Classroom connection: 5G and COVID-19 conspiracy theories
Online conspiracy theories pushing false connections between 5G technology and the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to rapidly gain momentum. Social media accounts and groups dedicated to advancing these theories have accumulated hundreds of thousands of new followers, including a number of celebrities, in recent weeks. In the United Kingdom, where these theories have particularly taken hold, there have been more than 30 acts of arson and vandalism to cell towers and roughly 80 incidents in which technicians have been harassed while working.
The theories range across a spectrum of false beliefs, including provably untrue claims that 5G radio waves cause COVID-19 or suppress the immune system, and the even more outlandish notion that the entire pandemic is a hoax perpetrated by governments and media outlets around the world to facilitate the installation of 5G networks. One factor behind the recent rise of such theories was an interview published on Jan. 22 by the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, in which a doctor made a number of highly speculative and unfounded claims about 5G technology. (The article was taken down “within a few hours,” the publication’s editor said, but not before the doctor’s claims had been disseminated widely.) There is also evidence that the recent surge in 5G conspiracies is being intensified by coordinated disinformation campaigns online — some of which appear to be state-sponsored, researchers say.
5G conspiracy theory not new
A New York Times report last May highlighted the role of RT America, the U.S.-focused arm of a Russian state-run television outlet, in kindling unwarranted public fears about 5G in other countries, possibly as part of a Kremlin strategy.
Conspiracy theories often appeal to people seeking to make sense of complex, alarming events. Not only do such “explanations,” however unfounded, offer comfort by offering a scapegoat, they also (falsely) suggest solutions — which is also appealing.
- “Why Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Flourish. And Why It Matters.” (Max Fisher, The New York Times).
- “What Role Should Newsrooms Play in Debunking COVID-19 Misinformation?” (Claire Wardle, Nieman Reports).
- “Here’s where those 5G and coronavirus conspiracy theories came from” (Grace Rahman, Full Fact).
hy do conspiracy theories appeal to people? What other technological advancements have spawned conspiracy theories? Should social media companies delete posts that encourage violence against 5G towers? Should they ban all speech that attempts to connect 5G with the pandemic? Why or why not?
Use this example as an opportunity to teach students about how coordinated disinformation campaigns work, and specifically how state-run media — such as RT America — can use speculation and story selection to strategically advance state interests.