5G phone masts are being set alight in the UK, after online conspiracy theories have misleadingly linked the cell towers to the coronavirus pandemic. The BBC reports that at least three 5G towers were set alight within the last week, and police and fire services were called to extinguish the flames.
A Vodafone UK spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that four cell towers were targeted in the past 24 hours. Police have now launched investigations into how the 5G towers caught fire. At least one tower in Birmingham, operated by EE, doesn’t even provide 5G services but was still set on fire.
“Our engineers are assessing the cause of the fire at one of our towers in Birmingham. If it transpires that it was arson, which looks likely at this time, then we will work to help West Midlands police identify a culprit,” says an EE spokesperson. “This site served thousands of people in the Birmingham area, providing vital 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity as it has done for many years. We will try to restore full coverage as quickly as possible, but the damage caused by the fire is significant.”
Rumors and conspiracy theories over a link between the roll out of 5G and the spread of coronavirus have been spread primarily through social media networks. A variety of groups exist on Facebook and Nextdoor, where thousands of members repeat false and misleading claims that 5G is supposedly harmful.
One theory claims that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan because the Chinese city had recently been rolling out 5G. It’s now supposedly spread to other cities that are also using 5G. These false conspiracy theories neglect to mention that a highly contagious virus would naturally spread more in densely populated cities with access to 5G, and that the coronavirus pandemic has hit counties like Iran and Japan where 5G isn’t in use yet.
There is no scientific evidence that links the coronavirus pandemic to 5G, nor any immediate negative health effects to 5G. Full Fact, an independent fact checking charity in the UK, has explored the claims after a British tabloid newspaper highlighted them recently. 5G uses a higher frequency of radio waves than 4G or 3G, but regulators in the UK have recorded 5G electromagnetic radiation levels well below international guidelines.
This hasn’t stopped these wild conspiracy theories from spreading, though. Some people are even harassing workers laying fiber optic cables for 5G installations, claiming that when 5G is turned on it’s going to “kill everyone.”
UK operators now believe the attacks are undermining the nation’s security. “I’m saddened today to report that vandals have carried out a series of arson attacks on mobile phone masts during this time of national crisis,” says Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery. “This is now a matter of national security. Police and counter terrorism authorities are investigating.”
The apparent arson attacks have clearly caused significant damage that will affect services in Birmingham, just as emergency services at the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is relying on mobile networks. “I’m absolutely outraged and disgusted that people would be taking action against the infrastructure we need to tackle this emergency,” said NHS director Stephen Powis at a daily UK coronavirus briefing.
The UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) branded the conspiracy theories “crackpot,” noting that it received reports of criminal damage to phone masts and abuse of telecoms engineers. DCMS is calling on social media networks to control the spread of misinformation. “We must also see social media companies acting responsibly and taking much swifter action to stop nonsense spreading on their platforms which encourages such acts.”
Mobile networks are classified as critical national infrastructure in the UK, but one Facebook group was specifically set up to encourage people to burn 5G towers. Peter Clarke, a mobile networks infrastructure expert in the UK, reported the group to Facebook but the company initially failed to remove it. After an increase in attention, the group has since been removed, but many others are still available with false information and thousands of people encouraging others to burn 5G towers down.
UK regulator Ofcom also warned Uckfield FM, a community radio station, this week for featuring someone with “potentially harmful statements about the coronavirus.” A guest, identified as a “registered nurse,” appeared in a 20-minute segment in February, claiming that 5G is sucking the oxygen out of people’s lungs. The segment also spread the falsehood that 5G and coronavirus are linked. Clips of the radio show have been widely shared on Facebook ever since.
Like many conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns, Russia may well be at the heart of the 5G health scares. While a large number of Facebook groups have been fueling these theories recently, a New York Times report from last year warned that Russian disinformation campaigns were actively exploiting 5G health fears. RT America, a Russian government-funded TV network, aired a report more than a year ago in which an RT reporter claimed 5G “might kill you.”
These are the types of nonsensical warnings we’re now starting to see on Facebook, and they’re clearly convincing enough to lead some to damage vital national infrastructure. All of this is occurring just as the UK and many countries across the world are battling the coronavirus pandemic. While medical professionals are busy fighting a highly contagious virus, telecoms workers and social media networks are having to fight an equally destructive viral spread of stupidity online.
Update, April 5th 1:30PM ET: Added statements from EE, Vodafone, and the UK’s DCMS.