Conspiracy theorists have already demonstrated their eagerness to parlay the novel coronavirus pandemic into various kinds of moneymaking scams. And as is always the case, the unhinged behavior they inspire is now posing a threat to public safety, and not merely because it may help spread COVID-19.
The main wellspring of the dangerously violent behavior is a particularly goofy theory: Namely, that incoming 5G cell-phone technology is actually the source of COVID-19, and is causing its spread wherever it is being installed. In both the United Kingdom and in Nigeria, people who believe these claims have set 5G towers ablaze.
The #5GCoronavirus hashtag’s spread on social media—particularly among the conspiracy-prone InfoWars and QAnon vectors of the internet—reflects how quickly the claims have gained credence, even without a scintilla of evidence. And the ease of their spread manifests a predisposition among conspiracists to claim quasi-magical properties—often of a toxic or nefarious nature—for ordinary technology, including high-power lines and cell-phone radiation.
The theories originated with a single erroneous story in the regional edition of an obscure Belgian newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws, as James Temperton explained for Wired. The story, an interview with a physician named Kris Van Kerckhoven, focused on his view that 5G technology was bad for human health, and mentioned his view that it might be connected to the coronavirus, because a number of 5G towers had been constructed in Wuhan, the Chinese province where it’s believed to have originated.
Van Kerckhoven added a caveat—“I have not done a fact check,” he said—and the story was removed from the paper’s website within hours. But by then, anti-5G activists in Europe had already picked up the story and run with the theory.
In short order, it spread throughout the conspiracy-theory world like wildfire. Celebrities such as actor Woody Harrelson and the singer M.I.A. picked it up and tweeted out their views supporting the theory. Tabloid and other sensationalist media outlets regurgitated the claims. On a UK radio station, Uckfield FM, an interview with a woman identified as a “registered nurse” (it later emerged that her credentials were in “alternative” medicine) spread the theory further:
What we’re seeing with these cases in Wuhan and we’ve all seen it on social media is these people suddenly just fall over and they have a dry cough. I have never seen a patient be walking along doing their own thing and suddenly fall over because they’ve got pneumonia, it just doesn’t happen. However, it does happen with 5G.
… What 5G actually does, it absorbs oxygen and that’s really important to know. So, on your oxygen molecules, the little electrons, with 5G they start to like oscillate, so this 5G is absorbing the oxygen and then your hemoglobin can’t take up the oxygen. So how long do you think it’s going to take the human body to fall over because it suddenly cannot take up oxygen into the cells? Every cell in the body needs oxygen. It’s not going to take very long, it’s probably not even going to take a minute. It’s going to take seconds.
Uckfield FM was found in violation of national broadcasting rules by regulatory agency Ofcom for the interview.
Soon social media was filled with posts promoting the theory. Some displayed maps showing the similarity between 5G installation activity and the spread of the virus. Others featured videos shot by people who were finding dead animals—mostly birds—on the ground in the vicinity of 5G towers. One woman’s video noted a new 5G tower going up in her neighborhood, leading her to pronounce: “Now we’re fucking going to die.”
Many began offering their own theories. “5g spins the oxygen molecules that then spin the electrons and this makes the hemoglobin unable to uptake the oxygen and get it to the rest of your body,” tweeted one conspiracist, who included a QAnon hashtag with his post.
It began creeping into mainstream media. The cohost of a popular UK morning show, Eamonn Holmes, agreed with a guest who debunked the claims, but added the caveat that “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.”
Notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke—who also promotes the belief that the world is secretly run by alien lizards who disguise themselves as elite humans—jumped all over the claims and made them the centerpiece of his website. Even more appalling, a UK television show, London Live, ran a lengthy interview in which Icke expounded on the claims, telling viewers that “5G poisons the cells.”
He also claimed that the nefarious intent of 5G was proven by the fact that work on tower construction was continuing even during the pandemic lockdown. Icke concluded: “If you look at the situation and if 5G continues and reaches where they want to take it, human life as we know it, it’s over.” (Icke’s interview was also the subject of an Ofcom investigation.)
Then videos began appearing on social media featuring would-be citizen “investigators” harassing utility contractors performing installation work. One Facebook video showed a woman interrogating contractors installing 5G fiber-optic cable under a city street, suggesting they were part of a plot to kill off the British population.
“Do you realize what you’re doing, you’re laying 5G?” she says. “So do you know that kills people? You know when they turn this on, it’s going to kill everyone. That’s why they’re building the hospitals.” She also mentions that “they’re building 25,000 concentration camps of death.”
Broadband installation workers were threatened. The incidents have affected the ability of tech firms to maintain the networks providing critical connectivity both to emergency services and hospitals as well as the public that’s now working at home, the industry lobby group Mobile UK noted.
All this was soon accompanied by arson attacks on 5G towers throughout the UK—over 40 such attacks so far. People recorded themselves firing rockets at the towers. Others posted videos of towers going up in flames with approving comments, such as: “The resistance is just beginning,” and “5G is the real silent killer, not the ‘Corona Virus’!!!” One tweet noted: “They're camouflaging 5G killtennas as trees now, but something tells me that plastic fake branches might be highly flammable.”
On Facebook, a group formed to organize arson attacks against the towers. After initially ruling that the group did not violate their terms of service, Facebook eventually blocked them.
The attacks have spread to other nations as well. In the Netherlands, nine 5G tower arsons have been reported so far. In Nigeria—a nation that has no 5G towers yet—angry followers of a popular pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, opposed the construction of new towers because of their supposed connection to COVID-19, though he later recanted this charge. Nonetheless, Nigerian activists recorded themselves burning a cellular phone tower, and vowing to continue.
In some instances, the harm has been direct. A hospital in Birmingham in the UK lost all connectivity to the Internet when a nearby 5G tower was torched, which meant that dying patients whose only contact with their families was through video platforms were unable to do so.
“It’s heart-rending enough that families cannot be there at the bedside of loved ones who are critically ill,” said Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK, whose mast was the one destroyed. “It’s even more upsetting that even the small solace of a phone or video call may now be denied them because of the selfish actions of a few deluded conspiracy theorists.”
These theories are in many ways a product of a conspiracy-theory industry long wedded to bizarre, near-magical claims about technology and its effects on humans. Even before the coronavirus, there were numerous claims being made about 5G’s supposed ill effects, all of which echo previous claims about other cell-phone technologies, as well as computers, microwaves, televisions, and high-power transmission lines.
And naturally, the claims are not only utterly groundless as a scientific matter, the scenarios the conspiracists propose are actually physically impossible, including the suggestions that they make the human immune system uniquely vulnerable to the virus.
Several observers have noted that the spread of the conspiracy theories bears the appearance of a deliberate disinformation campaign aimed at harming Chinese industrial interests, and that among the major vectors for the theories have been Russian propaganda organs, notably the U.S.-based RT America operation. Last year, The New York Times published an investigation revealing how RT was at the forefront of promoting false anti-5G information. More recently, a European Union report has examined how Russian outlets have specialized in spreading misinformation about COVID-19: “Among COVID-19-related content published by RT and Sputnik, articles covering conspiracy narratives such as that ‘the virus was man-made’ or intentionally spread, typically received more social engagement than other stories,” it reported.
“The coronavirus has created the perfect environment for this message to spread,” Josh Smith, senior researcher at Demos, a think tank, told Wired. “Like many conspiracy theories, the idea that 5G is to blame for the uncertain, frightening situation we find ourselves in is a comfort. It provides an explanation, and a scapegoat, for the suffering caused by this pandemic; as well as—cruelly—suggesting a way we might stop it: take down the masts and the virus will go away.”