The internet in recent weeks has been awash with harrowing reports of 5G conspiracy theories making the rounds. Whilst there has always been some kind of 5G skepticism lurking in less-savory parts of Facebook and Twitter, the recent COVID-19 epidemic has compounded many people's fears and pushed the narrative into the mainstream media, both in the US and across the pond in the UK.
We've heard quite enough about these theories and the tragic material consequences that have unfortunately followed (workers and engineers threatened, the burning of masts, people being cut off from loved ones). Rather than give any more airtime to the nonsense, we sat down with two 5G experts to debunk these myths once and for all. Strap in.
Our two heroes are Iqbal Bedi and Saul Friedner. Iqbal is the Director of Intelligens Consulting Ltd, and has worked as a digital and telecoms advisor in both the UK's public and private sector for more than 25 years. He is in fact the only consultant to have advised both UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on telecoms policy. He has appeared on the BBC and even wrote a comprehensive report on 5G for the International Telecommunications Union. Saul is the associate director of spectrum services at LS Telcom UK. He has worked in spectrum management and regulation for more than 20 years and was previously employed by communications regulator Ofcom. His own expertise extends to broadcasting, as well as mobile technology including 4G and 5G. Saul has worked on 5G since its very early stages of conception, and also delivers training on 5G to regulators and operated all over the world.
As the saying goes, Saul and Iqbal have both forgotten more about telecoms and wireless spectrums than you or I will ever know.
There are a few different strands of the conspiracy floating around, each more absurd than the other. So what are we dealing with here? There are two main camps it seems, some people are suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic is a result of recent 5G network rollouts across the globe. That is, that the coronavirus and its flu-like symptoms, respiratory problems etc. are a direct result of 5G, the virus and 5G are inextricably linked, 5G causes the virus. The second, more sinister theory, is that the symptoms of COVID-19 are not caused by a virus, but directly by 5G, and are the result of essentially, radiation poisoning. This theory, from theorists I've spoken with, states that COVID-19, the pandemic, lockdown, quarantine, etc. is all an elabarorate cover-up for direct harm being caused by the 5G rollout, in the same way that SARS was a cover for 3G, and Swine Flu was for 4G. The most elaborate theory I've heard came from one conspiracy theorist who told me that the government will use the coronavirus vaccine to inject us all with nano technology that can be used to control us, and plenty of people seem also to believe that global stay-at-home measures are being enforced so the government can proceed with the rollout of the 5G network. Yeah, these people really exist.
Both Saul and Iqbal, like most of us I'm sure, were very aware of 5G conspiracies making the rounds, in particular ones that linked the technology to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, this conspiracy has unfortunately manifested itself in acts of vandalism and arson, another factor both referred to in their initial thoughts on the subject. Saul pointed out another very concerning aspect of these conspiracies, in that they are also being propagated by high profile celebrities who are "fanning the flame" of these myths, Piers Corbyn (the brother of former Labour leader Jeremy) and TV personality Amanda Holden to name but two.
When asked about their initial reaction to these alarming stories, Saul and Iqbal highlighted a couple of interesting points. According to Iqbal:
It is clear that many of these videos are based on ignorance. In the example above the streetlight had no 5G equipment or antenna deployed. Further, in the UK, 5G is not currently near full deployment. In fact, the current industry-led hype around 5G is exactly that. The 5G network announcement made by the four mobile operators is more of an incremental upgrade to existing 4G macro networks. These upgrades have been infrastructure related to enable higher download speeds in city centres. The second observation is that most of these upgrades have been in city centres and not in residential areas where the video was taken.
Iqbal is referring to an instance he came across of a man who filmed a tree next to a streetlight, claiming 5G was responsible for the fact half of its foliage was missing, despite their clearly being no 5G equipment deployed. On the other side of the coin, Saul highlighted his own sadness at the impact the conspiracy was having on real people who depend on 5G and other modes of connectivity, and for those having to clean up the mess left behind:
My first thought on this is actually sadness for those now suffering from lack of connectivity and coverage in those areas affected. Also, my thoughts are with the engineers, who's safety is now on the line having to repair the masts and do extra work on top of keeping the network running smoothly at this critical time. A lot of these masts have other communications technologies attached which would have been impacted by the damage and destruction and the vandals probably do not realise the extent of the damage they are causing to such critical infrastructure. Furthermore, if these vandals also use their mobile phones to call loved ones or need their phone for an emergency, they are harming themselves, so makes absolutely no sense at all.
So what does 5G infrastructure actually look like? I asked both Saul and Iqbal to discuss a little about how 5G is broadcast. To summarize, there are lots of different components. When 5G rolls out fully (at least 5 years from now in the UK), it will use rooftop antennas and cells on streetlights linked by fibre connections. In more rural areas, 5G will be deployed on existing towers using the 700MHz frequency to cover long distances. Saul also noted that a lot of 5G is being pushed out using upgrades to existing mobile masts, as well as the building of new ones, they currently cover the 3.4-3.6GHz frequency range. You can read more about 5G infrastructure here.
The crux of the debate (and I use that term in the loosest sense possible) is the safety of 5G, so I asked Saul and Iqbal a series of questions, namely: Do we have any reason to believe 5G is dangerous? Is there any connection to COVID-19? Is COVID-19 a cover-up for illness caused by 5G? How do we know this?
The upshot, as you can expect, is that there is no reason to believe that 5G is unsafe. When I asked Iqbal about whether there were any reasons he said:
None. This is founded on scaremongering and ignorance. 5G has become the scapegoat.
And on the link to the coronavirus:
First there is no link between mobile usage and viral diseases. Second, the rollout of full 5G is so minimal that only a very small / almost negligible percentage of the world population is actually exposed to 5G and its just not realistic to equate 5G to C19.
One key flaw in 5G conspiracy theories no one seems able to address is that COVID-19 extends far beyond countries that have operational 5G in them. When I asked about where Iqbal got his information from, he recommended the following sources:
Research has been undertaken by the World Health Organization (2014), the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (2015, 2016, 2018), the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (2015) which have suggested 5G is safe.
Both Iqbal and Saul also pointed to ICNIRP, The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection as another helpful source. 'Non-ionizing is a term you may have heard bandied around when reading stories like this, and Saul helpfully expanded on what it means in his own response:
The energy transmitted from 5G masts is non-ionising (same as all the previous mobile technologies) which means it does not have the energy to ionise atoms and thus transform their physical state, therefore not dangerous in that sense. It should be noted however that any type of electromagnetic transmission does energise molecules and cause heating effects, but the powers of mobile masts and devices is so low, so as to not generate those heating effects and billions of people around the world have been happily using mobile phones for years without noticing those heating effects.
Whilst Saul, like Iqbal, specializes in the tech, not the epidemiological aspect of this debate (again, very loose use of that word) he further noted:
In terms of a connection between coronavirus and 5G, there is none. Electromagnetic emissions cannot and have not caused viral infections. It may also be worth noting that there have been commercial networks and pilot trials of 5G in most countries round the world for the last 12-18 months, in certain geographic areas and there were no reports of coronavirus, at the time 5G was actually launched.
Much like the geographical extent of COVID-19 compared with rollouts of 5G, another key flaw in these theories is the fact that 5G has been around in commercial networks and trials for over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic is a much younger problem.
If that's true, why all the traction?
I asked Saul about why, particularly in the UK, these theories have gained so much traction. He notes that there are often anxious and concerned members of the public when new mobile technology has been introduced, and pointed to similar instances for the rollout of 2G, 3G, and 4G, albeit to a lesser extent. He also noted how social media has played its part:
Furthermore, I think with the impact of social media creates a platform for certain groups to form particular views which spreads without moderation or question and without looking into the facts enough, or at all. Thus, these theories can gain traction very quickly. In this case, it has resulted in attacks on telecom workers/engineers and infrastructure and really makes no sense at all. Furthermore, these arsonists and criminals will then go home and use their Wi-Fi and mobile phones to spread their messages, it beggars belief but I think in these topsy-turvy days, I don't think people's actions or reactions to such things is a complete surprise.
From my own observation, notably on Facebook groups dedicated to these causes, there seem to be two general camps of people. There are prominent members of these communities who post "information" and videos, trying to spread the message. The rest of those involved are far more passive, unquestioning of the message before them. I'm sure you've seen people on Facebook share something along the lines of "I am copying and pasting this status so that Facebook does not have permission to use my photos..." etc. There seem to be plenty of people caught up in this who are happy to take whatever they see and read at face(book) value without a second thought.
So how do we stop all this nonsense?
There are plenty of problems the truth runs into when dealing with theories like this. When I asked Iqbal how he would approach a 5G conspiracy theorist, he said "That's a tough one. It's like asking someone to prove drinking water causes cancer. It's a non-starter." In a sense, he's right. I've been unfortunate enough to dialogue with a 5G conspiracy theorist, and the problem I ran into most was that I had no idea where to start. The idea that 5G is dangerous, or is responsible for COVID-19 is based on so many flawed premises that it's hard to know which one to address first. Here's what Saul had to say:
We should, therefore, do our best to present the facts and science but also spread the message that this is causing such a massive negative impact on society. The general public would not be happy to know that their local critical infrastructure is being damaged, which is essential to allow homeworkers to keep working (critically needed to keep some part of economy going), families to keep connected, kids to keep connected with their schools and friends and also patients connected to doctors remotely in their community.
One of the unique aspects of this conspiracy theory is the real-life impact it is having on daily life. Arson attacks on mobile masts are disconnecting people from each other, hospitals and doctors from patients, families from other relatives and loved ones, not to mention putting workers who have to deal with them at risk, and taking up the time of emergency services during a global pandemic. Whilst many people might be apathetic to arguments about who's waves are or aren't ionizing what, plenty of people you know would be upset and angry to hear that they can no longer communicate with their grandparents, grandchildren, teachers, and friends because of the mindless acts of a few deluded individuals. Saul also recommended lobbying governments and media outlets, again not only regarding the science and facts of these cases, but also the impact of criminal actions on the local community.
He also suggested increased levels of protection, such as CCTV coverage, for infrastructure so that further damage can be prevented and individuals brought to justice. When I asked Saul the kind of questions he would ask a 5G conspiracy theorist he said:
I would ask anyone who is supporting this conspiracy theory to stop and think about what they are saying and spreading and the impact this is having, particularly within the extreme elements. Then also to please read the information being published by Ofcom and other authorities that proves 5G did not cause the coronavirus.
A great example of raising awareness is recent developments on Facebook. When these stories first emerged, a UK Facebook group titled "STOP 5G UK" had more than 70,000 members. Thanks, no doubt in part due to raised awareness, Facebook has started to purge the largest of these groups from its platform. A hopeful sign. As mentioned earlier, both Saul and Iqbal recommended a couple of sources regarding testing and the safety of 5G, and I asked Saul to expand on this:
The most authoritative source will be from Ofcom, which has gone to some lengths to dispel the myths that 5G caused the coronavirus. There has been a video message from Group Director, Philip Marnick at Ofcom dispelling the myths and also Ofcom has been conducting and publishing measurements of radiation around the 5G masts to prove that the emission levels are well below the international limits of radiation exposure. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) sets the radiation exposure limits for public exposure and publish references, links, and reports which can be found on their web site explaining the impact of radiation exposure and how operators must keep within certain limits for the public. There is also the GSM Association (GSMA) which is a global association representing the mobile industry is another voice to dispel the myths.
All of this is to say that if you're at all worried about 5G, you needn't be, and information from trusted, reliable sources is available. If you know people who are spreading false information, you too can use these sources and outlets to spread the right kind of information to those who want to hear it. Be wary, however, of getting bogged down too much arguing with conspiracy theorists. To them, facts are more of an inconvenience than a tool. The problem with a conspiracy theory is that each piece of evidence to the contrary just becomes part of the conspiracy, rather than serving to undermine it.
None of us will likely make any inroads trying to convince 5G conspiracy theorists they are wrong, but we can all play a part in sharing the right information with as many people as possible. But make no mistake, 5G is safe.
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