5G phone masts are being set alight in the UK, after online conspiracy theories have misleadingly linked the cell towers to the coronavirus pandemic. The BBC reports that at least three 5G towers were set alight within the last week, and police and fire services were called to extinguish the flames.
“I’m absolutely outraged and disgusted that people would be taking action against the infrastructure we need to tackle this emergency,” said Stephen Powis, the National Health Service (NHS) director, at a daily UK coronavirus briefing. Police have now launched investigations into how the 5G towers caught fire.
Rumors and conspiracy theories over a link between the roll out of 5G and the spread of coronavirus have been spread primarily through social media networks. A variety of groups exist on Facebook and Nextdoor, where thousands of members repeat false and misleading claims that 5G is supposedly harmful.
One theory claims that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan because the Chinese city had recently been rolling out 5G. It’s now supposedly spread to other cities that are also using 5G. These false conspiracy theories neglect to mention that a highly contagious virus would naturally spread more in densely populated cities with access to 5G, and that the coronavirus pandemic has hit counties like Iran and Japan where 5G isn’t in use yet.
There is no scientific evidence that links the coronavirus pandemic to 5G, nor any immediate negative health effects to 5G. Full Fact, an independent fact checking charity in the UK, has explored the claims after a British tabloid newspaper highlighted them recently. 5G uses a higher frequency of radio waves than 4G or 3G, but regulators in the UK have recorded 5G electromagnetic radiation levels well below international guidelines.
This is the consequence of those bonkers Facebook conspiracy theories about 5G. Key workers getting harassed on the street. pic.twitter.com/5z35r6sabp
— Charlie Haynes (@charliehtweets) April 2, 2020
This hasn’t stopped these wild conspiracy theories from spreading, though. Some people are even harassing workers laying fiber optic cables for 5G installations, claiming that when 5G is turned on it’s going to “kill everyone.”
Mobile networks are classified as critical national infrastructure in the UK, but one Facebook group was specifically set up to encourage people to burn 5G towers. Peter Clarke, a mobile networks infrastructure expert in the UK, reported the group to Facebook but the company initially failed to remove it. After an increase in attention, the group has since been removed, but many others are still available with false information and thousands of people encouraging others to burn 5G towers down.
UK regulator Ofcom also warned Uckfield FM, a community radio station, this week for featuring someone with “potentially harmful statements about the coronavirus.” A guest, identified as a “registered nurse,” appeared in a 20-minute segment in February, claiming that 5G is sucking the oxygen out of people’s lungs. The segment also spread the falsehood that 5G and coronavirus are linked. Clips of the radio show have been widely shared on Facebook ever since.
5G causes coronavirus because it’s sucking the oxygen out of your lungs, according to a video being spread on Facebook. I want to but the fact people believe this bullshit is genuinely scary pic.twitter.com/kY3g5MJtu9
— Tom Warren (@tomwarren) March 3, 2020
Like many conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns, Russia may well be at the heart of the 5G health scares. While a large number of Facebook groups have been fueling these theories recently, a New York Times report from last year warned that Russian disinformation campaigns were actively exploiting 5G health fears. RT America, a Russian government-funded TV network, aired a report more than a year ago in which an RT reporter claimed 5G “might kill you.”
These are the types of nonsensical warnings we’re now starting to see on Facebook, and they’re clearly convincing enough to lead some to damage vital national infrastructure. All of this is occurring just as the UK and many countries across the world are battling the coronavirus pandemic. While medical professionals are busy fighting a highly contagious virus, telecoms workers and social media networks are having to fight an equally destructive viral spread of stupidity online.
Update, April 4th 4:30PM ET: Added statement from the UK’s NHS director.