Concerns regarding 5G cellular network technology have been circulated for well over a decade, ranging from radiation exposure, all the way to wacky mind control conspiracy theories. While the health concerns have been repeatedly and comprehensively dispelled by medical professionals, and the conspiracy theories have been largely laughed off, 5G misinformation has not only continued, it has been turbo-charged by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
What’s out there?
Before COVID-19, a common conspiracy theory regarding 5G was that the level of electromagnetic energy (EME) required to operate a 5G network would be harmful to humans. ‘Radiophobia’ like this has been witnessed as far back as the turn of the 20th century, and tends to surface with each significant advancement in radio and wireless technology.
As early as March 2020, theories linking 5G technology and COVID-19 were spreading in online communities with the hashtag #5Gcoronavirus. These conspiracy theories range from 5G networks being able to spread COVID-19 through the air, mass lockdowns being used as a distraction to allow 5G cell towers to be erected, or that 5G weakens human immune systems and increases vulnerability to COVID-19.
Like other conspiracy theories, #5Gcoronavirus theories have originated from disparate sources with varying objectives. There are of course those conspiracy theory devotees whose approach to this new theory reflects a wider tendency to believe that clandestine plots against the many by a powerful few are prolific (think illuminati, chemtrails, etc).
Other proponents of the theory are more politically motivated, using #5Gcoronavirus as a means of sowing community discord, mistrust of incumbent administrations or fear of technological change. Finally, #5Gcoronavirus content makes for excellent “fake news” fodder. Fake news as an industry enjoys a 2-sided market whereby news is provided free of charge to readers, but revenue is generated via advertising. Using similar content monetisation strategies as bona fide operators, opportunistic adtech and content players online use fake news to produce very real financial gains.
No laughing matter
While each 5G conspiracy theory is as baseless as the next, they are having serious impacts on public sentiment toward the technology, as well as the public health response to COVID-19.
By May, #5Gcoronavirus fundamentalists had damaged almost 80 cell towers and harassed maintenance workers in the UK, with copycat attacks surfacing around the world. Demonstrations in Australia and abroad have also shown how unjustified fears surrounding 5G have been rolled together and corelated with anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and anti-government rhetoric.
As #5Gcoronavirus fears have moved from niche chatrooms to the relative mainstream, government regulators have had to intervene to dispel misinformation. In June, the ACMA released consumer guidance explaining how EME levels in 5G networks are well under applicable limits and of no health concern, consistent with the opinion of the Australia’s Chief Medical Officer. The ACMA monitors telco compliance with the various EME and power limits set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). The ACMA recently released a report of its findings that public EME exposure levels at 59 small cell sites across Australia were less than 1% of the Australian Standard exposure limit for the general public. The ACMA guidance also plainly rejected the link between 5G and COVID-19, providing further resources to counter misinformation.
We can expect to see more of this messaging too. In December 2019, the Australian Government announced a $9 million AUD campaign to build public confidence in 5G and address “concern in some parts of the community”. A further Parliamentary Inquiry report from March 2020 also noted a “high-level misinformation campaign that has been quite fearful in its presentation – particularly on social media” when it comes to 5G. Given the pivotal role 5G is to play in Australia’s connected future and critical infrastructure, the investment in public trust and education is a sound one.
Industry players, such as telcos and the big social media platforms, are also working to counter 5G misinformation. In the UK, Twitter users engaging with 5G conspiracy content are now prompted to visit government websites that debunk the theories, and tweets inciting property damage and public panic will be removed. Similar steps have been taken by YouTube and Facebook. Even though interference with telecommunications facilities is a criminal offence, which is punishable by imprisonment under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, major Telcos around the world have also had to, as one report phrased it, “politely ask people to stop burning 5G towers”.
Authors: Michael Caplan, Luke Standen and Bryce Craig