a conspiracy theory.”
Conspiracy theorists have also connected the 5G narrative with the claim that Bill Gates might be behind the virus, which is currently the most popular Covid-19 conspiracy theory online, according to Zignal Labs. The theory posits that Bill Gates not only caused the outbreak but also, somehow, used 5G to do it. One tweet identified by Recode, which has garnered thousands of likes and retweets, falsely posits the alleged Bill Gates connection and finds it suspicious that Facebook is blocking accounts that share information about the 5G coronavirus conspiracy.
This or other theories about 5G and coronavirus seem ridiculous, but that’s not the point. In a pandemic, one person’s understanding of reality and especially how that causes them to behave has a direct impact on the health of those around them. In the UK arson attacks, for example, vandals tried to burn down a cell tower being used by a nearby hospital and, likely, by very sick patients trying to communicate with loved ones. In any given community, those who doubt the reality of the coronavirus pandemic might also be resistant to taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“If you think that 5G is causing coronavirus, then why would you wear a mask? Why would you social distance?” warns Alan Duke of Lead Stories, another fact-checking organization that partners with Facebook.
Things could get worse as time goes on. Research from Zignal Labs shows overlaps between anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and the 5G theory. This could be cause for concern, as certain conspiracy theorists might refuse a Covid-19 vaccine when one is eventually produced. That could put more vulnerable people at risk.
Tech companies are struggling to keep up
An especially frustrating element of all this is how much tech companies have struggled to combat coronavirus misinformation. As long as the pandemic has been in the news, there has been a seemingly endless torrent of false information about it.
The federal government, for one, has taken a stand against this particular conspiracy. In a statement to Recode, a spokesperson for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) insisted that “5G technology has nothing whatsoever to do with the spread of the coronavirus.” The agency has directed people to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rumor control page for more information on this and other conspiracy theories.
As coronavirus conspiracy theories have grown more prominent, tech platforms have become more aggressive. But none of them has completely conquered the problem of suppressing false information about the coronavirus pandemic, especially as it relates to 5G technology.
Facebook says it’s significantly expanded its willingness to take down fake news and conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus. The company once simply flagged these posts as having been fact-checked, using third-party partners like Lead Stories and Full Fact. Now posts that include false claims about 5G and Covid-19 are being taken down, along with other false coronavirus-related content. Facebook has also started retroactively notifying people that they have read false content and is limiting the distribution of groups that continue to share fake news.
Last week, Facebook removed two large anti-5G groups. The takedown followed a report from the anti-hate nonprofit Hope Not Hate that people were using those communities to actively push for the destruction of phone masts. Still, some anti-5G Facebook groups remain active and host discussions of conspiracy theories about Bill Gates.
YouTube has also tried to be more assertive about this content. The video platform took down an interview with British conspiracy theorist David Icke after he floated the 5G theory in a livestreamed interview. According to the company, content that pushes the idea that the virus doesn’t exist or is caused by 5G now violates its policies and is supposed to be removed. Still, at the time of publication, searching the platform could easily surface those types of videos.
Twitter is only taking down certain posts. A spokesperson told Recode that the platform is prioritizing taking down posts that include “a call to action that could potentially cause harm.” The company says that since March 18, it’s taken down more than 2,200 tweets violating its rules around Covid-19 content.
There’s a chance this struggle to contain a dangerous conspiracy theory will endure. Part of what drove the 5G coronavirus conspiracy to the mainstream was a lack of good information about how the virus spreads and how it works, questions that scientists are still working to answer. But the theory about 5G and Covid-19 existed in relative online obscurity until it was amplified by people with influence. Around the same time, others took to the streets, lighting fires and forcing the media, politicians, and corporate leaders to respond.
One possible upside to the theory seeing the spotlight is that it’s also attracting scrutiny. Believers can’t stay inside their filter bubbles as easily when the conspiracy is being debunked. So there’s a chance the prominence of the 5G coronavirus conspiracy will abate in the coming months. The moderators at technology platforms like Facebook and Twitter know what to look for, and that might help.
Conspiracy theories like this rarely go away completely, though. It will likely join the ranks of its predecessors: the ones about 5G killing birds or older cellular technologies causing brain cancer or wifi leading to mind control. It’s part of the canon now. We can only hope the fact that more people know about the 5G coronavirus conspiracy also means that more people know it’s not true.
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