5G’s Rapid Growth Sparked a Conspiracy Theory That Spiraled Amid the Pandemic

Some saw dark intent with its rapid development, and now America could lose the race to adoption

a lysol spray bottom, donald trump, virus particles, wifi bars in circles
Rumors without any scientific evidence circulated online that Covid-19's rapid spread might be linked to an increase in 5G cellphone towers. Gates and Hydroxychloroquine, Getty Images

Key insight:

As popular conspiracy theories around 5G networks and the novel coronavirus prompt activist lawsuits, local government reviews and even rogue vandalism of cellphone towers, a Federal Communications Commission official warned recently that the hysteria could hinder the rollout of service.

“High-speed, high-capacity wireless networks will be indispensable tools for our social and economic recovery,” FCC general counsel Thomas Johnson wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “If we delay 5G deployment based on irrational fears and unproven theories, it will only hurt the American people as we plot our path forward.”

The warning—and the fact that it was deemed necessary—demonstrates how widespread these health concerns have become, despite a lack of scientific evidence. Once a fringe theory relegated to alternative media backwaters, the spurious linkage may even threaten to hurt the country’s position in an international 5G arms race.

“It seems like it’s just a perfectly timed stew to play to uncertainties, anxiety and the willingness of people who like to traffic in conspiracy theories,” said longtime wireless industry analyst Bill Menezes.

As towers rose, so did the pushback

In order to facilitate the revolutionary speeds that 5G promises, wireless carriers have turned to super high-frequency waves previously thought to be impractical for commercial cellphone use. Those wavelengths can carry more data at faster speeds but only travel short distances, meaning they require many more cell towers and other structures.

Starting a couple years ago, people across the country began to take notice of all the new equipment in their towns and cities and question the safety of electromagnetic waves in this range of radiation, despite an abundance of research that found no health hazards.

Because of the delays caused by these discussions and protracted regulatory fee negotiations between carriers and local governments, the FCC opted in late 2018 to put limits on local review processes across the board in the face of opposition from dozens of cities and counties.

“It’s likely that a lot of the uneasiness about 5G is because it’s happening at a time that federal and local governments are bending over backward to help these telephone companies build these new cells,” Menezes said. “To the extent that people feel left out of the system that is helping this happen.”

As even official public health agencies revised and updated guidance as the pandemic developed, people latched onto various conspiracy theories to help explain the unprecedented events unfolding before them.

a lysol spray bottom, donald trump, virus particles, wifi bars in circles

Why conspiracy theorists linked Covid-19 to 5G

While tying a respiratory virus to 5G radiation might sound outlandish, the theory advanced by some fringe media held that the thermal effects of the wireless waves compromised people’s immune systems and caused the virus to spread more quickly.

“Before every pandemic of the last 150 years, there was a quantum leap in the electrification of the Earth,” said Thomas Cowan, a medical doctor on disciplinary probation, in one viral conspiracy video.

But while the higher frequencies of waves in the millimeter range do emit slightly more heat, experts say it’s not anywhere near a dangerous level.

Still, the notion soon climbed to become the third most prominent conspiracy theory on social and traditional media in April, with nearly 900,000 mentions that month, according to a report from Zignal Labs. Twitter started adding warning disclaimers on subject matter related to 5G-Covid-19 conspiracy theory content in the last couple of weeks.

“We still think fake news is produced by lone hackers, radical hardliners and dishonest politicians,” said professor of internet studies at the Oxford Internet Institute Philip Howard, who released a report on Covid-related misinformation. “It’s actually a big and global business, one that takes advantage of the data collected by social media firms.”

As far as whether the conspiracy mongering will hurt actual 5G implementation, ironically, those federal expediency measures may also limit the ability of the same people to hold up the process, according to Menezes. Nevertheless, major carriers have set up a website called wirelesshealthfacts.com through their trade group CTIA in an attempt to quell this negative perception, and executives at some big carriers have spoken out in interviews.

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.