First they blamed GMOs. Then biowarfare. Now a new COVID conspiracy theory is making the rounds, purportedly linking the ongoing global pandemic with the rollout of 5G communications networks. Where did this theory originate, and what is the “evidence” offered by believers?
What are the conspiracists saying?
By its very nature, as a conspiracy theory the details are contradictory and vague.
We don’t want to link to conspiracist material circulated on YouTube and social media, especially as most of it is clickbait aiming to generate ad revenue from fake viral content. However, some screenshots are included in this How-to Geek piece.
The central allegation seems to be that 5G radiofrequency communications have a damaging health impact, and that either these are directly making people sick (i.e. COVID-19 doesn’t exist and people are actually suffering from 5G effects) or the radiation is depressing peoples’ immune systems and therefore making them more likely to suffer from the virus.
Could this theory be harmful?
Conspiracy theories that gain widespread credence can be very dangerous. Most obviously, if enough people start to believe that COVID-19 is not a real virus, they will stop trusting scientific authorities and governments trying to curb the pandemic. They may even contribute to its spread if they cease obeying social distancing and quarantine measures.
In recent days, cell phone towers in the United Kingdom have been set on fire, possibly by people believing the 5G conspiracy theory. Not only has this criminal damage taken up valuable time of law enforcement, but the resulting cell phone outages could hamper the work of health services and police during the pandemic. Any failure of communications technologies is especially damaging for people isolated at home who need virtual communications now more than ever.
Unfortunately, several celebrities with large followings — including the Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson and musicians Anne-Marie and M.I.A. — have begun sharing 5G conspiracy narratives. If this message continues to spread, it could end up doing immense damage to international efforts to tackle the coronavirus epidemic, and they could therefore find themselves responsible for additional avoidable deaths.
Is there any truth to this theory?
No. But it’s worth saying that these kinds of fears are not new. Earlier generations of phone tech, such as 4G and 3G, as well as WIFI and cell phone towers, have also caused fear and spawned numerous spurious theories about health damage. There are even people who claim to suffer a syndrome, known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome, supposedly as a result of exposure to electromagnetic fields.
The origin of all of this is probably the fact that 5G and other radiofrequency communications involve radiation, which for many is a scary word reminiscent of Chernobyl, the atomic bomb and cancer. However, only the upper part of the electromagnetic spectrum, with the shortest-wavelength frequencies (from the edge of UV, through X-rays and gamma radiation) are “ionizing” meaning they can break apart molecular bonds and therefore damage DNA.
Non-ionizing radiation, which includes the rest of the spectrum, from UV through visible light, to infrared, microwave and radio waves, has wavelengths that are too long to be able to strip electrons from atoms. Therefore, they cannot damage living organisms in the same way as X-rays or gamma radiation. On other words, it’s physically impossible for microwaves to cause cancer in the same way that gamma rays do.
Microwave radiation can, of course, heat things up — that’s how microwave ovens work (the mechanism is called dielectric heating). Cell phones (and WIFI) also use microwaves in the same part of the spectrum, though at vastly lower power. The absolute worst that can likely happen is that cell phones could cause a small amount of increased temperature, which is why international regulations exist about how much cell phone radiation people should be exposed to.
What does the science say?
Given that radiofrequency emissions operate at the non-ionizing end of the electromagnetic spectrum, there is “no known mechanism” by which emissions at these frequencies could damage DNA and cause cancer, according to the US National Cancer Institute (NCI). Bear in mind that we also have a lot of real-world data: billions of people have been using cell phones and WIFI for many years now with no increase in cancer rates.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees: “There is no consistent or credible scientific evidence of health problems caused by the exposure to radio frequency energy emitted by cell phones.” 5G will use frequencies that are already covered in the current federal guidelines, so it does not raise any new safety concerns, in the opinion of regulatory agencies in the United States.
If you want more data, the NCI has produced long factsheets both on cell phones and cancer risk and electromagnetic fields and cancer. There is one very well-proven health danger arising from cell phones: increased traffic accidents resulting from people talking or texting while driving.
Hallmarks of conspiracy theories and how to debunk them
Conspiracy theories arise because people want simple explanations for complex and frightening events. Most people do not understand the electromagnetic spectrum and therefore might be scared to learn that 5G networks produce radiation.
More importantly, conspiracies have a reassuring function psychologically because they make people feel that someone — even though they may be evil — is in control of events, rather than accepting the harsh reality of disorder and chaos. And most conspiracy theories make the believers feel clever, as if they are the only ones who understand what is really going on.
Communications specialists Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook — both of whom have spent years studying conspiracist thinking particularly in regard to climate change denialism — have produced a handbook on the hallmarks of conspiracy theories.
In particular, they recommend “prebunking” — sharing fact-based data to warn people against the circulation of misinformation online. They write: “If people are made aware of the flawed reasoning found in conspiracy theories, they may become less vulnerable to such theories.” In this way, prebunking resembles vaccination — another favored topic of conspiracists around the world.