Over the past few weeks there has been an alarming uptick in social media posts linking coronavirus to the 5G rollout. Some draw comparisons between the new mobile network and the spread of the virus itself. Others claim the virus is a manufactured ruse to force people inside while the government fast tracks the construction of more 5G towers.
Unlike other 5G theories, these posts aren’t merely relegated to the bowels of Reddit and fringe Facebook groups. They’re gaining mainstream traction and enjoying pronounced plausibility thanks to celebrity endorsements. They have now gained enough traction to manifest real world violence.
This post was originally published on April 9.
What is the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory?
Much like other 5G conspiracy theories, there isn’t just one.
In regards to health, two ideas seem to be prevalent. The first is that COVID-19 was caused by 5G itself and use Wuhan getting 5G connectivity around the same time as the initial outbreak of the virus as ‘evidence’.
The other theory suggests that radiation from 5G weakens the immune system of humans, thus making them more susceptible to the virus. Again, timing is brought into this as 5G networks are currently being rolled out in countries around the world, which also happens to be in the middle of a pandemic.
Actor Woody Harrelson is one high profile person who has been helping spread this on Instagram. In one post he shared a paper titled ‘Role of 5G in the Coronavirus Epidemic in Wuhan China’ which suggests that 5G ‘radiation “may be exacerbating the viral replication or the spread or the lethality of the disease.”
In caption of the now-deleted post, Harrelson stated that the writing was shared with him by a friend and that “I haven’t fully vetted it.”
Harrelson also shared a video with the caption “meanwhile the Chinese are bringing 5G antennas” down. This video was actually from August 2019 and depicted Hong Kong protesters taking down a smart lamp post that contained cameras and sensors in an act against surveillance.
Other celebrities have also been pushing an anti-5G narrative, such as rapper M.I.A and as of this week, John Cusack. Both have large follower counts.
Cusack’s tweets have since been deleted and didn’t adhere to any particular theory. However, the actor stated that “5 ” G wil [sic] be proven to be very very bad for people’s health.”
“I got sources in scientific community ” and medical.”
He went on to call critics “f-ing Sheep” and “just DUMB” as well as block one reporter for referring to his views as a conspiracy theory.
The Hollywood actor John Cusack just blocked me for calling him a 5G conspiracy theorist.
Had he not blocked me I would have replied that he shouldn't put a space before a question mark and he can't write '5G' properly. pic.twitter.com/XjdFFXROpA
— Tim Johns (@timoncheese) April 7, 2020
Another conspiracy theory cited on forums and Facebook groups is that coronavirus is fake and being used as an excuse by governments, including Australia’s, to keep people indoors so more 5G towers can be rolled out. Or, in the very least, it’s being used as an excuse to get more towers up.
Facebook pages such as Stop5G Australia have many posts similar to the above. And while the admins have implored people not to encourage violence, such and the vandalism of 5G towers in the UK, and unfounded 5G and coronavirus posts, they remain live.
Misinformation around 5G and the spread of COVID-19 has become so prevalent that the World Health Organization (WHO) has even addressed it on its Myth Busters page:
How did the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory start?
While 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories are gaining traction now, it seems to have started back in late January, when much of the world hadn’t really heard of COVID-19 yet. Or in the very least, we didn’t think what a profound impact it would have on the world. At the time there had reportedly only been 440 confirmed cases across the world and the vast majority were in Wuhan.
At the time of writing the number of confirmed cases globally is sitting at 1,485,981 and 88,567 people have died.
While there may have already been whispers, the first publication that linked coronavirus with 5G seems to have come from a Belgian newspaper on January 22.
According to Wired, the article titled translates to ‘5G is life-threatening, and no one knows it’. The piece itself contained an interview with a Dr Kris Van Kerckhoven.
Under a sub-heading titled ‘Link Met Coronavirus’ the journalist reportedly claimed that since 2019 5G towers had gone up around Wuhan. They then asked the doctor if this could be related to COVID-19.
“I have not done a fact check … but it may be a link with current events,” said Van Kerckhoven.
From there, the comments from the article are reported to have been widely spread from Dutch to English-speaking Facebook pages.
In the months since there has been an significant number of 5G and coronavirus related conspiracy theory videos appearing on platforms such as YouTube, and a rise in searches worldwide for 5G coronavirus conspiracies.
It became so rampant that YouTube has started deleting videos linking 5G to coronavirus, rather than just deprioritising them in search and recommendation results.
This decision came in the same week that The Guardian reported that at least 20 5G masts have been burned or vandalised in the United Kingdom.
YouTube has tightened its restrictions on videos that claim that 5G is linked to the outbreak and spread of COVID-19.Read more
“We have experienced cases of vandals setting fire to mobile masts, disrupting critical infrastructure and spreading false information suggesting a connection between 5G and the Covid-19 pandemic,” an open letter from the MobileUK industry group to customers reportedly said.
“Please help us to make this stop.”
Why 5G conspiracy theories are so popular
5G conspiracies are nothing new. Ever since the new mobile technology was announced, conspiracy theorists linked it to the likes of cancer-causing radiation because of 5G’s higher higher radio frequencies than its predecessor mobile networks.
But those theories didn’t gain anywhere near as much traction as the alleged link between 5G and COVID-19, according to University of Sydney Associate Professor and Head of Discipline for Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health Adam Dunn.
“I have never seen any other crisis or event dominate our collective attention so quickly or so completely,” Professor Dunn said.
“We have been monitoring Twitter for public health issues for more than six years and with COVID-19 the tweet volumes are orders of magnitude larger than anything else, and it is the first time we have been unable to capture everything.”
It may all come back to simple fear. Blaming something physical is mentally and emotionally far easier to deal with than the pervasive uncertainty enveloping the world. COVID-19 is an invisible enemy with no cure, with no answers when a cure will arrive, when the lockdown will end or when life will, if ever, return to normal.
A physical tower, on the other hand, can be seen and removed. It’s the perfect scapegoat.
Professor Dunn says that conspiracy belief is generally characterised by powerlessness and a loss of control.
“COVID-19 is not only a physical threat, but an unusual mental threat because of the way it can spread invisibly from person to person, which has led to this bizarre situation where panic and fear have turned usually anti-authoritarian Australia into the land of the Karens,” the professor said in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
Professor Dunn also attributes part of the rise of conspiracy theories to a sense of belonging and community – something that many people are now lacking due to social distancing legislation that is now in effect across Australia.
“When we looked at Reddit users who post in online conspiracy theory forums we found that they were a lot like everyone else,” said Professor Dunn.
“What struck me was the sense of belonging these users appeared to find in these communities that made them gravitate to and become embedded in those forums. Some people engaged in these communities in performative ways – but the communities grew, the language evolved, people would feel a sense of belonging. Otherwise well educated people with broad interests would start to engage with the most implausible ideas.”
Professor Dunn also points to poor communication from the government over the past few weeks as another potential reason for people finding it difficult to know what to believe.
“Mixed messages and a complete lack of guidance on what conditions need to be met to be able to reopen schools, business, and borders have created an environment of uncertainty. This inconsistency must make it difficult for people to critically evaluate all the other information they are exposed to, making them more susceptible to accepting and passing along misinformation.”
While it may be easy to mock those who believe the COVID-19/5G conspiracy, it’s worth considering what pushed believers to this point. We’re living through a historic event unlike anything the world has seen before. We not only face the possibility of physical death, but the death of life as we know it. This will perhaps sound reductive, but that’s scary.
“In an environment of uncertainty and fear, and where our social cohesion is being stripped away by policy, is it really surprising that people would find a sense of belonging among a community of people who share their uncertainty and fear? The idea that 5G is somehow linked to COVID-19 is clearly wrong but we seem to be sitting in the perfect environment for all kinds of conspiracy beliefs to pop up like mushrooms,” said Professor Dunn.
But while we can and should be empathetic to those frightened of the unknown, it’s important to acknowledge the real harm stemming from the spread of misinformation.
Along with the 5G towers that were attacked in the UK, human lives have been threatened by other COVID-19 related misinformation. Several weeks ago a man died and his wife was left in a critical condition after U.S. President Donald Trump promoted the anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. The couple ingested a substance designed for parasite infestations in aquariums as it listed ‘chloroquine phosphate’ as an ingredient.
An Arizona man has died and his wife is in critical condition after listening to Donald Trump promote anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a treatment for the novel coronavirus and deciding to take some themselves, CNN reported on Monday evening.Read more
Dunn also points to pre-printed manuscript that drew comparisons between the novel coronavirus and HIVm suggesting it was engineered.
“The speed at which research is being communicated into the public domain is new,” said Dunn. “Open science and the ability for researchers to reach a mainstream audience without the usual peer review has been a double-edged sword.”
“It has been overwhelmingly positive and led to rapid development of vaccines but it has also led to real harms … within weeks an Uber driver in Sydney was trying to convince me that the virus was made in a lab in Wuhan and engineered specifically to kill off elderly people in China.”
What to say when someone touts a 5G coronavirus theory
If a friend, family member or someone online starts spouting one of the many 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories to you, it’s best to stay calm, kind and understanding.
“Seek more information to understand their concerns,” Professor Dunn said. “Respond with empathy. Repeat the facts. Give plausible alternative explanations. Avoid arguments that conflict with their political or ideological worldview. Repeat the facts.”