Here’s where those 5G and coronavirus conspiracy theories came from
In a now-viral video, a woman approaches two telecoms workers, asking them if they work for the NHS, and berating them when they say they don’t. Asking one of the men if he has children or parents, when she’s told he has his mum, she responds: “Well when they turn that switch on, bye-bye mama.”
The “switch” she’s talking about is 5G.
Suddenly, panic over 5G—the newest generation of mobile telecommunications infrastructure—and the notion that it’s the true cause of the coronavirus pandemic seems to be everywhere. In recent days there have been suspected arson attacks on mobile phone masts in Birmingham, Liverpool and Merseyside. Celebrities have pushed the idea that 5G is harmful and linked to Covid-19. The government has been forced to address the fears, with Michael Gove branding the theories “dangerous nonsense”.
To be clear, these theories are wrong. As you'll see from our fact checks linked throughout this article, there's no connection between 5G and coronavirus, and no evidence of any health risk from 5G. But it's not clear that simply dismissing them is the right approach. Given the upheaval the coronavirus pandemic has caused, people are understandably worried and looking for answers. And to give those answers well, we'll need to understand where these theories come from.
Because while the idea that 5G is harmful may seem to have exploded from nowhere during the coronavirus pandemic, in fact it has been steadily building online for years. And its origins can be traced back even further, to panics about earlier generations of mobile phone and wireless technology at the turn of the millennium.
If we want to understand the panic over 5G during a pandemic, we need to understand how we got here.
5G myths were rife before coronavirus
The supposed arson attacks on phone masts may be alarming, particularly at a time when the country is more reliant than ever on communications technology, but this is not the first time misinformation has led to vandalism. A man scaled a lamppost in Gateshead to remove what he thought was a “5G antenna” back in 2018. And phone mast vandalism in general goes back further than that.
At Full Fact, we’ve been researching and writing about 5G conspiracy theories for the past year. In May last year we wrote about an image of a man working on a mobile phone tower wearing protective gear—which almost certainly showed him cleaning it, not installing 5G in a hazmat suit.
Over the last year, posts claiming 5G is harmful tended to be based on the belief that the signals are more powerful than those that preceded it (4G and 3G), and that therefore (the posters believed) 5G must be dangerous to life. A common theme was 5G ‘towers’ causing the deaths of large groups of birds, mostly stemming from a case in The Hague, where almost 300 starlings were found dead in a park in October 2018. (There were no 5G tests in the city around that time.) When hundreds of starlings were found dead in a road in North Wales in December 2019, those vocal in the anti-5G community made the same accusations.
It wasn’t just birds. The claims that 5G was dangerous to human health was also backed up by supposed examples of harm to trees. This led to a new theory: that authorities were therefore cutting down trees to hide the fact that 5G would kill them. We also saw the spread of official-looking signs being attached to infrastructure, and overlapping concern with smart street lights, baby monitors, microwaves and smart meters.
Former TV presenter turned conspiracy theorist David Icke was an early celebrity proponent of 5G conspiracy theories, first mentioning the technology to his hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers in mid-2018. But one of the key successes of the 5G rumours was how it has managed to infiltrate so many online communities.
Anti-vaccination communities were often open to the idea of 5G being harmful. These groups, often operating through a series of connected accounts on Instagram, themselves overlap with alternative health and nutrition accounts that advocate for things like the alkaline diet. They tend to be sceptical of much modern medicine and what they see as overmedication, and some of their output overlaps with mainstream wellness content, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop.
But we’ve also seen traditionally opposing groups adopting similar anti-5G rhetoric. In 2019, EE announced it would be trialing 5G at that year’s Glastonbury. Before the festival began, the Green-party majority council in the town of Glastonbury voted to oppose 5G roll-out within the town, as have some other town councils. At the other end of the spectrum, climate change sceptics were telling festival-goers they had paid to be human guinea pigs.
Flowing through these claims seems to be a genuine concern that we’ve been lied to before on issues of public health. Some cite thalidomide and asbestos as why we shouldn’t trust government guidance on public health issues. Others seem to believe that because 5G hasn’t been explicitly “tested” on humans, that it shouldn’t be used. Mainstream publishers in the UK were also guilty of covering these conspiracy theories uncritically, long before the pandemic.
We’ve seen claims that say there are ‘waves in 5G’ that alter and boil water, cause cancer and mental health problems, ultimately fueled by a belief that there’s no safe limit of any radiation. And this is a belief that stretches back a long way, to a time when 5G wasn’t even a twinkle in the telecoms industry’s eye.
These fears have a long history
All these claims may sound familiar to anyone who watched protests against the roll-out of 3G—then described as “broadband for your mobile”—back in the early and mid-noughties. Protests around 3G base stations were a semi-regular occurrence in the UK, usually when the masts were near schools or in residential areas. As we’ve noted already, this sometimes extended to acts of vandalism against the masts. Their reasoning, despite government advice and evidence at the time, was primarily around cancer risk, and what they saw as a lack of testing. It was linked to similar and overlapping fears about the spread of wifi around the same time.
Some suspected engineers of “[changing] over the boxes on existing masts to 3G without telling anyone, while pretending to carry out maintenance.” We see similar claims made about 5G installation during lockdown today.
And before people worried about the internet on phones, they worried about the mobile phones themselves. As with 5G, those concerned focussed on the harm of radiation. Mobile phones, then and now, transmit radio waves which are on the non-ionizing end of the electromagnetic spectrum, meaning it can’t damage our DNA in the way that X-rays and gamma rays can.
How 5G met coronavirus
While the conspiracy theories about 5G and the coronavirus pandemic burst into public awareness at the start of April, they have been building online for months. We started seeing the link between 5G and coronavirus claims in the second half of January, shortly after the virus started getting significant UK media coverage, but before the outbreak had been declared a pandemic.
But one thing that it’s important to realise is that there isn’t one single “5G conspiracy theory”. Instead, there are multiple theories, which sometimes overlap, but can also contradict each other. Look at some of the larger anti-5G groups on Facebook, and you can find these claims sitting alongside each other: that the virus is the real cause of the disease, but 5G is making it worse, that the virus is not the cause of the disease and all the symptoms are actually caused by 5G, and that there is no disease at all, and the outbreak is a gigantic hoax to enable the government to install 5G under the cover of lockdown.
Those early posts in January largely fell into the first camp: claiming that 5G compromised human health and weakened immune systems, but added claims that the new virus was just a more virulent version of the common cold.
From what we’ve seen, as the pandemic accelerated, and measures limiting public freedoms in the UK became more extreme, so did the claims.
When lockdown measures were introduced in the UK, telecoms engineers, as key workers, kept working. Some were filmed doing this work and new infrastructure was used as evidence that the government was hiding something. For this faction, 5G wasn’t causing Covid-19 symptoms, it was now being used by the government as a distraction, so 5G could be installed across the country without delay. Some claim the virus was made in a laboratory, or that it was a completely different disease, or that there was in fact no outbreak at all. Other posts made outlandish claims about a not yet invented vaccine. One of the most common claims we saw was one about secret messages about 5G and coronavirus in the design of the new £20 note.
The other main theory is that Covid-19 symptoms were actually “mass injury” from 5G. Some pushing this theory also deny basic medical facts, in claiming that you can’t “catch a virus”. There are, of course, multiple respiratory illnesses spread by coughs and sneezes, that are caused by viruses.
One of the first 5G and coronavirus claims we checked, that the disease had broken out in Wuhan because of 5G there, re-emerged with claims that Covid-19 hotspots were also covered by 5G, and that cases on cruise ships could be explained by the radiation emitting technology used on them. (It’s worth noting that Iran, which experienced one of the earliest severe Covid-19 outbreaks, does not have 5G.) A video from last year’s protests in Hong Kong of protesters pulling down a smart street light was used by some as a symbol of people in China “destroying the 5G poles as they are aware that it is the thing triggering the Corona syndrome.”
Claims about 5G made up a relatively small amount of our work before the pandemic, but now contributes to a significant number of both the fact check requests we receive from our readers, and what we see on social media. In a few weeks, we saw 5G posts go from a niche corner of the internet, to several fully fledged conspiracy theories fleshed out around the world’s biggest news story, being endorsed by celebrities.
The government’s official response to questions around 5G was based on Public Health England’s advice, mainly that the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection guidelines were being adopted and that there wasn’t evidence that exposure above these guidelines was harmful.
In our report last year about Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-checking programme, we warned that there was a distinct lack of official guidance properly addressing public concerns about 5G introduction in the UK. The government have acknowledged that 5G misinformation is a problem, but improved public health information about the safety of 5G would have been welcome before the crisis.
Businesses need to learn lessons from this too. Companies that introduce changes that cause concern need to effectively reassure people. This would have been much easier when the concern was much less widespread, and the costs to the telecoms industry of doing that effectively would have been much less than the costs they now face because they did not manage to make that case.
Simply asking internet companies to delete this content is not an adequate response in a free society, is unlikely to work, and could even make things worse.
In the middle of a public health crisis, when the normal operation of society has been turned on its head, it’s hardly surprising that people’s instincts around what is real and what is fake may become skewed. People are understandably scared, stressed and confused, and we need to take that into account in any response. Not everybody will be convinced: some people just like conspiracy theories, and they may not be persuaded by the facts. But as the fears around 5G have entered the mainstream, it’s on all of us to counter these arguments head on with clear, high-quality information to convince those who have questions and concerns, rather than simply dismiss them as foolish.