The 5G conspiracy theory shows just how fast extreme ideas spread across our society

Socio-economic decline after the coronavirus outbreak may further a sense of injustice and grievance, which is exploited by those who propagate extremist material 

Sara Khan
Thursday 23 April 2020 15:20
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Conspiracy theory about 5G and Covid-19 sparks online panic

The surge in arson attacks on mobile phone masts based on claims that 5G is spreading coronavirus highlight the dangerous and harmful consequences that conspiracy theories are having in our society. Nor can we ignore the scale of people being exposed to such misinformation. According to a recent Ofcom report, half of UK adults have already come across false or misleading information about coronavirus.

Of course, conspiracy theories are nothing new; they attempt to offer explanations of significant social and political events that many find attractive or compelling. Some 60 per cent of Americans continue to believe conspiracy theories around John F Kennedy’s assassination. Many insist the “Establishment” had a hand in the murder of Princess Diana, and that Neil Armstrong didn’t really walk on the moon.

But it is wrong to treat all conspiracy theories as equal or harmless, particularly in an era of social media. Those that incite hatred, violence and terrorism, or undermine critical public health guidelines can – and do – have serious consequences.

Conspiracy theories linking 5G to coronavirus have provided a stark example of this. Research by Dr Daniel Allington, in conjunction with the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, found a link between those who believed coronavirus was connected to 5G mobile phone masts and those who are ignoring social distancing rules. Some far-right extremists on message boards have been encouraging attacks on 5G masts.

Government ministers, Ofcom and infectious disease professors have been at pains to explain the scientific impossibility that 5G could be related to coronavirus. Yet it is during times of uncertainty and instability like the Covid-19 crisis that conspiracy theories and misinformation can gain significant traction.

Lockdown is necessary but there is concern that with increased isolation, increased internet usage and other factors, there will be a greater consumption of conspiracy theories and exposure to online extremist material. Socioeconomic decline may further a sense of injustice and grievance where scapegoats, often minorities or old ideological enemies, are identified and blamed. Such factors are exploited by extremists who under a climate of fear propagate extremist material to further contribute to confusion, hatred and division.

This has certainly been the case in the last few weeks. White supremacists have promoted vile anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, blaming Jews and Israel for creating the virus. The Community Security Trust has highlighted how extremists are engaging in both hateful and violent extremism encouraging people to deliberately spread the infection to Jews. In an attempt to spread anti-Muslim prejudice, far-right activists have shared old videos falsely claiming that Muslims are congregating during the lockdown. Islamists are using Covid-19 to promote anti-democratic and anti-western narratives.

Yet despite longstanding concerns about the harms of such conspiracy theories which is exacerbated at an unprecedented scale via social media, we still struggle to develop an effective response. Governments and social media companies need to take the threat of dangerous conspiracy theories more seriously. We need to invest in research to help develop evidence-based policy, including establishing a more meaningful way of classifying conspiracy theories based on the serious harm they cause. We need to examine whether our laws are proportionate in penalising and deterring those who are inciting hostility against others through such dangerous conspiracy theories.

As it stands, there is insufficient research on what is known to be successful in countering dangerous conspiracy theories or how to show them to be false. This is no easy task. Some research evidences that suggesting a conspiracy theory is false can actually backfire and strengthen believers’ convictions. Other research suggests that encouraging analytical thinking over intuitive thinking can be effective.

Campaigns such as #dontspreadthevirus also play an important role. As individuals we all have a responsibility to help reduce the spread of misinformation by refusing to share conspiracy theories on our social media accounts. While longer-term work goes on to understand the mechanics of these theories we can all help to limit the damage they do. What we cannot do is ignore those dangerous conspiracy theories which continue to harm our society, most of all at times of national crisis.

Sara Khan is lead commissioner at the Commission for Countering Extremism

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