A long-standing conspiracy theory gets a new look during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is the myth?
There is a relationship between COVID-19 and 5G networks. 5G networks are either causing COVID-19 symptoms by directly disseminating the virus, or they’re destroying our immune systems and making us more susceptible to the virus.
Where did this myth come from?
We’ve been hearing the term 5G a lot these days, and probably for the wrong reasons, as numerous conspiracy theories have been circulating which link 5G networks with COVID-19. 5G is the fifth generation (hence, 5G) of communication technology that supports cellular data networks. Our current communication technology is 4G LTE, and 5G is supposedly going to be faster, have greater reliability, and offer more support for our devices as we continue to live in a more technologically connected world.1
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been several theories circulating that propagate the idea that COVID-19 is somehow related to the implementation of 5G networks.
The “5G is bad for your health” argument:
Rhetoric opposing 5G has actually been around for a long time, in fact much earlier than the outbreak of COVID-19.2 Dr. Martin Pall, a retired professor from Washington State University, self-published a 90-page document online in May 2018 outlining what he claims are various health risks caused by electromagnetic field exposures.3 This is centered on the fact that 5G networks use higher frequency electromagnetic waves than earlier mobile networks,4 and this in turn has created worry about how the radiation will impact human health.
So, where did the link between 5G networks and COVID-19 come from?
Back in January, Belgian newspaper “Het Laatste Nieuws” published an interview with a Belgian general practitioner who claimed that 5G was dangerous and may be linked to coronavirus.5 Since then, numerous theories have sprung up, with some claiming that the radiation from 5G is what is causing COVID-19 symptoms, and others claiming that the radiation from 5G weakens your immune system, which makes you more likely to become infected with and/or less likely to recover from the coronavirus.6 The latter was suggested by hip hop artist M.I.A.:
“I don’t think it’s related except for timing. The timing is orchestrated by them. Not Us. I don’t think 5G gives you COVID19. I think it can confuse or slow the body down in healing process as body is learning to cope with new signals wavelength s frequency etc @ same time as Cov”.7
The “map” argument:
The “map” argument has come up to further propel the idea that COVID-19 and 5G are related. Recently, a map of the U.S. was circulated on Facebook that showed that there are far more COVID-19 cases in locations where there are more 5G towers.6 So they must be related then, right?
Who is propagating the myth?
The myth that there is a relationship between the novel coronavirus and 5G networks has largely been propagated on social media, where it has been rampant. Numerous celebrities have tweeted about it or posted it on their Instagram, including singer Keri Hilson,6,8 actor Woody Harrelson,8 and aforementioned singer and 4G enthusiast M.I.A.,7 each who have hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers, depending on the platform.
There have also been numerous YouTube videos explaining the supposed connection between 5G and COVID-19 which have garnered hundreds of thousands of views and have since been banned.9 One live-streamed video in early April watched by 65,000 people featured an interview with David Icke, a well-known conspiracy theorist, who claimed there was “a link between 5G and this health crisis.”9 YouTube has since banned all content that includes conspiracy theories linking 5G and COVID-19.9
Why is it wrong?
The “5G is bad for your health” argument:
Many are concerned about the health impact of 5G radio waves; however, the radio waves used by cell phone networks are non-ionizing, which means they don’t have enough energy to remove electrons from atoms.10 This is different from ionizing radiation, which can remove electrons from atoms, resulting in changes to the cells in our body.11 The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection states that after decades of research, the only effect of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (in the range of what most applications, such as 5G, use) that is relevant to human health is heating of human tissue that is exposed.12 However, according to experts, the exposure from cellphones is way lower than the exposure required to heat tissue.12 There is also currently no scientific evidence that 5G radio waves cause COVID-19 symptoms, and there is also no evidence that 5G compromises the immune system. Meanwhile, what we do have scientific evidence for is the spread of COVID-19 through respiratory droplets from a person who is infected.13
The “map” argument:
Why are there more COVID-19 cases in areas where there are more 5G towers? In more densely populated areas, there are more cases of COVID-19 because people interact more closely, and so COVID-19 is more likely to spread. In addition, more densely populated areas have greater demand for telecommunications, so they need to build more towers to support all of those cell phones!6 If you’ve ever heard of the phrase “correlation does not imply causation,” it applies perfectly to debunk this argument – just because two events occur together, does not mean they’re related. In addition, countries that currently don’t have any 5G coverage, such as Iran,14 have still experienced rapid spread of COVID-19.
What are the ramifications of our misunderstanding?
Aside from people spreading misinformation online, which is worrisome in itself, several cellphone towers in the U.K. and the Netherlands have actually been burned down in response to the fears around 5G networks and coronavirus, one of which was supplying a field hospital in Birmingham where coronavirus patients were being treated.15 Telecommunications engineers have even been threatened while working, in some cases with murder.16
It’s also important to mention why people believe in conspiracy theories, especially in situations such as this pandemic. At a time where it seems like we have such little control over our lives, it can be easy to cling to something that offers us a sense of control (i.e. if there is no 5G tower in my neighborhood, then I won’t be infected with COVID-19).17 Therefore, we need to take a step back to truly reflect on why we may believe in unproven theories such as this one, especially given the multitude of evidence that may point in a different direction.
Although there are many theories circulating that allege a link between COVID-19 and 5G networks, there is currently no scientific evidence to back this claim, even if numerous celebrities have tweeted and/or Instagrammed about it. (We’re looking at you, Woody Harrelson. You did True Detective dirty.) As social media users continue to propagate this misinformation, prompting bans from various platforms, ramifications of these theories have unfortunately included 5G towers being burned down in communities and telecommunications employees being threatened.
BUST OR NO BUST:
Myth: COVID-19 and 5G networks are connected.
Results: Bust. Myth-meter = 10/100 truthfulness.
Written by Christina Blagojevic.
1. What is 5G? 4G LTE vs 5G, Speed & More. T-Mobile. Retrieved from https://www.t-mobile.com/5g
2. Hern, A. (2019, July 26). How baseless fears over 5G rollout created a health scare. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jul/26/how-baseless-fears-over-5g-rollout-created-a-health-scare
3. Pall, M. L. 5G: Great risk for Eu, U.S. and International Health! Compelling Evidence for Eight Distinct Types of Great Harm Caused by Electromagnetic Field (Emf) Exposures and the Mechanism that Causes Them. 5G: Great risk for EU, U.S. and International Health! Compelling Evidence for Eight Distinct Types of Great Harm Caused by Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Exposures and the Mechanism that Causes Them. European Academy for Environmental Medicine (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.5gappeal.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/pall_2018.pdf
4. Reality Check team, BBC News. (2019, July 15). Does 5G pose health risks? BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48616174
5. Komando, K. (2020, April 23). The great 5G coronavirus conspiracy. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/2020/04/20/dispelling-belief-5-g-networks-spreading-coronavirus/5148961002/
6. Lee, B. Y. (2020, April 15). 5G Networks And COVID-19 Coronavirus: Here Are The Latest Conspiracy Theories. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2020/04/09/5g-networks-and-covid-19-coronavirus-here-are-the-latest-conspiracy-theories/#6d040f76d415
7. M.I.A. [@MIAuniverse]. (2020, March 24.) I don’t think it’s related except for timing. The timing is orchestrated by them… [Tweet]. Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/1242434493945982977
8. Bradley, L. (2020, April 6). Celebrities Should Stop Spreading This Garbage Coronavirus Conspiracy. Daily Beast. Retrieved from https://www.thedailybeast.com/celebrities-are-spreading-a-wacky-coronavirus-5g-conspiracy-and-they-need-to-stop-4
9. Kelion, L. (2020, April 7). Coronavirus: YouTube tightens rules after David Icke 5G interview. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52198946
10. CDC. (2015, December 7). Radiation Studies: Ionizing Radiation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/ionizing_radiation.html
11. International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (2020). ICNIRP Guidelines for Limiting Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (100 kHz to 300 GHz). Health Phys, 118(5), 483-524.
12. Kaur, H. (2020, April 9). The conspiracy linking 5G to coronavirus just will not die. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/08/tech/5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-trnd/index.html
13. World Health Organization. Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus#tab=tab_1
14. Waterson, J & Hern, A. (2020, April 7). How false claims about 5G health risks spread into the mainstream. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/07/how-false-claims-about-5g-health-risks-spread-into-the-mainstream
15. Browne, R. (2020, April 22). Vodafone exec slams 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theories: ‘The worst type of fake news’. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/21/vodafone-cto-johan-wibergh-slams-5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-theories.html
16. BBC News. Coronavirus: ‘Murder threats’ to telecoms engineers over 5G. (2020, April 23). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-52395771
17. Prooijen, J.W.V. & Vugt, M.V. (2018). Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(6), 770–788. doi: 10.1177/1745691618774270