Following a pledge made last month, Twitter has started displaying fact-checking labels on tweets linking 5G mobile technology to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Clicking these labels leads users to a thread titled, “No, 5G isn’t causing coronavirus,” with links to news articles and official sources debunking the persistent conspiracy theory.
Global health authorities are in full agreement that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease triggered by a new viral strain. But at the same time, a growing international movement of conspiracy theorists are adamant that 5G networking equipment is weakening immune systems and spreading coronavirus, threatening the burgeoning technology revolution still only in its infant stages.
How did we get here?
Conspiracy theories about the supposed threat of mobile radio to human health are not new, and the idea has evolved in 2020 to use the spread of the coronavirus as “proof” of the risks posed by 5G technology. As it stands, there is not a shred of evidence that radio waves pose a health risk to humans.
This latest strain of “radiophobia” was borne by a Belgian newspaper interview with general practitioner Kris Van Kerckhoven in January. During the interview, Van Kerckhoven was asked to comment on a number of 5G cell towers recently installed near Wuhan, and a possible link to the then-localised coronavirus outbreak. “I have not done a fact check”, Van Kerckhoven warned, “But it may be a link with current events”.
The doctor’s two cents have ultimately proved very expensive for Europe. They kicked conspiracies into overdrive, turning a small group of crackpot theorists into an opaque cross-border threat that has gathered enough momentum to attract ever more fervent followers. Many of whom have proved willing to set 5G masts ablaze across Europe, including in France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. Anti-5G fanaticism is manifesting across the Atlantic as well, with a Canadian cell tower targeted late last month.
An increasingly popular idea is that the current health crisis has been deliberately manufactured by global elites, the likes of which include Bill Gates, George Soros, and the faceless “Big Pharma” threat, to roll-out mandatory vaccinations loaded with 5G-activated tracking chips.
The theory has apparently proved as believable as it is elaborate. Polling data from the UK, US, France, Austria and Germany shows that the “man-made coronavirus” theory is a popular explanation for the pandemic: more than 60% of respondents in the UK agree with the statement to some degree, while a fifth of respondents agreed there was a link between coronavirus and 5G.
The social media-conspiracy nexus
The backbone of the growing anti-5G movement has been bolstered by social media networks, particularly specialized Facebook groups and chat channels active in each country. But while each country has its own specialised network, there’s a trend towards greater international cooperation between the activists, exemplified by coordinated events like a recent anti-5G summit, a worldwide protest day on 6 June, and the sharing of agendas and news across international groups.
Far from being deterred or educated by social media firms and governments cracking down on fake news and other bogus information, however, the movement is increasingly relocating to chat platforms Telegram where they prosper without oversight. The platform has garnered notoriety in recent years as a haven for groups from the far-left and far-right, as well as terrorist organisations like ISIS.
Members of activist groups on social media have found themselves in thousands-strong communities of like-minded individuals, all promoting and sharing misinformation linking 5G to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In April, Facebook blocked two major anti-5G groups, with a collective membership of more than 60,000 people, for promoting violence and the destruction of 5G network infrastructure.
At the same time, notable differences between the countries exist in terms of active calls for violence. Incitement to criminal damage against 5G infrastructure is well-documented in the UK, but anger in Italy has steadily escalated over several months as well. The high level of activism in Italy is characterised by demands to attack mobile towers in combination with potentially highly potent petitions.
For instance, a bizarre petition directed at presidents Putin and Trump has gathered a lot of attention among Italian activists. Purportedly speaking for all of Italy, the petition cites the conspiratorial views of Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, a former Russian Military Intelligence Service, and calls in Russian and American forces to intervene militarily in Europe to stop the 5G roll-out.
Such fervent activity stands in marked contrast to Germany, where the anti-5G movement has been comparatively docile, at least for now. But considering that German Telegram groups have widely shared a video shot in Italy depicting the torching of a cell-phone tower, it’s plausible that the distrust may soon mutate into violent copy-cat action at a scale similar to that seen in other European countries.
Blind to the facts
It’s difficult to say how the threat will evolve over time. Yet a trend towards merging anti-5G fears with other issues, such as anti-globalization, anti-vax or radical environmentalism, can already be observed. The underlying premise is that modern life is a “corruption” of nature and a natural state of living, and the movement calls into question the advances of modern science in many fields – even though those who opposite these advances are the very same to benefit from them too. Perhaps the most poignant example is that of medicine.
The delivery of health services is traditionally constrained by geography and availability of healthcare workers, particularly in rural and low-income areas. The advent of remote monitoring systems and telehealth has helped overcome this hurdle somewhat – as seen the corona crisis – but remains limited by congestion and slow network speeds. With substantial connection power and substantial wireless speeds, 5G promises to break this bottleneck to unlock new innovations in the healthcare sector.
Indeed, the possibilities available to a 5G-enabled health sector are endless: large data files, such as medical imagery, could be transferred between facilities without lag; telemedicine services can expand to meet rising demand from rural areas; virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and spatial computing can be used to deliver less invasive treatments; and 5G-enabled “wearables” can monitor patients’ health in real-time.
Of course, none of this will be possible if the growing anti-5G movement seizes public policy discussions or succeeds in destroying 5G infrastructure. With the rate of new coronavirus cases worldwide barely slowing down, and China already experiencing a second wave, the anti-5G movement poses a health risk of potentially devastating proportions.