How celebrities became the biggest peddlers of 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories

Wireless networks are not causing coronavirus. But A-listers and reality stars alike are trying to convince the public that they are.  

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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is not because of 5G. There is no evidence or link to the implementation of the new wireless network whatsoever. Most messages forwarded in WhatsApp about coronavirus causes and prevention are conspiracy theories. Covid-19 is not a secret plot by China, or any other government, and it is spread through human contact, and can only be prevented through self-isolation and social distancing. 

These are the basic facts of coronavirus but, as in any global crisis, conspiracy theorists have taken the opportunity to spread false information about its causes. Yet while conspiracy theories are typically the output of a marginalised few on Reddit and 4chan forums, some of coronavirus's biggest misinformation peddlers are popular celebrities, willfully spreading dangerous myths that they are repeatedly told are simply untrue. 

The range of celebrities pushing 5G conspiracy theories is astounding. From reality TV stars such as Calum Best to A-list Hollywood names such as Woody Harrelson, the theory has infiltrated every level and type of celebrity culture. Professional boxer Amir Khan yesterday went on Instagram to state that coronavirus was man-made and “put there... while they test 5G” and Dancing On Ice judge Jason Gardiner posted several tweets last week that encouraged followers to sign petitions halting the roll-out of 5G. The outrage particularly began to pick up on Thursday (2 April) as reports of people torching cell towers began circulating. The same day, Made In Chelsea star Lucy Watson tweeted “fuck 5G” and has yet to take down her post. 

While these celebrities already have large audiences and reach, the media is partially to blame for amplifying their voices. In reporting on celebrities' misinformation peddling in general – as well as the 5G conspiracy theory in particular – the media has repeatedly failed to make it clear that misinformation about 5G is just that: misinformation. In a thread of tweets on Sunday (5 April), a Twitter account reporting on the British media, @TheMediaTweets, shared a number of headlines and articles from sources such as Metro, the Mirror and even the BBC which reported on the 5G conspiracy without clarifying that it was unfounded. 

“This ludicrous 5G coronavirus conspiracy, whether being spread maliciously, or by acts of celebrity stupidity, is clearly very dangerous if people are attacking mobile masts, and harassing telecoms engineers at a time when the country is relying more than ever on connectivity,” the @TheMediaTweets account posted. “[But] if reporting, media should be crystal clear this is dangerous nonsense at very first opportunity.” The thread pointed out how dangerous ambiguity can be and how it can further the spread of conspiracy theories. “[The] Metro article below has 12 paras of guff before it gets to ‘no evidence’,” it noted. “A neutral BBC headline almost bestows credibility.”

Much has been said in the past few weeks about the ways in which celebrities have been uniquely unhelpful in this crisis. From posting videos of themselves complaining about boredom from their multi-million-pound mansions (à la Ellen DeGeneres) to Gal Gadot’s now-infamous mash-up of famous people singing “Imagine”, celebrities have been unhelpful because they have been tone deaf – their wealth, privilege and luck going unacknowledged as people lose their jobs and their lives. But in the past week we’ve seen celebrities transition from merely being painfully out of touch into being actively dangerous. And it seems that even an avalanche of denunciation from fans won’t stop them from pushing harmful, baseless claims.

Plenty could be done to take control out of celebrities' hands. The vast majority of these cases involve stars posting false 5G claims on social media, where they, in many cases, continue to act unchecked. Platforms such Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could delete these posts themselves, listening to warnings from users on cases of misinformation and introduce a specific tool to report fake news on coronavirus.

But until then, 5G conspiracy theories will continue to take hold thanks to society’s most prominent members, who enjoy a larger audience than ever with followers stuck inside and online. And while it’s fun to mock the deeply unrelatable ways celebrities try to stay relevant during this surreal time, a lack of consequences for their actions may cost lives. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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