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17 April 2020

The damage from pandemic misinformation goes beyond vandalised phone masts

While anti-5G conspiracy theorists attack infrastructure vital to hospitals, other fake stories are embedding dangerous behaviour.

By Jasper jackson

Amid all the suffering and disruption caused by the coronavirus, it seems ludicrous that easily disproven conspiracy theories about mobile phone signals causing illness are hitting the headlines. And yet, with the help of arsonists and excitable celebrities, here we are.

On Monday, Eamonn Holmes said on his ITV Morning show that the media should not dismiss claims that the coronavirus outbreak was somehow linked to 5G mobile networks, “when they don’t know it’s not true”.

Of course, we do know it’s not true. We have reams of scientific evidence about 5G networks, and their safety has been tested thoroughly. We are about as sure as scientists can be sure of anything that the electromagnetic waves that carry 5G data have no impact on the coronavirus.

In one sense, Holmes is right that the media shouldn’t be “dismissing” 5G conspiracy theories: they should be pointing out, as many are, that they have no basis in fact.

The 5G conspiracy theory is based on nothing but groundless fears and paranoia, but it is having real, concrete implications. On Tuesday, it was reported that the mobile mast near Birmingham’s new Nightingale Hospital had been set on fire, potentially preventing dying patients communicating with their relatives.

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As Vodafone’s chief executive pointed out, it could mean that “the small solace of a phone or video call may now be denied them because of the selfish actions of a few deluded conspiracy theorists”.

It is just one of around 60 masts that have been attacked, threatening to disrupt communications networks on which we all rely.

This isn’t the first conspiracy theory to have a tangible and dangerous impact. The anti-vaccination or “anti-vaxx” movement is a similarly deluded group. It claims that immunisation programmes, which save millions of lives per year, are dangerous and sinsiter. Spread by social media, this misinformation has contributed to falls in immunisation rates, in turn driving outbreaks of diseases we had thought all but eliminated.

Both the 5G and anti-vaxx movements have woven the coronavirus pandemic into their pre-existing narratives, and have grown in prominence and visibility as a result.

These two conspiracy theories seem especially well placed to combine with the coronavirus pandemic. Both had pre-existing networks to spread misinformation, and a pseudoscientific narrative to slot into. Both had strong “anti-establishment” themes, often veering into fears about a “new world order” trying to control humanity. Holmes’s suggestion that the media was dismissing involvement of 5G in the outbreak because it suited the “state narrative” was an example of the language these groups use.

One reason these groups have so embraced the coronavirus pandemic is that the response from governments fits their paranoid narrative. An enemy that is unseen but requires drastic measures and global coordination fits perfectly with the fantasies they have already built.

Then there’s the involvement of figures such as Bill Gates, who has for decades dedicated his time and wealth to global public health initiatives. He has provided an easily identifiable face to focus on as the representative of a shadowy elite.

What of course hasn’t helped is the amplification of these conspiracies from credulous celebrities. Boxer Amir Khan and presenter Amanda Holden have both promoted it, to name just two from the UK, though the latter has said retweeting a petition linking 5G to the outbreak was done in error.

The most dedicated exponent of these theories is David Icke, who has also said that he believes the Royal Family are shapeshifting lizards. YouTube has removed an interview during which Icke appeared to endorse the destruction of mobile masts and an interview with Icke on London Live, the TV channel run by the owners of the Evening Standard, is currently under investigation by Ofcom. While the channel itself does not have a huge number of viewers, merely the act of broadcasting them gives Icke’s conspiracy theories additional credence.

We can hope that the backlash against Holmes, Ike and others will act as a break on similar celebrity endorsements for baseless bits of misinformation from public figures. It is unlikely to stop it completely.

While the 5G theory looks set to carry on bubbling away, leading to further actions that undermine efforts to curb and halt the pandemic, new theories will emerge that hinder our ability to coalesce around the collaborative actions needed. We are already seeing conspiracy theories urging people to reject any vaccine against the coronavirus, even though we are many months away from one being available. Our best hope of returning to some normality is being labelled part of a global plot against the public, something to be resisted.

A study last week highlighted the small but significant impact conspiracy theories are already having. A quarter of those surveyed by Ipsos Mori on behalf of King’s College London, when asked whether they believed the virus was probably created in a lab (for which there is no evidence), said yes. Of those people, 12 per cent said they had visited friends during lockdown – more than double the 5 per cent of the rest of the sample.

Those who told researchers they believed something for which there is no evidence were more than twice as likely to have flouted lockdown restrictions, which were designed to stop thousands dying.

Jasper Jackson is researching misinformation around the coronavirus pandemic for First Draft.