• The increasingly popular conspiracy theory linking 5G and the coronavirus pandemic has put telecoms companies in a crisis communications mode, as their masts were attacked by anti-5G activists.
  • Conducting a media analysis of the conversation around the conspiracy, we found that British companies Vodafone, EE, BT and O2 were the most often mentioned telecoms players.
  • Analysing the discussion on Twitter, we discovered that UK’s decision to drop Huawei as a 5G vendor over poor coronavirus transparency has given a major boost to the dissemination of 5G-related conspiracy theories.

Ever since the advent of 3G, speculations linking network technologies to health problems have been circulating across alternative publications and social media every now and then. However, conspiracies around 5G have been gaining traction far more successfully, as many proponents suggested that since the new generation of wireless communication is more powerful than its predecessors, it should also be more dangerous to people’s wellbeing.

Such claims began to circulate in 2019, but as the coronavirus began to spread, the 5G conspiracy theory evolved, with its supporters starting to assert that the technology somehow exacerbated the disease. Some recent surveys found that this is now the most widely disseminated pandemic-related conspiracy theory in the UK while becoming increasingly popular in Europe and the US.

The theory was introduced as part of a wave of misinformation and rumours which began to spread faster than the coronavirus, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a “massive infodemic“ and to launch a direct WHO 24/7 myth-busting hotline with its communication and social media teams responding to fake news. The health arm of the United Nations also urged Big Tech to take tougher action to battle fake news on the coronavirus and held meetings in Silicon Valley with companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber and Salesforce.

The dissemination of conspiracy theories has become a prominent topic in the media debate around the coronavirus. According to some media outlets, WHO’s efforts represent a new, far-reaching effort to reinvent what has largely been a failed fight against misinformation. Meanwhile, many analysts think that the spread of medical misinformation in particular has been driven by ideologues who distrust science and proven measures like vaccines.

Other commentators have noted that apart from anti-vaxxers, coronavirus misinformation has also been spread by users who scare up internet traffic with zany tales and try to capitalise on it by selling health and wellness products – a practice dubbed “algorithmic capitalism” by some analysts.

To tackle these problems, the International Fact-Checking Network, a unit of the Poynter Institute dedicated to bringing together fact-checkers worldwide, coordinated a collaborative project spanning fact-checking organisations from more than 30 countries, which can be followed on social media channels through the hashtags #CoronaVirusFacts and #DatosCoronaVirus.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Coronavirus Infodemic: Can We Quarantine Fake News?”

A range of 5G perspectives

The 5G coronavirus conspiracy is not a single unified theory but rather a set of different views – for instance, some believe that the virus is spread via the new type of wireless communication, while others suggest that the virus actually doesn’t exist but is made up in order to conceal the harmful effects of 5G itself.

By March, the theory reached the mainstream media – for example, the British tabloid Daily Star published an article with the headline “Coronavirus: Fears 5G wifi networks could be acting as ‘accelerator’ for disease,” which was eventually changed to “Coronavirus: Activists in bizarre claim 5G could be acting as ‘accelerator’ for the disease.”

Although the 5G conspiracy theories were quickly condemned by the scientific community and debunked by many mainstream publications, their spread has done some real-life damage and has become a matter of national concern for some countries. In the UK, where the proliferation of fake news is especially rapid, mobile networks have reported several cases of masts being targeted in arson attacks.

After the incidents, Professor Steve Powis, national medical director of NHS England, said that the theories linking 5G mobile phone networks to COVID-19 were the “worst kind of fake news“, while British Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the 5G coronavirus theory was “just nonsense, dangerous nonsense as well.”

UK lawmakers suggested the fake news could possibly be amplified by coordinated disinformation campaigns and urged the government to work with social media companies. Julian Knight, chair of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee, said that lawmakers are 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”.

5G hesitancy

It’s interesting to note that alternative media publications such as Before It’s News, Zero Hedge, The Washington Times, The Gateway Pundit, InfoWars, The Daily Caller, 70 News, Breitbart and Russia Today, which are well-known for popularising fake news, seem to have not paid much attention to the 5G coronavirus theory, even though they pushed other false narratives suggesting that the virus is a bioweapon or that it was developed by Bill Gates, as our analysis found.

In fact, some of these websites have pointed out that the link between 5G and the pandemic is erroneous. This goes to show that the main vector for misinformation on this particular topic has been social media.

In order to examine telco’s communications efforts in relation to the conspiracy, we analysed 1853 articles about the 5G coronavirus conspiracy published in top-tier publications from February to April 2020. Britain’s big telecoms companies were at the centre of the debate:

EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone released an open letter appealing to people not to damage the masts or abuse their engineers. The companies wrote that not only are the 5G coronavirus claims baseless, but they are also “harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services”, as sometimes abuse of engineers had hindered essential network maintenance.

Vodafone, the world’s second-biggest mobile operator, was the most often mentioned telecoms company due to the high number of its UK masts being burned down by attackers. The firm described the conspiracy as a matter of national security, with its UK CEO Nick Jeffery urging people not to spread “utterly baseless” stories online. In a LinkedIn post, he said that both police and counter-terrorism authorities are investigating the attacks.

And since one of the attacked towers was supporting the National Health Service’s new Nightingale hospital in Birmingham, Johan Wibergh, Vodafone’s chief technology officer, said that conspiracies are impacting key health workers. “It’s really the worst type of fake news”, Wibergh told CNBC.

Vodafone was also mentioned because of a recording spread around the world at the end of March in which “a former executive” at the company claimed that the pandemic is cover for a global plot to install 5G mobile phone masts. The Guardian revealed the so-called former executive is in fact an evangelical pastor from Luton.

Meanwhile, BT, Britain’s biggest telecoms company, said that some of its workers are being verbally and even physically abused: BT CEO 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, with some even receiving death threats.

A recent arson attack at a tower operated by BT’s division EE caused significant damage, even though the tower did not have 5G capability but provided just 2G, 3G and 4G services. Footage of the arson, along with the claims that 5G is responsible for the coronavirus, circulated across social media networks.

Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer brands, said that “nonsense theories” led to a spate of vandalism on the masts. According to him, the attacks could mean emergency call resources are being diverted at a critical time when emergency workers are focused on dealing with the pandemic.

In the meantime, O2, owned by the Spanish multinational Telefónica, is issuing engineers working outside on essential network projects with a sign to explain they are a key worker, after reports of telecoms staff being verbally abused by members of the public. Verizon, on the other hand, planned to combat the conspiracy theories with “our communication, and the industry’s communication, and with health organizations’ communication,” as CEO Hans Vestberg said in an interview with CNBC.

Up until now, the main priority of companies aiming to leverage 5G was putting themselves at the forefront of innovation and positioning their brands as the top players in a new field expected to bring about long-term economic benefits for consumers and businesses. Their top objectives were to be seen as first-movers, innovators, critical for digital transformation and fundamental for IoT projects.

However, companies in this sector are now faced with another challenge – educating the general public in the safety aspects of the new standard of wireless telecommunications. Despite the scientific consensus that 5G is safe, many see it as a cause for various conditions, including cancer, infertility and autism.

In this regard, 5G-related conspiracies are much like “vaccine hesitancy”, which has turned the efficacy and alleged dangers of vaccination into one of the most intensely debated subjects on a variety of media channels, in spite of the fact that vaccines are scientifically recognised as one of the greatest achievements of public health.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Vaccination in the Media: An Ongoing Immunisation Against Misinformation”.

The social media discussion

As mentioned, the 5G coronavirus theory was pushed primarily by social media users rather than alternative media outlets: conspiracy posts on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and on the fast-growing community website NextDoor have received many engagements over a short period of time.

In response, social media companies have reshaped their policies to take action against misinformation on the subject: YouTube started banning all videos that suggest coronavirus symptoms are caused by 5G, while Facebook now removes “false claims linking coronavirus to 5G”.

Before the theory became popular, social media platforms have already made some efforts to curb falsehoods and to promote accurate information. For instance, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and TikTok are directing users searching for coronavirus on their sites to the WHO or local health organisations, making falsehoods harder to find in searches or on news feeds. Andrew Pattison, digital business solutions manager at the WHO, said it would be very exciting “to see this emergency changed into a long-term sustainable model, where we can have responsible content on these platforms”.

The health agency has focused more heavily on Facebook, which now uses human fact-checkers to flag misinformation and then move it down in news feeds or even completely remove it. Kang Xing Jin, Facebook’s head of health, said his company is providing relevant and up-to-date information and working to limit the spread of misinformation and harmful content.

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.

This follows Facebook‘s efforts to lower the rank of pages and groups that spread vaccination-related false information. In a recent blog post, Facebook’s vice president of global policy management Monika Bickert said that the company will begin rejecting ads that include false information about vaccinations. The move came after the Daily Beast reported that more than 150 anti-vaccine ads had been bought on Facebook and were viewed at least 1.6 million times, and after The Guardian found that anti-vaccination information often ranked higher than accurate information.

The social media giant has been taking these measures at a time when it stands on the edge of a reputational precipice for its role in the emergence of the fake news phenomenon. Regulators and consumers have routinely blamed the company for taking a patchy, opaque, and self-selecting approach to tackling disinformation.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “From Media Data to Reputation Analytics: A Case Study of Facebook”.

Twitter has also been a significant vector for misinformation around the virus, but the social media giant has started to promote reliable medical information more heavily: the platform is prioritising countries’ health authorities in the search results, and users searching for “coronavirus” or “Wuhan” on the platform now see a message telling them to “know the facts”.

Twitter has also moved to ban certain accounts spreading conspiracy theories, saying in a statement that there was no evidence of coordinated misinformation efforts and adding: “[W]e will remain vigilant and have invested significantly in our proactive abilities to ensure trends, search, and other common areas of the service are protected from malicious behaviours.”

Following the series of attacks on mobile phone towers in the UK, Twitter now deletes “unverified claims” that could lead directly to the destruction of critical infrastructure or cause widespread panic. It said it would not delete 5G and coronavirus misinformation per se but would rather remove posts direct incitement to action, such as “5G causes coronavirus! Go destroy the cell towers in your neighbourhood!”

In order to examine the dissemination of the 5G conspiracy, we analysed 17 527 tweets posted between 1-23 April. The most often mentioned keywords in the Twitter discussion were China, UK and Huawei:

We found that the most commonly shared story was the UK moving to drop Huawei as a vendor for the country’s 5G cellphone network. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the Chinese company a role in the 5G infrastructure, but in April, concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s inaccurate reporting on the coronavirus have prompted lawmakers to plan for a retreat.

Huawei is generally one of the most prominent companies in the 5G conversation – the firm’s research and development budget has received enormous boosts, fuelling fears in the US administration that Chinese companies will spearhead standard-setting in next-generation technologies.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Trends in Telco PR: 5G in the Media”.

UK’s move received a great deal of media attention and has been feeding the 5G coronavirus narrative on Twitter. There were many who believed that the coronavirus came from China through 5G and now the UK is trying to save its population by banning the Chinese 5G vendor.

These speculations dovetailed with the popular conspiracy claim suggesting the coronavirus was some kind of a biological weapon most probably developed by the Chinese government – a rumour which appeared shortly after the virus struck China.

Conspiracy theorists have also connected the 5G narrative with the claim that Bill Gates might be behind the virus and might have used 5G to spread it. This theory asserts that the virus is a biological weapon created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

For example, an article published by a website called IntelliHub and republished by InfoWars claimed that “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum co-hosted an event in NYC where ‘policymakers, business leaders, and health officials’ worked together on a simulated coronavirus outbreak”.

The claims circulated via Facebook posts, blogs and YouTube videos which speculated that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are profiting from the coronavirus outbreak since its investing in vaccine research and development. The speculations were particularly popular among members of Facebook groups discussing the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, which claims that there is a secret plot by an alleged “deep state” against Donald Trump and his supporters.

A closely related conspiracy stated that there is a patent for the virus by the Pirbright Institute, a Surrey-based organisation examining infectious diseases. Pirbright released a statement clarifying that it works on infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), a type of coronavirus which only infects poultry and could potentially be used as a vaccine to prevent diseases in animals.

Some Twitter users highlighted the financial ties between the Gates Foundation and the Pirbright Institute to prove that Bill Gates profited from the outbreak of the virus, while in fact, the foundation has funded the institute to work to prevention of epidemics.

Right-wing politicians conservative pundits

To find the most influential participants in the Twitter discussion, we calculated the users’ authority score using a methodology similar to Google’s PageRank, an algorithm for ranking web pages in search results. The methodology can be applied to the social network graph of Twitter’s follower relations, where instead of web pages and links, nodes are users and edges indicate follower relations. There is an edge from A to B if B is a follower of A, i.e. edges follow the direction of tweet transmission from a user to their followers.

Using this metric, we found the most influential Twitter users in the discussion to be some right-wing politicians and conservative pundits. The most influential one was British Politician David Kurten, who described himself as “Brexit Alliance London Assembly Member, Brexiteer, writer, speaker, Christian, social conservative, pro-Trump, pro-life, anti-woke”.

One of his popular posts is a list of things “the UK does not need”: 5G is among them, alongside the EU, the WHO, the Labour Party, celebrities, gender studies and mass immigration. This goes to show that in the eyes of some influential 5G opponents, the new technology is on par with rather left-wing values and institutions.

Kurten also tweeted about UK’s move to drop Huawei, which garnered many comments by users blaming 5G for the coronavirus or even suggesting 4G is a bigger culprit. Another one of his popular tweets covertly criticised the installation of “5G monster microwave transmitters” on top of a school.

The British politician also pushed the Bill Gates conspiracy by sharing an article published by InfoWars, claiming that 300,000 US citizens are concerned about the aims of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, forced vaccinations and human microchipping and have signed a White House petition. Kurten shared a list of “today’s false narratives”, which included “5G is safe”, “The WHO should get more money” and “Bill Gates is your friend”.

Another influential user in the discussion was Josh Hawley, an American attorney and Republican politician, currently serving as the junior United States Senator from Missouri. He recently introduced legislation to allow Americans harmed by COVID-19 to sue China’s Communist Party. Conservative writers such as Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism”, and Rich Lowry, author of “The Case for Nationalism”, were also active participants in the conversation.

The handles we identified as instrumental for the spread of the 5G conspiracy may not have shared fake news as such, but their conservative stance has provoked many of their followers to express conspiratorial views.

Our analysis shows that the Twitter discussion around 5G has been heavily politicised: the new standard for wireless communication is commonly associated with China. Many users seem to make a link between the country’s political and technological ambitions and the coronavirus, which began to spread from its territory.

Although we didn’t discover a network of handles belonging to fake news websites, as it was the case with our previous research, there were some conservative publications such as The Washington Examiner whose tweets gathered conspiratorial comments. The Twitter discussion was also fuelled by some websites with exclusively anti-vaccination content.

It has been recently estimated that the probability to encounter an anti-vaccination website is higher than the probability to encounter a pro-vaccination one. This is especially alarming since online media has become an essential source of health information and is consulted far more frequently than healthcare professionals: in the US, 80% of Internet users have searched for a health-related topic online. It has also been estimated that accessing vaccine-critical websites for 5 to 10 minutes increases the perceptions of vaccination as risky.

The 5G coronavirus narrative was also boosted by celebrities active on social media. For instance, singer Keri Hilson tweeted that “People have been trying to warn us about 5G for YEARS”, while rapper Wiz Khalifa said: “Corona? 5g? Or both?”

Actor Woody Harrelson shared a chunk of text on Instagram, which also became trending on Twitter, suggesting that 5G could be “exacerbating” the pandemic. He wrote in the caption: “A lot of my friends have been talking about the negative effects of 5G”, and shared an excerpt from an article by Martin Pall, a former Washington State University professor, who has also pushed the view that Wi-Fi is harmful to our health.

A conspiracy hotbed

5G is one of the buzz terms like Artificial Intelligence, Big Data or the Internet of Things which are thrown around by journalists and social media users in every context imaginable. Such terms are regularly encountered in news and features covering not only technological developments but also politics, business, healthcare, entertainment and so on. This is because, as everyone asserts, the advancements behind these fashionable words are transforming every aspect of our lives.

5G is hailed as the new standard of wireless telecommunications which will bring about long-term economic benefits for consumers and businesses. Its ambitions are to be something much more than just an improvement of 4G or a new wireless interface protocol offering more capacity and better performance: it’s supposed to enable the connection between all kinds of devices and make possible the Internet of Things.

But concepts like 5G are very attractive to conspiratorial thinking: recent contributions in psychology have found that in the face of new technological advancements, people could often feel alienated from the complexities of modern society and thus more likely to turn to conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories thrive in crises like the coronavirus pandemic and are typically related to emotions such as fear and anxiety, according to a 2019 review of the research literature. They originate from a desire for easy explanations of situations outside our control and allow people to preserve their own beliefs in uncertain times, as a 2017 paper argued.

Our social media analyses have corroborated that “the deficit model” of science communication – which suggests that communication techniques should focus on improving the transmission of information from experts to the public – doesn’t work in practice. Science and technology communicators typically seek solutions for conspiracy theories in explaining evidence in a more accessible manner, assuming that facts would ultimately convince people to update their opinions, but this usually initiates even more heated objections.

Therefore, brands and science communicators shouldn’t focus only on explaining hard facts in a more accessible manner. Although providing evidence-based information is necessary, behavioural change is a complex process which entails more than having adequate knowledge about an issue, as communication research has demonstrated.

Thus, communication should include alternative strategies such as highlighting simple bottom-line meaning in addition to facts and details, underlining the moral obligation to act as a member of a community and exert influence in a more emotionally compelling way.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “GMOs in the Media: The Genetics of a Spicy Debate”.