While the U.S. and most of the world are hunkering down to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus, some virus-related 5G conspiracy theories are on the rise.
Specifically, the conspiratorial false argument that 5 G technology is related to COVID-19 gained ground, moving from obscurity to the shaken mainstream by conspiratorial theorists who have been thinking about 5 G conspirators for years.
While there is scientific consensus on the basic medical reality of COVID-19, researchers are still filling holes in the virus that nobody knew existed five months ago.
The relative lack of knowledge opens the door for proposals that are typically confined to the edges of the Internet to a wider pandemic conversation — a dangerous aspect of an ongoing global health crisis.
According to Yonder, an AI organization that tracks online communications, including misinformation, conspirators who would usually stay in fringe groups migrate to the mainstream more easily throughout the outbreak.
The company’s study on coronavirus misinformation states that “the public uniquely supports conspiratorial thought, speculation, alarm, or fear” during uncertain times — a trend that explains the flow of misinformation that we are seeing now.
While the company reports that it will usually take six to eight months for a fringe narrative to pass from the edges of the internet to the mainstream, that timeframe looks like three to 14 days in the middle of COVID-19.
“In the current infodemic, we’ve seen conspiracy theories and other types of disinformation propagate around the Web at an unparalleled pace,” said Yonder Innovation Chief Ryan Fox. He assumes that the phenomenon is the outsize impact of “small groups of hyper-passionate individuals” in spreading disinformation, as 5G says.
Although 5G statements about coronavirus are recent, there are no 5G conspirators. “5G disinformation from online groups such as QAnon or Anti-Vaxxers has existed for months, but is moving into the mainstream even faster due to its affiliation with COVID-19,” said Fox.
The seed of the false 5G coronavirus story could have been planted in a late January print interview with a Belgian doctor who indicated that 5G technology presents a health threat and may be connected to the virus, according to Wired’s article.
Not long after the show, Dutch-speaking anti-5G conspiracy theorists picked up on the idea and distributed it across Facebook pages and YouTube channels, even investing in other 5G conspiratories.
Somewhere along the way, people began burning down cell phone towers in the U.K., actions that government officials suspect are related to viral disinformation, even if they clearly burned down the wrong towers.
“As a result of the sluggish roll-out of 5 G in the United Kingdom, many of the masts that were vandalized did not contain the hardware and the attacks merely destroyed 3 G and 4 G facilities,” The Guardian said.
This week’s conspiracies have been popular, gaining traction in the hands of credulous celebrities, including actors John Cusack and Woody Harrelson, who have amplified the bogus 5 G allegations to their broad Twitter and Instagram follow-ups, respectively.
A fast Twitter search shows a number of variations on the theory still circulating. “… Can’t anyone see that 5G was tried for the first time in Wuhan. This isn’t a mistake! “One of the users of Twitter says. “5G was first deployed in Wuhan and now in other major cities. Coincidence? Coincidence? “The other one asks.
In the past, 5G misinformation has had plenty of help. As The New York Times reported last year, Russian state-linked media outlet RT America began airing segments raising alarms about 5G and health back in 2018.
By last May, RT America had aired seven different programs focused on unsubstantiated claims around 5G, including a report that 5G towers could cause nosebleeds, learning disabilities and even cancer in children.
It’s possible that the current popular 5G hoax could be connected to disinformation campaigns as well, though we likely won’t learn the specifics for some time.
In previous research on 5G-related conspiracies, social analytics company Graphika found that the majority of the online conversation around 5G focused on its health effects. Accounts sharing those kinds of conspiracies overlapped with accounts pushing anti-vaccine, flat Earth and chemtrail misinformation.
While the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory has taken off, it’s far from the only pandemic-related misinformation making the rounds online lately. From the earliest moments of the crisis, fake cures and preventative treatments offered scammers an opportunity to cash in. And even after social media companies announced aggressive policies cracking down on potentially deadly health misinformation, scams and conspiracies can still surface in AI blindspots. On YouTube, some scammers are avoiding target words like “coronavirus” that alert automated systems in order to sell products like a powdered supplement that its seller falsely claims can ward off the virus. With their human moderators sent home, YouTube and other social platforms are relying on AI now more than ever.
Social networks likely enabled the early spread of much of the COVID-19 misinformation floating around the internet, but they don’t account for all of it. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all banned Infowars founder and prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their platforms back in 2018, but on his own site, Jones is peddling false claims that products he sells can be used to prevent or treat COVID-19.
The claims are so dangerous that the FDA even stepped in this week, issuing a warning letter to Jones telling him to cease the sale of those products. One Infowars video cited by the FDA instructs viewers concerned about the coronavirus “to go to the Infowars store, pick up a little bit of silver that really acts its way to boost your immune system and fight off infection.”
As it becomes clear that the disruptions to everyday life necessitated by the novel coronavirus are likely to be with us for some time, coronavirus conspiracies and scams are likely to stick around too. A vaccine will eventually inoculate human populations against the devastating virus, but if history is any indication, even that is likely to be the fodder for online conspiracists.