Gee, what are some people now claiming is the cause of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic? How about 5G? No, not a stack of $5000 but 5G, which stands for the fifth generation of Internet communications technologies.
Yes, add yet another conspiracy theory to the growing list of conspiracy theories. This time some folks on social media are blaming 5G for causing the pandemic that has already afflicted over 1.5 million people and killed over 90,000 people. That’s 5G, the technology that is supposed to make mobile and Internet communications much, much faster.
Oh, 5-jeez, how could telecom possibly be related to the spread of a respiratory virus? Well, one variation of the theory is that there is actually no COVID-19 coronavirus. In other words, those pictures of the virus that you see on the news, that testing that you hear famous people are getting, and that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) that doctors and scientists seem to be battling are all part of some elaborate hoax. The virus is supposedly like love at first sight. It doesn’t really exist. Instead, this theory claims that the radiation from 5G is what’s actually causing COVID-19 symptoms.
Another variation of the conspiracy theory asserts that radiation from 5G can weaken your immune system to the point that you are more easily infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus. So the claim is that the advent of 5G is what has allowed this virus to spread as it has.
Holy conspiracy theories, Batman. Does this then mean that all those patients, doctors, nurses, other health care professionals, scientists, public health officials, journalists, policy makers, school officials, businesses, and countless others are in on the hoax, coordinating this massive scam? That would be amazing. Heck, just getting doctors and scientists to agree on something can be like trying to herd a bunch of cats with some pickles.
What exactly is the scientific evidence behind these theories? Well, here is an example of the hard hitting evidence that people are providing:
Yep, that seems to be the argument. Something happened and then something else happened. Therefore, they must be linked. 5G can produce some kind of radiation (more on this later). 5G begins in China. Then people start dying from COVID-19 in China.
The following tweet tries to take this “timing” correlation one step further:
Umm, simply showing that two things occurred around the same time doesn’t mean that they are somehow linked. How about the following then:
- 1916 – Justin Timberlake wasn’t born yet.
- 1918 – Flu pandemic
- 2002 – Justin Timberlake leaves N*SYNC
- 2002-2003 SARS Outbreak
- 2008 – Justin Timberlake stars in Mike Myers’ movie The Love Guru.
- 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic.
- 2019 – Someone grabs Justin Timberlake’s leg at a Paris Fashion show.
- 2020 – COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” that Timberlake is somehow linked to major infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics? Well, it looks like the “timing” evidence behind this Timber-link is as strong as the “evidence” provided for the claimed radiowaves, 3G, 4G, 5G link.
What else have people got to support this 5G-COVID-19 conspiracy theory? Well as this NBC2 News segment shows, some have tried to use the map argument:
The claim here is that since more COVID-19 cases are appearing in locations where more 5G towers are present, the two must be linked. After all, doesn’t correlation automatically mean causation?
The answer is absolutely not. Correlation alone does not mean causation. For example, if you were to map out the number of times people laugh and fart at the same time, which incidentally is called “larting,” you’d probably see a similar geographic distribution. Why? Is larting somehow causing COVID-19? Or do 5G towers go up every time enough larting occurs? No, because there is at least one big confounder at play here that is driving these three things: population density. Places in the U.S. with more people are more likely to have more 5G towers just because more people means more telecommunications demand. Such locations are also more likely to have a greater number of COVID-19 cases because a larger number of people interacting closely offers more opportunity for the virus to spread. Then there’s the larting. More intestines and more people to experience merriment equals more potential larting.
How else are folks trying to give currency to these 5G-COVID-19 conspiracy theories? What about pointing to currency? The video accompanying the following tweet claims that the new Bank of England £20 note happens to include pictures of a coronavirus and a 5G tower:
Let’s try to follow the logic here. The claim is that someone, let’s say the British government, is going through all of this elaborate effort to conceal the supposed link between 5G and COVID-19 but then would turn around and print a picture of a coronavirus and a 5G tower on money for everyone to see. Wouldn’t that be like trying at all costs to conceal your larts while at the same time wearing a shirt that says “I came, I saw, and I larted”? You’d think that someone behind a 5G conspiracy would opt to use something like, oh maybe a smartphone to communicate a message rather than images on a £20 note.
Maybe, just maybe, you should consider the alternative explanation for the images on the £20 note:
Yes, governments tend to include historical locations on money rather than pictures of viruses.
Speaking of money, such conspiracy theories are not without their cost. Scenes like the following have been happening:
Then there are people vandalizing 5G towers and actually setting them on fire, as Ryan Browne reported for CNBC. These acts prompted telecom companies to issue the following letter:
Who would have thought that “please, don’t set our cell towers on fire” would be a request that needs to be made?
In fact, these 5G-COVID-19 conspiracy theories have gotten so rampant that U.K. government officials actually have had to take time to discredit such theories, which is a wonderful use of time during a public health emergency:
Let’s be clear here. Your money is not sending you secret messages about 5G and the COVID-19 coronavirus. There is no scientific evidence that 5G towers are causing COVID-19 symptoms or that 5G radiation is making people more susceptible to SARS-CoV2 infections. COVID-19 has a clear cause, a new coronavirus. It is a biological virus and not an electronic one. This virus can spread via person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets. Your cell phone or your laptop is not going to transmit this virus, unless, of course, an infectious person coughs on, sneezes upon, touches, or licks your devices. If someone licks your devices in such a manner, declare the friendship over, disinfect your devices, and direct that person to an ice cream cone immediately.
If you’re wondering about this “radiation” that 5G towers may emit, keep in mind that not all radiation is the same. Yes, ionizing radiation such as X-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet (UV) light definitely can cause DNA damage. That damage can mess up the functioning of your cells and potentially lead to cancer. Therefore, certainly try to minimize exposure to ionizing radiation as much as possible. Don’t get X-rays unless you really need them. Don’t go sit out in the sun too long without proper protection. And don’t try to become the Hulk by exposing yourself to gamma rays.
By contrast, cell phone towers tend to emit radiofrequency (RF) waves, which is a form of non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation is not the same as ionizing radiation. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states on its website: “Non-ionizing radiation is not strong enough to directly affect the structure of atoms or damage DNA.”
That doesn’t mean that RF is always completely harmless. According to the EPA, RF, “does cause atoms to vibrate, which can cause them to heat up.” Making your atoms vibrate like they are dancing to dubstep is not necessarily a good thing. Indeed, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that RF fields to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” And the EPA does say on its website: “When RF energy is very strong, such as from radar transmitters, it can be dangerous. It can heat parts of your body very rapidly and cause serious injuries, like severe burns.”
However, before you freak out about 5G, consider what else the EPA says on its website: “These extremely high RF energy levels are only found near powerful equipment, such as long-distance transmitters. Radiofrequency energy decreases as it travels in atmosphere, which means that it gets weaker the farther it is from the transmitter. Powerful long-distance transmitters usually do not create high-level RF energy on the ground. If there is a ground level hazard from RF energy, there are safety requirements to prevent the public from dangerous exposure.” The American Cancer Society (ACS) website reaffirms this position, stating that most studies “have supported the idea that the RF waves given off by cell phones and towers don’t have enough energy to damage DNA directly.”
Of course, 5G technology is still quite new so you can’t say that it is 100% unequivocally safe under all circumstances. The development and implementation of such technology can move faster than appropriate environmental health studies. As I have written for Forbes previously in 2017 and in 2018, there is a need for more scientific studies to evaluate the safety and potential health effects of such RF exposure.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the 5G-COVID-19 conspiracy theories floating out there have any merit. Advancing such conspiracy theories when there is already a clear established cause behind the pandemic is very different from wanting more scientific studies on the safety of 5G RF. Such conspiracy theories can do real damage, distracting from the real problem at hand, and at nose, at mouth and at respiratory tract, a real virus that is spreading and can kill. It can take focus away from what people, businesses, and governments should be doing such as making sure that social distancing measures are being implemented, finding ways to test as many people as possible for the virus, protecting health care workers and shoring up health care capacity, and supporting research such as vaccine development.
Instead, you’ve got some people spending time selling anti-5G thumb drives and crowdfunding around these 5G fears, according Ryan Broderick reporting for BuzzFeed News. It makes you wonder, gee, what is the real motivation behind advancing such 5G-COVID-19 conspiracy theories?