One of the drawbacks of social media is that it allows conspiracy theories to flourish and spread like wildfire. And while many of these remain harmless in themselves, their unchecked spread has led to a period of mistrust in experts, including scientists, and even physical danger for some people.
The latest example of this worrying trend in the UK is the 5G conspiracy theory. The pattern for this conspiracy is the standard “death by radiation” seen with previous technological advances such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, despite the years of study on the safety of the electromagnetic field. It evolved into something more sinister earlier in the year when it was linked to the Covid-19 pandemic by French conspiracy website Les moutons enrages (“The rabid sheep”).
There is obviously no basis for it. How a radio wave of a certain frequency can create a contagious virus is anyone's guess. But this has not stopped people sharing the theory on social media, a fire fanned by decidedly non-expert celebrities such as Woody Harrelson, boxer Amir Khan, and singer Keri Hilson, who have all shared videos and articles on the topic.
This campaign of misinformation has led to a spate of arson attacks against phone towers – which is strange because we're sure no one is really complaining about faster Internet – as well as attacks on telecommunication workers, regardless if they were working on 5G tower installations or not.
Wired reports that there have been 77 arson attack on mobile phone masts across the United Kingdom and 180 incidents of abuse. Openreach, the company that provides the upkeep of the British broadband infrastructure reported 63 incidents of abuse against its staff over the last five weeks. The Guardian reports that engineer Naveed Q had to flee a group of 15 people shouting abuse at him.
“We’re well equipped to deal with difficult customers,” Michael D, an Openreach engineer in north London, told The Guardian. “But since Covid, we haven’t experienced abuse like this before. Colleagues are leaving for work, thinking in the back of their mind, ‘Is it going to be a safe day today?’”
Michael was attacked three times, culminating in a threatening verbal abuse from a man who spat in his face. Subsequently, Michael had to self-isolate for two weeks after coming down with Covid-19 symptoms – a disease may we remind you that is deadly, and has killed 270,500 people worldwide so far. There are reports of people in the US being charged with making a "terror threat" by purposely risking infecting someone with Covid-19 through coughing and licking.
A phone mast built to serve Birmingham's NHS Nightingale Hospital, created purposely to treat Covid-19 patients, was attacked on April 14. Vodafone UK Chief Executive Nick Jeffery stated in a LinkedIn post: "It's heart-rending enough that families cannot be there at the bedside of loved ones who are critically ill. It's even more upsetting that even the small solace of a phone or video call may now be denied them because of the selfish actions of a few deluded conspiracy theorists."