5G was already the target of health scares and rumours – the eruption of COVID-19 has only made it worse

Conspiracy theories around health risks from mobile technology are nothing new, dating back to the early days of pay-as-you-go contracts, which put a phone in everyone’s pocket. But this year, the volume has been turned up to 11, as people started sharing misinformation tying 5G to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

For quite some time 5G’s opponents have cited health risks as their main concern; implying that because 5G signals were stronger than those that came before them, they would be a risk to human health. Images of flocks of dead birds and mobile engineers wearing hazmat suits were used to back up their argument, but with the arrival of Coronavirus came a whole new range of conspiracy theories.

In recent months we’ve heard stories claiming COVID-19 is a hoax designed to keep us all in our homes while the government rolls-out 5G, that 5G technology makes COVID-19 symptoms worse, and that in reality there is no virus – it’s actually 5G that’s caused the global pandemic.

Stories like these spread across social media, and were given credence when shared by celebrities including Amanda Holden, Amir Khan, Callum Best, Woody Harellson and a host of reality stars.

Let’s be clear: There’s no truth to these claims. Their impact, however, has been threefold according to Matthew Evans, director of markets at trade association techUK. “Firstly, attacks of infrastructure and engineers,” he says. “Secondly, the time and effort that has been used to combat these conspiracy theories, and thirdly, in some very localised areas councils have come under pressure to veto 5G infrastructure.” This has included Glastonbury Town Council, which has said it would oppose the rollout of 5G.

Attacks on engineers and infrastructure

According to trade association Mobile UK, as of mid-June there had been 95 arson attacks on communication infrastructure and 250 incidents of abuse toward engineers in the UK, taking place everywhere from Belfast and Birmingham to Manchester and Liverpool.

Openreach, which doesn’t even deal directly with 5G installations, has borne the brunt of a lot of the attacks towards engineers, with more than 60 incidents of 5G-related threatening, abusive, or physical behaviour in just six weeks. “This is more than we saw in 12 months last year,” says Richard Ginnaw, Openreach security operations manager.

In response, the company has beefed up safety training, even introducing a ‘safe word’ protocol where an engineer in an abusive situation can safely signal to the security control centre that they need assistance.

As for the arson attacks on masts, they have had very little direct impact on the rollout of 5G, because most, if not all were in fact 2G, 3G or 4G towers. That’s not to say they were harmless, by any means, with Evans saying they “caused severe localised disruption to individuals, who during lockdown have relied on connectivity to stay in contact with the world”.

Thankfully there has been a tail-off in the number of attacks, both towards people and infrastructure. However, Mobile UK reports that a small number of cases continue to be recorded on a weekly basis.

Stopping the spread of misinformation

The reduction in the number of incidents is at least in part due to the work undertaken by the government and industry.

“It would appear that the attacks have massively slowed, with the authorities taking appropriate action to locate and prosecute offenders wherever possible, and many organisations have taken action to reduce the spread of mistruths,” says Peter Curnow-Ford, board member of industry network Tech London Advocates 5G.

“Secondly, the industry itself has proactivity brought fake news around 5G to social media’s attention and Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and Instagram have all removed accounts and inappropriate messages.

“The mobile industry has collaborated with organisations such as GSMA, WHO, Facebook and Google to reduce the overall volume and spread of groups, sending of messages and re-inserting the facts, wherever possible, into the debate.