International Policy Digest

Tech /02 Jul 2020
07.02.20

Of Fear and Anger: How 5G Conspiracy Theories are Entering the Mainstream

As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world in early spring, the conspiracy theory that it was connected to the rollout of 5G mobile technology spread just as virulently. In that febrile atmosphere of uncertainty, conspiratorially minded people made the leap of logic connecting the new virus with the new technology, leading the most radical elements of the movement to physically attacking 5G installations across the EU.

A common theme of these conspiracies is distrust towards the state, a factor that is crucial in pushing believers into committing violent acts to stop the 5G rollout. In a recently published paper examining the link between violence, 5G, and COVID-19, researchers found that “belief in 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theories was positively correlated with state anger” – a temporary outburst of rage against the state, based on the conviction that the government is intent on causing personal harm. This correlated with an increased likelihood of carrying out attacks on 5G installations.

A reservoir of anger

The paper sheds light on the massive potential for violence that lurks within certain segments of Europe’s population at a time when feelings of insecurity and frustration with the way the EU and its member governments have handled the pandemic is mounting alarmingly. Perhaps it’s telling that anti-5G sentiment is especially high in Italy, where 63% agreed the EU had failed to fulfill its duties during the crisis.

While fear of 5G predates the coronavirus, the pandemic has been a catalyst turning the conspiracy theory from a fringe belief into a mass phenomenon. The spark that lit the fuse came in the form of a French blog post published in January titled “5G-enocide: First correlation identified between 5G and a Viral or Bacterial Mutation?” This was followed by an article in a Belgian newspaper – later withdrawn – and a widely shared YouTube video.

Despite the best efforts of scientists and health authorities to counter the spread of such misinformation, the conspiracy theory quickly developed an immunity to reason and evidence. What can now be referred to as an EU-wide and loosely connected movement is greatly aided by social media, where misinformation and hysteria is spreading almost unabatedly.

Social media’s magnification effect

The movement has spawned hundreds of anti-5G Facebook groups across the EU. On the online messaging board 4Chan, the theory mutated to include misinformation on how COVID-19 could be prevented. According to the uncredited post, Vitamin C was all that was needed to stave off the infection. From 4Chan it spread to Twitter where it was picked up by “conservative populists” and anti-vaccination groups, according to online monitoring group Yonder.

The populist aspect is an important one. In Italy, where opposition against 5G is one of Europe’s fiercest, members of anti-5G Facebook groups regularly call for the burning of antennas. This incitement for violence is at least partially underwritten by foreign state intervention, since pertinent footage from Russia Today (RT) is frequently shared, while a large petition calling for a violent change of government using the help of Russia and the United States is an extreme manifestation of the threat.

Recent developments in Spain and Germany further demonstrate just how widely acceptable anti-5G misinformation has become. Twitter comments made by Miguel Bosé, a popular Spanish musician and actor, about the supposed dangers of 5G technology for humanity, has greatly increased the visibility of anti-5G sentiments in Spain as well as the Spanish-speaking world at large. German opposition groups, meanwhile, have somewhat drifted away from the singular issue of 5G, which now forms part of a more holistic conspiracy involving the “New World Order.” Although still minor, a sub-group of believers has begun to call for the violent overthrow of the government, where 5G is seen as but one manifestation of Berlin’s attempt to gain total control over the population.

Fear vs Progress

All of these developments are state anger in pure form, which has forced social media networks to crack down on false or violence-inciting information. In early June, Twitter announced that while it wouldn’t remove posts containing misinformation about 5G and the coronavirus, it would add clarifications to them. Facebook, which was forced to act as early as April, removed the “Stop 5G Group” and “Destroy 5G Save Our Children” group – together counting 62,000 members – after posts called for 5G installations to be attacked.

While it’s easy to paint the anti-5G movement as the preserve of lunatics, it’s in fact merely a more extreme undercurrent of idiosyncratic European techno-scepticism. Take the prevalent suspicions about artificial intelligence, robotics, and cloud data storage, all of which are primed to truly take off on the back of 5G networks. Fears of killer robots and super-smart AI being used to control human lives arguably command more media attention than stories about the advances to human welfare they are designed to deliver.

Ironically, it’s precisely in the area of healthcare that humanity stands to benefit most from the technology. Augmented reality and spatial computing, all due to be vastly improved thanks to 5G’s broader bandwidth, will revolutionise doctors’ abilities to diagnose and treat patients. Wearable devices that monitor a user’s vital signs will be able to alert them and their doctor to possible abnormalities, allowing for a preventative healthcare approach that will reduce hospital visits and public health costs.

High-resolution PET scans that used to take hours to download will be available almost instantly thanks to 5G’s higher bandwidths, providing for faster and more efficient healthcare outcomes. Some of the biggest benefits of this Fourth Industrial Revolution likely haven’t even been envisaged yet – much like nobody predicted that video streaming and social media would take off under 4G.

Coronavirus will eventually pass and so too will the conspiracy theories connecting it to 5G. But unless more oxygen is given to the benefits of new technologies to reduce the potency of popular state anger, outlandish new theories will always arise that threaten to put the brakes on progress.