A Fifth-Generation Conspiracy: Social Media Turned 5G Into an Invisible Threat

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Image: Penu Kiratzov

By Peter Georgiev

In mid-May, a video with a provocative message caused yet another whirlwind on social media. This one-minute recording showed a man in protective gear standing next to a telecommunications tower. The man introduced himself as an engineer, adding that in recent weeks, he had been installing 5G equipment around the UK.

Then the author of the video makes a seemingly sensational revelation. The man turns the camera to his hand while holding a circuit board with an engraving in the upper corner.

“Look, it’s a piece of [expletive] 5G kit,” he says. “And it says COV-19 on it.”

The clip instantly attracted the attention of users not only in Britain, but around Europe. Days after its publication, it had generated tens of thousands of views on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. Some took the video as indisputable proof of the link between 5G technology and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But proponents of this theory were disappointed once again. The board in the man’s hands is not part of a 5G installation kit. According to Reuters, it was taken from an old TV box. The engraved inscription isn’t authentic either, the agency reports. Still, the debunking of another sensational false story could not put an end to one of the most popular conspiracies of the global health crisis.

Rumours have been circulated online for months now that the phased construction of 5G networks in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the United States has contributed to the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has now affected more than 10 million people and killed more than 500,000 people. (data as of Monday, June 29). Opponents of this technology believe not only that it has worsened the pandemic by compromising people’s immune systems, but also that 5G actually allows the coronavirus to drift through the air.

Despite the efforts of governments, health experts, and the media to quell such myths, public distrust of 5G networks continues to grow, and unfounded claims regarding their alleged fatal side effects have sparked protests, scandals, and acts of vandalism to cell towers.

What is 5G and does it endanger our health?

The fifth-generation wireless technology, also known as 5G, promises to accelerate the digital revolution and the introduction of various smart devices in everyday life. 

Compared to 4G, its successor offers significantly faster data exchange. In the long run, high speeds are likely to have an impact on the development of innovations such as autonomous cars, as well as the modernization of the urban environment, healthcare, and other key sectors. These are some of the main arguments in favour of 5G from the perspective of many businesses and the end users who would soon be able to download a feature film or an entire season of their favourite series in less than a minute.

The construction of 5G infrastructure in various cities around the world has been going on for several years. Leading mobile operators and phone manufacturers started offering the service in 2019. But the network infrastructure is far from complete. At this stage, 5G continues to be a luxury instead of a widely accessible innovation. Meanwhile, discussions of this technology in the media space often leave the audience with more questions than answers. Long before the arrival of the new coronavirus, this confusion escalated into concerns that 5G poses life-threatening risks.

One of the first myths about the harm of 5G dates back to November 2018, when the creator of the Health Nut News blog, Erin Elizabeth, blamed the technology for the mysterious death of 300 birds in The Hague, the Netherlands. Elizabeth speculated that the birds had died because of 5G tests in the same region, though they were never actually conducted during the period of this incident. The author referred to a series of publications by the Dutch “UFO researcher” John Kuhles, an important figure in the international movement against 5G.

Kuhles’ conspiracy theories, including this one, have been exposed by fact-checking sites such as Snopes. Rumours regarding the deadly effect of wireless technology are by no means a new phenomenon — they have accompanied the upgrade of every previous generation of mobile networks since 2G. 

5G makes a leap forward in terms of the frequencies it uses, from 3.5 GHz to 26 GHz and up. The higher the frequency of the wave, the shorter its wavelength is. And the shorter the wavelength, the more its energy is absorbed in its path. This means it subsides over shorter distances. Therefore, providing quality, reliable 5G coverage requires the installation of significantly more antennas than previous generations.

These features of 5G technology have fuelled the fears of its critics. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that many studies have not found any negative effects of wireless technology on human health. It is true that very few experiments have been conducted on 5G, but scientists have no reason to expect a different result. WHO’s position was also reinforced by the International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICPD), which recently updated its recommended limits in line with 5G.

However, false stories continue to circulate online, claiming that the technology can cause several serious diseases, including cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s, and sterility. At the beginning of the year, the coronavirus was added to this list.

Rumours during a pandemic

In January, a month before the first COVID-19 cases were registered in Western countries, the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws published an interview with physician Kris van Kerckhoven. In the article, titled “5G is life-threatening, and no one knows it”, Van Kerckhoven is quoted as suggesting not only that the technology is dangerous, but that it is linked to the new virus. According to the British Guardian, this is the first official case of speculation that 5G could worsen the pandemic. The newspaper took down the piece, but the rumor quickly spread, stirring up a perfect storm of disinformation.

Even prior to the Van Kerckhoven interview, there were occasional claims circulating on the Internet that 5G had something to do with the infection. The main reason for this is that both the coronavirus and the technology can be traced back to China. The American online content analysis company Zignal Labs found a Twitter post from January 19, three days before the Belgian doctor’s statement, which linked COVID-19 with the gradual construction of a 5G network in Wuhan.

Wuhan is allegedly the first source of the infection. This coincidence was immediately used by opponents of 5G to spread panic. But Wuhan is by no means the only Chinese city with 5G coverage. As early as Fall 2019, Reuters reported that Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou are also part of the network and that the equipment was expected to be installed in another 50 cities by the end of the year. But the (disinformation) genie was out of the bottle.

Theories about a “specific” link between the pandemic and 5G are abundant. According to one of the most popular rumours, 5G helps the coronavirus enter the body by raising one’s temperature and weakening their immune system. Other members of the anti-5G movement say that radiation exposure causes dry cough, fatigue, muscle aches, loss of sense of smell, and other symptoms of COVID-19. Neither of these statements is true. Contact with wireless technology could warm the skin under certain conditions, but not under normal use. And claims of a catastrophic effect on consumer health are outright false.

Some sceptics go even further in their assumptions. According to them, the coronavirus hijacks the 5G signal and uses it to spread around the world. There is absolutely zero logic in this conspiracy, given that such an interaction between a biological agent and radio waves is practically impossible. As Tom Warren of the Verge puts it, there is only one type of virus that is transmitted in this way — computer viruses. Mobile devices can indeed carry COVID-19 if they are not disinfected and the user brings them close to their face. However, in that, they do not differ from any other physical surface.

Within a few weeks, the myths linking the coronavirus and 5G have multiplied exponentially, almost as quickly as the virus itself has been spreading. According to a study by Zignal Labs, cited by Vox, in mid-April this was the second most popular conspiracy theory about COVID-19 on social media, preceded only by rumours that Bill Gates created the virus himself.

It was these platforms that were the main conduit of misinformation, according to a new study of Twitter posts covering a week-long period from late March to early April. “The origin of this theory demonstrates the transnational dimension to the new media landscape and the way that fake news and conspiracy theories travel,” the study authors wrote in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Meanwhile, in Bulgaria 

Unsurprisingly, Bulgaria was also affected by the panic around the global transition to 5G although the construction of such a network in this country is still at a nascent stage. In April, Bulgarian National Television, BNT, launched a show called “Ask BNT”. With its new project, the public broadcaster promised viewers an active role in discussions of current affairs. The audience was invited to send questions for experts to answer in the studio. In the second episode of the show, the main topic was whether 5G endangers consumers’ health. On Facebook, some users expressed concerns that radiofrequency radiation kills birds. Others criticized the hasty introduction of the technology and asked who needs 5G at all if it carried so many risks? The guests in the studio, the journalist Asen Grigorov and the radiologist Dr Marin Petkov, tried to defuse tensions, emphasizing that non-ionizing radiation doesn’t pose a threat to people and the environment. However, their expertise proved insufficient to change the minds of most sceptics among the viewers.

A month later, the debate about the fifth-generation mobile network remains one of the hottest in the short history of “Ask BNT”. The strong interest in this issue and its appearance on national television demonstrate the impact of the international movement against 5G on a significant part of Bulgarian society. Speculations about the negative effects from the technology are intensifying, although we do not even have a working 5G network, Radio Free Europe reported.

A key figure in the Bulgarian protest against the innovation is the Facebook group Stop5G Bulgaria. Established in April 2019, this group is part of a whole chain of communities in different countries, united around the idea to protest against 5G, as the name suggests. The Bulgarian branch has over 78,000 members. The group’s administrators refer users to a petition calling for “an immediate halt to the 5G network and a formal study by independent experts looking into the negative effects of 5G radio waves”. The text accompanying the petition is riddled with unsubstantiated suggestions that radiofrequency radiation can have a fatal impact on human and animal health. The petition has already collected around 30,000 signatures.

The arguments of the resistance against 5G in Bulgaria do not mention the alleged connection between the technology and the coronavirus. In Bulgaria, comments in support of this conspiracy theory are still relatively rare. The primary concern of consumers seems to be that radiation exposure weakens the immune system and can cause cancer. Still, the movement is using the pandemic to draw attention to its cause.

With its actions, Stop5G Bulgaria attracted the attention of the Ombudsman Diana Kovacheva and Pencho Milkov, Mayor of Ruse, a city on the Danube river. Both said they supported public discussion of the implications of the introduction of 5G. Milkov even announced that he had sent an inquiry to the managements of the three mobile telecommunication providers — Vivacom, A1, and Telenor — asking whether such a network is being built in the region. Some saw his move as an act in the public interest. Others criticized Milkov for taking advantage of the unfounded concerns of Ruse’s residents for political gain. Meanwhile, the transport ministry issued a statement, assuring Bulgarian that the country applies some of the highest standards in Europe regarding protection from potentially harmful electromagnetic waves.

So far, the dissatisfaction with 5G in Bulgaria has been expressed mainly online without prompting acts of vandalism such as those seen in the UK, the Netherlands, Ireland, Cyprus, and several other European countries. As we get closer to completing the transition to 5G, however, similar incidents here cannot be ruled out if the misinformation continues to spread.

In early June, citizens in Sofia and Ruse protested against the hasty introduction of the new technology. In contrast to their complaints on Facebook, however, the number of participants in these demonstrations was negligible.

Telecommunication operators say the country won’t be getting a fifth-generation mobile network anytime soon. However, this has not stopped some Bulgarians from believing that the “threat” is imminent. To counter it, the anti-5G movement is acting both online and offline. This unfounded panic not only diverts civic energy and public debate beyond the realm of the rational but paves the way for it to become another topic for political use by serving as an efficient fear-mongering tool.