- A bizarre new conspiracy theory links new 5G technology, which will increase mobile connectivity speeds, with the coronavirus outbreak.
- Proponents of the theory have set phone masts on fire and harassed telecoms engineers laying fiber-optic cables in the UK.
- The baseless theory has been circulating on social media since at least January but appears to have picked up steam during the first week of April.
- The UK government and telecoms industry have been forced to confront the conspiracy theory.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A bizarre conspiracy linking 5G and coronavirus has taken hold in the UK and is being peddled by conspiracy theorists and celebrities on social media.
The theory runs roughly like this: the rollout of faster 5G internet is either causing or accelerating the spread of the coronavirus. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of the theory, and BI first heard a variant of the rumor in early March. As the pandemic continues, the conspiracy appears to have picked up steam.
The conspiracy theory and its various offshoots are baseless but have led to real-world harm, with well over 50 arson attacks on phone masts around the country.
Here’s everything we know about how the conspiracy theory began to circulate:
5G conspiracy theories have been around since at least 2019.
5G is the next generation of mobile broadband. It will offer faster speeds than 4G or 3G, and is currently being rolled out in different countries.
There have been conspiracy theorists about the supposed harm of 5G radio waves since the tech began gaining public attention. The basic idea is: 5G is more powerful than 4G or 3G, and is therefore dangerous to humans and animals.
There is no evidence that 5G — or any other kind of radio waves — are harmful to people.
Using your phone relies on radio waves, which are on the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum, and as such produce non-ionizing radiation. This means they do not damage the DNA in cell tissue, and don't cause cancer.
International radiation watchdog the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) set new guidelines for 5G frequency last month and confirmed that the frequencies at which 5G will be deployed will be safe.
"The guidelines have been developed after a thorough review of all relevant scientific literature, scientific workshops and an extensive public consultation process. They provide protection against all scientifically substantiated adverse health effects due to [electromagnetic field] exposure in the 100 kHz to 300 GHz range," ICNIRP chair Dr Eric van Rongen told the Guardian.
As the coronavirus spread, conspiracy theorists began to pin the blame on 5G.
As the coronavirus spread, the 5G conspiracy theory mutated to suggest that rollout of the tech had somehow exacerbated the pandemic.
Full Fact's first debunking of the theory hinged on a Facebook post which claimed Wuhan in China - where the coronavirus outbreak first began - is also where 5G began to roll out.
The post rested on the pre-existing conspiracy theory that 5G suppresses people's immune systems. It was posted to an anti-5G Facebook group, and was subsequently marked by Facebook as misinformation. According to Facebook, the post had just over 300 shares.
There is no evidence to suggest that Wuhan was the very first Chinese city to start building out 5G, but rather multiple reports found by Full Fact said it was among multiple cities selected to pilot the technology.
On March 13, Full Fact identified and debunked another more widely-shared Facebook post blamed billionaire Bill Gates.
According to Full Fact, this post claimed that coronavirus is a fiction invented to cover up the physical damage being done by 5G.
It also claimed that the coronavirus was invented by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates to control the world by creating a vaccine for it.
There is no coronavirus vaccine currently or a proven cure, but Gates has said he is funding vaccine candidates.
The post has now been removed from Facebook, but according to Full Fact, it was shared thousands of times.
The New York Times reported in April that conspiracy theories blaming Bill Gates for the pandemic were exploding online, and being picked up by some conservative pundits.
Coronavirus has spread rapidly in countries with no 5G.
As Full Fact points out in a more recent dismantling of the conspiracy theory, the coronavirus outbreak has had a profound impact on countries with no 5G coverage, such as Iran.
The theory had crystallized enough by March 26 that a British tabloid ran an article on it.
An article by the Daily Star was originally headlined "Coronavirus: Fears 5G wifi networks could be acting as 'accelerator' for disease," but was subsequently changed to "Coronavirus: Activists in bizarre claim 5G could be acting as 'accelerator' for disease."
Some celebrities began to amplify the theory.
Actor Woody Harrelson shared a chunk of text on Instagram which suggested 5G could be "exacerbating" the pandemic.
The text is an excerpt from an article by Martin Pall, a retired professor from Washington State University, who has also pushed a theory that Wi-Fi is harmful to human health.
"Alot of my friends have been talking about the negative effects of 5G," Harrelson wrote in the caption.
"Though I haven't fully vetted it I find it very interesting," he added.
The post had more than 25,000 likes at the time of writing.
A British TV presenter was investigated after appearing to link 5G and the coronavirus.
"This Morning" presenter Eamonn Holmes rebuked another journalist's dismissal of the conspiracy theory live on television.
"I totally agree with everything you are saying but what I don't accept is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don't know it's not true. No one should attack or damage or do anything like that, but it's very easy to say it is not true because it suits the state narrative. That's all I would say, as someone with an inquiring mind," Holmes said.
Subsequently UK media regulator Ofcom launched an investigation after receiving 419 complaints from viewers. Holmes said he does not believe in the conspiracy theory, and that his comments had been "misinterpreted."
In early April, arsonists upped their attacks on phone masts in the UK.
Phone masts in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Belfast were damaged in arson attacks in early April. Not all the masts were necessarily 5G towers.
While it's not yet absolutely certain what motivated these specific attacks, the mayor of Liverpool said he had received threats after condemning the 5G/coronavirus theory, and the Irish News reported that in footage of the mast being set on fire voices could be heard saying "f**k 5G."
Mobile telecoms expert Peter Clarke discovered a Facebook group - now deleted - urging people to burn 5G towers, and reported it.
Mobile Networks are classified as Critical National Infrastructure, especially in these times when the public need to communicate remotely. Yet people are setting the infrastructure on fire while Facebook moderators think groups with such mast arson competitions are fine. pic.twitter.com/wItsGEIOfP
— Peter Clarke (@PedroClarke1) April 3, 2020
A video circulated on Twitter showing a woman accosting engineers laying cables.
The video was taken by a woman who approaches two engineers laying fiber-optic 5G cables, falsely claiming that they are not key workers and that 5G "kills people." Telecoms engineers have been designated key workers by the UK government.
Britain's big telecoms companies released an open letter appealing to people not to damage the masts or abuse their engineers.
EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone released the statement together.
"Not only are these claims baseless, they are harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services," the companies wrote.
They said that in some cases abuse of engineers had hindered "essential network maintenance" from taking place.
We stand united to protect Britain's critical infrastructure alongside EE, Three and Vodafone.
We must put a stop on misinformation sharing and prevent vandalism to our networks, relied upon by the NHS, critical services, and you. pic.twitter.com/NPt73cI9M8
— O2 in the UK (@O2) April 5, 2020
Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery added in a LinkedIn post that both police and counter-terrorism authorities are investigating the attacks.
CEO of BT Philip Jansen wrote in an op-ed for The Mail on Sunday that 39 of the company's engineers have been verbally or physically assaulted, and some have even received death threats.
Jansen added during an interview on April 21 that one engineer had been hospitalised after being stabbed. He also said that some engineers had been driven at by people in their cars, swerving away at the last moment.
The UK government addressed the spread of the conspiracy theory on April 5.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove called the theory "dangerous nonsense," and the national medical director of NHS England Stephen Powis condemned it in even stronger terms.
"The 5G story is complete and utter rubbish, it's nonsense, it's the worst kind of fake news," said Powis.
"The reality is that the mobile phone networks are absolutely critical to all of us, particularly in a time when we are asking people to stay at home and not see relatives and friends. But in particular those are also the phone networks that are used by our emergency services and our health workers," he added.
"I'm absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency," said Powis.
UK lawmakers suggested the rumors could potentially be boosted by deliberate disinformation campaigns.
"We've called on the government to work with social media companies to stamp out deliberate attempts to spread fear about COVID-19 and it is right that they are being called to account for allowing disinformation on their platforms," said Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS parliamentary committee.
"We're also calling on Ofcom [the UK's media watchdog] to investigate whether international news organisations are using social media to disseminate state-backed disinformation on COVID-19 in order to get around UK broadcasting regulation," he added.
Some 50 masts have now been targeted by arson attacks despite appeals from the government and mobile companies.
A rash of attacks came during the UK's four-day Easter holiday from April 10 to 13, and industry group Mobile UK told Business Insider approximately 50 masts had been vandalized.
This included a mast that was providing coverage for an emergency coronavirus hospital in Birmingham.
Mobile UK said that the vast majority of the attacked sites were not in fact 5G masts.
Big tech is taking some action to crack down on the conspiracy theories.
The coronavirus/5G conspiracy theories have visibly spread online.
A Facebook spokesman told Business Insider: "We are taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading on our platforms and connect people to accurate information about Coronavirus.
"Under our existing policies against harmful misinformation, we are starting to remove false claims which link COVID-19 to 5G technology and could lead to physical harm."
Meanwhile YouTube said it will remove videos which link 5G and the coronavirus.
"We have clear policies that prohibit videos promoting medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment, and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us," a YouTube spokeswoman told Business Insider.
She added that "borderline" videos about 5G which don't mention coronavirus may be allowed to remain on the site.
In May YouTube removed the YouTube channel of conspiracy theorist David Icke for spreading the theory.
Facebook took down 2 anti-5G groups who were touting the theory.
The groups "Stop 5G Group" and "Destroy 5G Save Our Children," held 60,000 and 2,500 members respectively. Researchers at Hope Not Hate found post inciting the destruction of phone masts on both groups.
Business Insider had previously reported members on the "Stop 5G Group" were pushing hydroxychloroquine - the as-yet unproven drug touted by Donald Trump - as a coronavirus cure.