Do you believe coronavirus is caused by 5G? Are you afraid that Bill Gates wants to control your mind remotely using a 5G nano chip? Do you find yourself wanting to say ‘wake up sheeple’, to those claiming the coronavirus is dangerous?
If so, you may be experiencing symptoms of ‘covidspiracy’, a highly infectious outbreak of misinformation which has spread to thousands of internet users in recent weeks. Fear and uncertainty caused by coronavirus and compounded by social isolation has proved the ideal breeding ground for outlandish conspiracy theories implicating Covid-19 and 5G in a nefarious plot.
Even in an era defined by fake news, 5G conspiracy theories stand out for their ability to capture people’s imagination despite a lack of credible evidence. In June, opposition MPs held a debate on the adverse health effects of 5G in Parliament. Celebrities including Amanda Holden, Eamonn Holmes and Amir Khan have endorsed the idea that 5G is dangerous; and just last week more than 50 network masts were damaged in a spate of arson attacks across the UK.
Neither the fact that 5G radio waves are unable to penetrate cells, nor affect the spread of coronavirus to countries lacking 5G infrastructure, has been able to deter conspiracists. From the claim that 5G radio waves suppress the immune system, aiding the transmission of coronavirus, to the belief that Covid-19 is a media hoax designed to distract the public while the government rolls out dangerous 5G technology, it’s clear that public mistrust runs deep.
But who does the twitterati hold responsible? Well, by far the most popular theory online exposes a plan by Bill Gates to develop a coronavirus vaccine which will implant microchips into unsuspecting ‘sheeple’ allowing him to turn humanity into a ‘remote-controlled toy colony‘ with the help of 5G command signals. To give a sense of the scale and tone of this particular theory, a recent YouTube video labelling Bill Gates the ‘anti-Christ’ quickly racked up 1.8 million views before being taken down.
Pinpointing the origin and development of a conspiracy theory is a murky business. Nonetheless, it is likely that the present hysteria over 5G has its roots in older and more credible geopolitical concerns. Just to be clear: this is not to say that there is any basis to the belief that 5G technology is inherently dangerous. Rather, the current explosion of conspiracy theories is linked to longstanding government concerns that 5G infrastructure provided by Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company, threatens UK security.
In 2019 British Telecoms removed infrastructure provided by Huawei from its 4G network over concerns that the company could pose a threat to UK cybersecurity. In January 2020, the government debated the role Huawei should play in the UK’s 5G network deciding that Huawei’s market share will be capped at 35 per cent and its equipment should not be used in sensitive parts of the UK’s communications networks, including on nuclear and military sites.
While MI5 has determined that the threat to UK security remains low, ministers in the UK have been heavily lobbied by Washington to prohibit Huawei’s involvement altogether, with one US official comparing Huawei to the mafia. President Trump, already a hero in alt-right internet circles where 5G conspiracies are now flourishing, has been the most forthright opponent of Chinese involvement in 5G and it doesn’t take a genius to guess why. Trump has repeatedly stated that the US need to win the race to become the world’s leading provider of 5G infrastructure, even going so far as to blacklist Huawei in America late last year.
There are strong parallels between the high-level government concerns over 5G and the more speculative concerns to be found in shady internet forums. They both have a deep mistrust of a powerful institution at their core. Both recognise the potential of technology to facilitate intrusion and assert authoritarian control. Both channel their anxieties into aggressive mistrust, and seek to ‘re-assert control’ over inalienable rights. The language of suspicion used by politicians regarding 5G lends credibility to the more fanciful theories circulating online.
The recent surge in covidspiracy theories is likely a reaction against the seizure of unprecedented powers by governments worldwide in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Civil liberties, so often taken for granted, have been called into question by the lockdown of some 3.9 billion people. Meanwhile, the growth in surveillance technologies used to trace the virus are a demonstration in government power casting doubt on whether former freedoms will be returned.
Anxiety over the rollout of 5G has the potential to separate itself from a troubling association with alt-right ideologies and become a signifier for concerns about government surveillance, monitoring and oppression. Setting network masts alight is misguided to say the least, but healthier forms of suspicion about the technology that will be introduced as we combat this crisis, alongside greater public scrutiny of government decision-making and increased vigilance in safeguarding civil liberties, may prove to be a vital check on power in the months ahead.