5G, COVID-19, and the need to inoculate Europe against disinformation
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5G, COVID-19, and the need to inoculate Europe against disinformation

Thursday, 21 May 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
A vandalised 5G tower in the UK, after it was set on fire.

Over the past two months, a few select categories of “essential” professionals have kept a confined Europe functioning in the face of COVID-19.

This distinction applies to doctors, nurses, and grocers, but also includes broadband engineers and delivery people. For the most part, these essential workers have earned literal plaudits from their communities, from “Clap for Carers” in the UK to France’s 8 PM ritual of appreciation.

For the men and women responsible for keeping Europe’s critical telecommunications infrastructure up and running, though, their work during the historic crisis has instead been being met with verbal abuse and even physical violence. The culprits: individuals caught up in a baseless but potentially deadly conspiracy theory asserting links between 5G infrastructure and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.

This conspiracy theory, which has spread rapidly since January and has given rise to a spate of attacks on cell towers across the United Kingdom and mainland Europe, is the latest reminder of just how vulnerable European publics are to “fake news” promoted not just by fringe voices but also celebrities and even mainstream media outlets.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) and industry leaders are speaking out against this and other pernicious lies surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the European Union has yet to find a way to effectively combat their spread – even as the disinformation regarding 5G spreads through precisely the same social media echo chambers Brussels has been trying to come to grips with for years.

From baseless rumors to towers set ablaze

The story of Michael Demetroudi, an apprentice engineer for UK broadband company Openreach, illustrates the real-life dangers posed by this online disinformation. In the course of one week in April, Demetroudi was attacked three times by 5G conspiracy theorists. While the first two episodes were limited to verbal abuse, the third saw an aggressive individual accuse Demetroudi of “trying to import the 5G in every single box” and spit on him. The engineer, who went into self-quarantine after this potential exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has since fallen ill with a suspected case of COVID-19.

Over the course of April and early May, Openreach alone documented 68 cases involving its employees and infrastructure. Network engineers working for the company have been publicly harassed and even accused of murder, with videos of the attacks posted to YouTube and other social media networks by their perpetrators. By the far the most serious incident, however, saw an Openreach employee taken to hospital after being stabbed multiple times in London.

Only a few telecoms workers have been thus far physically harmed as a result of this baseless but tenacious belief in a linkage between 5G networks and the novel coronavirus. The same cannot be said of the infrastructure they have worked through confinement to put in place. By the first week of May, 77 cell towers had been attacked in the UK, many of which were not even related to the 5G network.

That pattern has spread beyond Britain, with conspiracy theorists attempting to destroy phone masts in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Cyprus. In the Netherlands, for example, firefighters in Almere near Amsterdam had to put out multiple mast fires in a single night, neither of which was equipped with 5G equipment.

While those particular Dutch towers had nothing to do with 5G, at least one of them was for the dedicated use of emergency services. A similar event occurred in the UK, where vandals targeted telecommunications equipment near the NHS Nightingale hospital in Birmingham. This is indeed the most dangerous potential impact of the ongoing attacks: while the perpetrators believe they are saving themselves and their neighbors from the supposed health risks of new technologies, they are instead destroying critical communications networks first responders rely on to protect the public, and this in the middle of the worst public health crisis in a century.

A contagion spread via social media

While the groups instigating attacks on physical telecoms infrastructure are primarily local or national in nature, pan-European fears of 5G have been spread via the usual channels responsible for harmful, if not deadly, disinformation: social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The case of David Icke, the former sports broadcaster and footballer who for the past three decades has been one of the UK’s most prominent conspiracy theorists, illustrates how the nature of social media platforms allows even the least credible actors to spread dangerous falsehoods like this one to tens of millions of people. Icke, who built a wide following on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube while simultaneously peddling both blatant anti-Semitism and claims a race of “reptilians” called Archons have hijacked the human race, is a leading proponent of the idea that 5G technologies are a threat to human health.

According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which released an open letter calling for Icke to be de-platformed, Icke’s videos spreading disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic – including that the virus is some kind of cover for health effects caused by 5G – has been seen over 30 million times.

The CCDH found a direct link between Icke’s content and the attacks on telephone masts in the UK, with the online groups responsible for instigating the attacks sharing his videos and seemingly reacting to his claim that “the more that they expand 5G, the more 5G is going to impact upon the population’s health, and the more it impacts upon the population’s health, the more they can say it’s caused by COVID-19.”

In fairness, the platforms have taken at least some action. Facebook and YouTube have now removed at least some of Icke’s pages from their platforms, a markedly more direct intervention compared to Facebook’s usual approach of simply labelling misinformation as such. By Facebook’s own admission, “warning labels” were slapped on roughly 50 million posts conveying false information about COVID-19 in April alone. Twitter has not followed Facebook and YouTube’s lead, at least as of yet: Icke’s verified account, with its 323,000 followers, remains active.

Officials in Brussels are perfectly aware they cannot count on these platforms to police themselves, but they have yet to find an effective strategy for combating disinformation spread via social media. As Icke has shown, even the most blatantly unreliable voices can still attract audiences in the millions. His example, and that of so many other instances of “fake news” taking root among Europeans, speaks to a pressing need to address the failures in trust between institutions and the public in order to make the EU less fertile ground for this insidious threat.