This story originally appeared in Planet Detroit, a weekly email newsletter update to help you get smarter about the environment. (Subscribe here.) It was produced in a collaborative journalism effort organized by Outlier Media to help answer your questions about COVID-19. You can use it for free by texting “Detroit” to 73224.
What is 5G?
5G is the newest (fifth-generation) cellular network that offers faster data speeds, faster capacity, and lower latency (the time it takes for one device to “talk” to another). It began rolling out across the globe in 2019 and in Michigan in January 2020. The only local carrier offering 5G at this time in the Detroit area is Verizon.
What is the rumor?
A conspiracy theory began floating around on social media in March linking the rollout of 5G technology with the emergence of the novel coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19. These rumors relate to a long line of similar rumors that have linked cellular signals to all manner of illnesses, including cancer, since at least the year 2000. Various forms of the rumors promote the idea that radio waves from 5G networks weaken the immune system or cause the symptoms of COVID-19.
What do we know about it?
Internet researchers have found evidence that the conspiracy theory was created and is being promoted by a coordinated disinformation campaign on social media involving inauthentic activity by Twitter accounts, including suspected bots. The rumor got a boost on social media by American celebrities including actor Woody Harrelson and singer Keri Hilson. The activity follows patterns similar to those used in Russia-backed disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election. The rumors are believed to have fueled arson attacks on cell towers in the UK.
What’s the bottom line?
The coronavirus is not caused by the spread of 5G internet technology.
Authorities including the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the UK government and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) have all issued statements disavowing the rumor. Social media platforms are taking steps to remove the misinformation.
Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a metro Detroit freelance journalist and publisher of the Planet Detroit Newsletter.