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The Imagined Threats of 5G Conspiracy Theorists Are Causing Real-World Harm

Attacks on cell phone towers are merely the latest evidence that virtual disinformation is leading to actual violence.

A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'Stop 5G', during a protest against the 5G (fifth generation) mobile communications network in Bern on May 10, 2019.
A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'Stop 5G', during a protest against the 5G (fifth generation) mobile communications network in Bern on May 10, 2019. STEFAN WERMUTH/AFP via Getty Images

Just before 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning last month, police in the British town of Derby were called to a 5G cellular network tower. The country was under lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic; even criminals stayed home. But someone had set the newly installed tower ablaze. All over the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe, 5G towers are being targeted in a bizarre crime spree. The perpetrators? People who—having consumed disinformation spread on YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter by celebrities, other users, and even the pro-Kremlin Russian channel RT—have convinced themselves that 5G causes COVID-19 and other maladies. The attacks are giving cities cold feet as to whether they should even host 5G antennas. Disinformation is no longer a mere inconvenience; it’s having real-life impact.

After the Derby attack, a town councilor told the local newspaper that “whatever reason people have to burn a phone mast, they must really look in the mirror and think, was it worth it? Putting people’s lives at risk, whether the first responders or innocent people locally. It’s simply not acceptable in civil society to do such a thing.” The local official was right, of course—but his commonsense argument is unlikely to impress the arsonists. That’s because the 5G arsonists are acting on highly compelling disinformation. So compelling, in fact, that it has inspired citizens all around Europe to attack 5G masts and the workers installing or repairing them.

According to the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) and the GSMA, the global association of mobile network operators, between January and early June this year there had been 87 arson attacks in the U.K., 30 arson attacks in the Netherlands, harassment of Dutch telecoms engineers, threats to industry and government representatives in Sweden and the Netherlands, three arson attacks in Ireland, two in Sweden, and further attacks in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Cyprus.

Disinformation is no longer a mere inconvenience; it’s having real-life impact.

Coronavirus-5G conspiracy theories generally promote one of the following arguments: 5G weakens the immune system and therefore leads to COVID-19, the droplets by which the coronavirus travels are spread by 5G airwaves, or the coronavirus pandemic is a cover for the effects of 5G exposure. While none of the theories is true, that hasn’t stopped celebrities including the American actor Woody Harrelson from spreading them.

In fact, according to an April report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, celebrities, politicians, and other public figures account for 20 percent of all disinformation about 5G and coronavirus. While relatively few celebrities spread such coronavirus falsehoods, their posts unsurprisingly have enormous impact. Social media is full of the stuff (including people filming themselves attacking 5G masts). Even TikTok, the video-snippet service popular with teenagers, has featured challenges encouraging users to film themselves committing 5G sabotage.

There are legitimate concerns regarding 5G, especially about the role of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Virtually every Western government is agonizing over whether to allow Huawei to participate in its new 5G network. While the U.S. government is firmly opposed to Huawei, arguing that the firm could facilitate snooping by the Chinese government, the U.K. government last year decided to permit Huawei’s participation in as much as 35 percent of the country’s 5G infrastructure, and only in nonsensitive parts, while the German government remains undecided.

After an outcry by British members of Parliament concerned by the national security implications of Huawei’s participation in critical national infrastructure, in May the U.K. government launched a review into whether it should ban Huawei after all.

There are legitimate concerns regarding 5G, especially about the role of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. But falsely linking 5G to the coronavirus is another matter altogether. 

But falsely linking 5G to the coronavirus is, of course, another matter altogether. Alarmingly, a government hostile to the West appears to be helping to spread the lies. Researchers at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar and the New York-based social media monitoring firm Blackbird.AI have independently established that parts of the coronavirus-5G conspiracy are boosted by the use of bots. Though neither team has established where the bots originated, Marc Owen Jones of Hamad Bin Khalifa University told Bloomberg that the campaign shows similarities to the one orchestrated by Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

“Russian operatives associated with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) used social media to conduct an information warfare campaign designed to spread disinformation and societal division in the United States,” the Senate Intelligence Committee later concluded. “Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States.”

It’s easy to dismiss disinformation as an inconvenience rather than a national security threat. After all, people are aware it exists: In a June Ipsos poll, a shocking 86 percent of people polled in 25 countries (including the United States) said they’d been exposed to disinformation. And last year, 72 percent of Germans told the pollster Forsa that they’ve encountered politically motivated disinformation on the internet. But despite the spread of falsehoods by hostile countries, their proxies, and ordinary citizens, liberal democracies have managed to keep functioning. Few dispute the legitimacy of recent elections.

The anti-vaccination movement, another group fueled by disinformation spread by celebrities and social media, helped trigger an outbreak of measles in the United States last year, and the anti-vaxxers could cause another coronavirus outbreak if they convince themselves and enough others that a coronavirus vaccine is harmful. In fact, in a recent poll 29 percent of New Yorkers said they’d refuse such a vaccine. Such opt-out rates would render a vaccine ineffective.

But there’s a delay between not getting vaccinated and contracting a disease. The coronavirus-5G campaign is different: The damage is immediately obvious. In large cities, nearby antennas may pick up the traffic from a destroyed one, leaving users with slower service. Residents of smaller towns face worse disruption. The Midlands, the region where Derby is located, ranks only behind London in number of coronavirus infections. If more 5G towers are sabotaged, its residents may not be able to bid farewell to dying family members, Vodafone’s CEO Nick Jeffrey warned. “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,” he told Sky News. And the attacks could discourage towns from approving new towers.

Few cities will want to endure the painstaking process of approving and installing 5G towers, only for the masts to be destroyed and residents left unhappy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, local politicians are getting cold feet. In Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, several towns and cities are now shelving their plans for the planned 5G rollout. And Italy has seen a veritable explosion of 5G cancellations linked to the recent attacks, with mayors and city councils deciding that the convenience of speedy 5G connections is not worth the risk of having to cope with sabotage. Last June, just one mayor had banned 5G masts. This April, 128 did so.

But the reality is that in most Western countries 5G can’t be halted. Productivity and innovation hinge on it, especially in a post-coronavirus era when more office work will be conducted from home. That infrastructure rollout is now being delayed or even canceled as a result not of technical or logistical concerns but due to disinformation. “Sure, today we’re able to function,” said Alessandro Gropelli, ETNO’s deputy director-general. “But if no action is taken against these false claims, in five years’ time the effects will be very visible.”

With disinformation now directly harming business and everyday life, countering it is becoming not just a luxury but an imperative.

China, meanwhile, is speeding ahead with its 5G rollout, and thanks to the government’s close surveillance of the public, cities don’t have to worry that citizens fed by disinformation will stymie the effort. Liberal democracies, however, face an unpalatable situation. With disinformation now directly harming business and everyday life, countering it is becoming not just a luxury but an imperative. To be sure, democracy is far more important than 5G. But because 5G is tangible, tackling the disinformation spread around it offers an opportunity not just to prevent further arson sprees but also to start tackling the rapidly spreading virus of disinformation in wealthy democracies with widespread internet access.

If current trends continue, only the affluent and the ambitious will still subscribe to established publications with rigorous editorial standards. And while public-service radio and television enjoy high approval ratings, their audiences are declining. According to a September 2019 report by the Reuters Institute, public-service broadcasters in a range of European countries are accessed online by small percentages of people under the age of 25: 19 percent of young Germans get news online from the national public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, for example, and only 14 of young Italians use the national broadcaster RAI online; the figure is similar for people with low levels of education. Younger and less educated people, meanwhile, will get most of their information via sources verified by no one. Twitter’s and Facebook’s warning labels don’t go far.

Karl Marx spoke dismissively of what he labeled the lumpenproletariat—the unthinking underclass who toiled away in industrial purgatory, unwilling to participate in the revolution. Today, a new lumpenproletariat, an unthinking underclass reading away in information purgatory, is emerging, and unlike in Marx’s day, it seems eager to engage in revolution. But because it lives on a diet of falsehoods and half-truths, the “information lumpenproletariat” is dangerous. Cell phone towers are simply the latest edifice to come under attack. Social media platforms should do their part to make sure there isn’t another.

Elisabeth Braw directs the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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