As the U.S. and much of the world hunkers down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, some virus-related conspiracy theories are having a heyday. Specifically, a conspiratorial false claim that 5G technology is linked to COVID-19 gained ground, accelerating from obscurity into the rattled mainstream by way of conspiracy theorists who’d been chattering about 5G conspiracies for years.
While there is scientific consensus around the basic medical realities of COVID-19, researchers are still filling in the gaps on a virus that no one knew existed five months ago. That relative dearth of information opens the way for ideas usually relegated to the internet’s fringes to slip into the broader conversation about the pandemic — a dangerous feature of an unprecedented global health crisis.
According to Yonder, an AI company that monitors online conversations including disinformation, conspiracies that would normally remain in fringe groups are traveling to the mainstream faster during the epidemic.
A report on coronavirus misinformation from the company notes “the mainstream is unusually accepting of conspiratorial thinking, rumors, alarm, or panic” during uncertain times — a phenomenon that explains the movement of misinformation that we’re seeing now.
While the company estimates that it would normally take six to eight months for a “fringe narrative” to make its way from the edges of the internet into the mainstream, that interval looks like three to 14 days in the midst of COVID-19.
“In the current infodemic, we’ve seen conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation spread across the internet at an unprecedented velocity,” Yonder Chief Innovation Officer Ryan Fox told TechCrunch. He believes that the trend represents the outsized influence of “small groups of hyper passionate individuals” in driving misinformation, like the 5G claims.
While 5G claims about the coronavirus are new, 5G conspiracies are not. “5G misinformation from online factions like QAnon or Anti-Vaxxers has existed for months, but is accelerating into the mainstream much more rapidly due to its association with COVID-19,” Fox said.
The seed of the false 5G coronavirus claim may have been planted in a late January print interview with a Belgian doctor who suggested that 5G technology poses health dangers and might be linked to the virus, according to reporting from Wired. Not long after the interview, Dutch-speaking anti-5G conspiracy theorists picked up on the theory and it spread through Facebook pages and YouTube channels already trafficking in other 5G conspiracies. Somewhere along the way, people started burning down mobile phone towers in the U.K., acts that government officials believe have a link to the viral misinformation, even though they apparently took down the wrong towers. “Owing to the slow rollout of 5G in the UK, many of the masts that have been vandalised did not contain the technology and the attacks merely damaged 3G and 4G equipment,” The Guardian reported.