The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Coronavirus 5g: How a baseless conspiracy theory about phone masts and covid-19 provoked panic and confusion

A fringe campaign has attracted celebrities, incited acts of vandalism and now protests are planned

Anthony Cuthbertson
Tuesday 07 April 2020 11:51 BST
A telecommunications mast damaged by fire is seen in Birmingham amid conspiracy theories linking the coronavirus disease and 5G masts, 6 April, 2020
A telecommunications mast damaged by fire is seen in Birmingham amid conspiracy theories linking the coronavirus disease and 5G masts, 6 April, 2020

Before the coronavirus outbreak even began, 5G was being blamed for everything from cancer to infertility. The viral conspiracy theories typically only infected the usual tin-foil hat corners of the internet, but they have recently spread to the real world.

Mixing unfounded 5G fears with the panic brought about by a global pandemic has seen people set telecom towers on fire and harass broadband workers in the street.

Some posts on social media claim that 5G's alleged impact is just the latest in a string of electromagnetic wave-induced pandemics. It links the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 with the roll-out of 4G, an influenza epidemic in 1998 with 3G, and even goes as far back to claim, "the introduction of radio waves caused the Spanish Flu of 1918".

The theory has been disproved countless times by scientists, with one micro-biology professor recently describing it as "both a physical and biological impossibility". So where did it come from and how did it spread?

Who started it and early transmission

The first online posts promoting the theory appeared in late January, prompting fact-checking site Full Fact to debunk the myth in an article on 29 January.

One week earlier, a general practitioner from Belgium had given an interview with a Dutch-language newspaper hypothesising that 5G may be "life-threatening". He entertained the idea that coronavirus could be linked to 5G cell towers being built around Wuhan where the deadly virus originated, but he included a major caveat with his warning: "I have not done a fact check."

The newspaper reviewed the unfounded comments and deleted the article within hours of it being published, according to an investigation by Wired, but not before they were picked up by Dutch-speaking anti-5G campaigners.

From there they were picked up by English-language groups and churned through the rumour mill to produce increasingly absurd theories about "deep state" plots and Illuminati plans to control population growth.

One of the most bizarre theories claims that the 'Clap For Our Carers' campaign to support NHS workers was set up by the UK government to disguise the sound of 5G infrastructure being deployed.

A post that may have started as a joke mocking the conspiracy theorists has since found traction in "truther" Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

"Every week they need to test [the 5G network] which lets off a really loud buzzing noise for exactly one minute, but the clapping covers it," it states. "The initial setup of 5G is actually causing coronavirus. Please share this and stop clapping every Thursday."​

Who is spreading it?

Fuelled by social media, the fringe campaign has managed to draw in celebrities and even provoke acts of vandalism.

As news emerged of a telecommunications towers being set on fire in Birmingham and Liverpool, actor Woody Harrelson and TV personality Amanda Holden were among several high-profile figures sharing theories linking 5G to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Holden tweeted a link to a petition on Friday demanding the UK government to immediately stop building telecom infrastructure for the next-generation technology due alleged links to both cancer and coronavirus.

Shortly after her tweet was posted the petition was deleted after assessed that it contained misinformation, but not before it had already garnered more than 100,000 signatures. A similar petition to the UK parliament has also been removed.

Many of the people spreading crackpot theories are the same that share unfounded warnings about the dangers of vaccinations.​

Facebook groups that act as petri dishes for new viral rumours to spread can be easily found by searching for '5G' or 'coronavirus' on the social network. Some UK-based groups have more than 50,000 members.

Members of one group attempted to organise the hijacking of an LBC radio show about 5G, telling people to call in with the 'truth'.

Another is currently attempting to organise a global "Easter uprising" to raise awareness about their unfounded ideas. More than 2,000 people have so far signed up for it, though due to half the world's population currently being under coronavirus lockdown, the protest is fairly limited in its scope.

The 'I Do Not Consent to 5G' protest involves turning off personal smartphones and other internet-connected devices on Easter Monday, with the idea being that they will "make noise" without actually making any noise.

"We need to be heard from a distance and silently," the page's 'about' section states.

It seems to already be running into difficulties. "Posts are being taken down by fact checkers," one group member complained. "What happened to all of our freedom of speech?"

What is being done to stop it spreading?

The UK government and the telecoms industry have been forced to respond to the conspiracy theory after incidents threatened both workers and infrastructure.

In a joint statement, UK networks EE, O2, Three and Vodafone wrote: "There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus. Fact. Not only are these claims baseless, they are harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services."

The people they refer to include "isolated or vulnerable loved ones", as well as NHS and emergency service workers.

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove referred to the theory as "dangerous nonsense", while NHS medical director Stephen Powis described it as "complete and utter rubbish... the worst kind of fake news."

Julian Knight, who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports parliamentary committee, called on the government to work with internet and social media firms to "stamp out deliberate attempts to spread fear". He also requested that Ofcom investigate whether international news organisations are using social media to bypass UK broadcasting regulation in order to spread disinformation.

RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster, has given a platform for 5G conspiracy theories long before coronavirus existed. The New York Times recently suggested that consistently reporting the "5G apocalypse" through its foreign media channels could all be part of a ploy to slow the roll-out of the technology so that Russia won't be left behind.

Some major tech firms have already begun cracking down on posts shared by RT correspondents and conspiracy theorists, including Facebook and Google-owned YouTube.

"We also have clear policies that prohibit videos promoting medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment, and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us," a YouTube spokesperson said.

Other companies, including Twitter, have been less forthcoming. The social network refused to address 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories directly when contacted by The Independent, stating only that it was focused on "helping people find authoritative sources of information" on its platform.

"We're making the latest facts easy to discover by placing them with a dedicated event page at the top of people's timelines," a spokesperson said.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in