A conspiracy theory linking 5G technology to the outbreak of the coronavirus is quickly gaining momentum, with celebrities including actor Woody Harrelson promoting the idea. But the theory is also getting a boost from what some researchers say is a coordinated disinformation campaign.
Marc Owen Jones, a researcher at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, who specializes in online disinformation networks, analyzed 22,000 recent interactions on Twitter mentioning “5G” and “corona,” and said he found a large number of accounts displaying what he termed “inauthentic activity.” He said the effort bears some hallmarks of a state-backed campaign.
“There are very strong indications that some of these accounts are a disinformation operation,” Jones said.
Jones said the campaign uses a strategy similar to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which was behind a disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. But he said he hasn’t yet concluded that Russia, or any other government or organization, is behind the effort.
Blackbird.AI, a New York-based company that monitors online disinformation campaigns, said it had in recent weeks identified a surge in the number of social media posts promoting the 5G conspiracy theory. In the previous 24 hours, there had been more than 50,000 posts about the topic on Twitter and Reddit, Naushad UzZaman, the company’s chief technology officer and co-founder, said on Wednesday.
There has been a “significant uptick in inauthentic amplification” of posts on social media linking 5G to the coronavirus, UzZaman said, indicating that there could be a coordinated campaign and bot accounts involved. The company says it uses a system that analyzes language, communication patterns, post volumes and bot activity in order to identify social media posts that are “inauthentic” and attempting to manipulate online discussion.
Blackbird.AI hasn’t determined who is behind the effort, nor have the researchers at the Global Disinformation Index, a non-profit that tracks disinformation online. “We’ve definitely seen plenty of organized disinfo around 5G-coronavirus,” said Danny Rogers, the index’s co-founder.