Not since 9/11 has a global event given so much opportunity to conspiracy theorists as the novel coronavirus pandemic. The fear, panic, uncertainty and death it has wrought, and will continue to for many months to come, has created an ideal atmosphere for “alternative” explanations to those provided by governments and official international bodies. Conspiracy theories which have emerged are exploiting the concerns of people who want to keep themselves and their families safe and are desperate for simple answers and solutions, with many no longer trusting politicians and established media outlets.
Among those taking advantage of this situation are a range of online far-right activists who are disseminating a number of claims about the “true” nature of the pandemic. Gregory Davis of Hope not Hate has noted that the initial reaction to the pandemic from voices on the far right teetered between outright denial and apocalypticism, and GNET Associate Fellow Eviane Leidig recently outlined that far-right activists have capitalised upon coronavirus disinformation to spread conspiratorial narratives surrounding the Chinese government and the dangers of globalism. However, as events have progressed, arguably one of the most prevalent conspiracies adopted by actors on the far right is the notion that 5G telecommunication technology, which is currently being rolled out in many countries across the globe, is the true cause of the COVID-19 illness.
While there are a number of different variations to this theory, most share a belief that, even if the coronavirus is real, it is largely harmless, and the illness and death which is occurring is in fact caused by 5G. Proponents of the theory argue that the radiation from electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) generated by 5G towers, which are more powerful than those used by 4G and Wi-Fi networks, absorb oxygen in the air and from living organisms. Thus, the respiratory distress suffered by those reported as infected with COVID-19 is in fact believed to be the result of 5G radiation “beams” that are fired at people in order to deliberately kill off segments of the population. Hospitals are regarded as major centres of 5G radiation, with people in distress taken there to be finally killed off by further exposure and, some claim, by ventilators which are used to pump deadly amounts of oxygen into the blood. Meanwhile, the subsequent lockdowns and increased police powers used to slow the spread of the disease are seen as part of an incremental effort to take away people’s freedoms in pursuit of the creation of the so-called New World Order.
Technological innovation has often been a source of fixation for conspiracy theorists and conspiracies of this kind are not new, nor are they explicitly linked to the far right. Similar theories surrounding the potential health risks surrounding 3G and 4G radiation have been prominent within online conspiracy circles since the early 2000s on platforms such as 4chan and Facebook. Fears of the threat of 5G and EMF have also been circulating within online conspiracy communities for many years. Videos on YouTube and other video streaming sites, often with tens if not hundreds of thousands of views, make a detailed case for how and why 5G is a threat, citing various physical side-effects of the technology ranging from causing potential damage to the human immune system, heart, skin, and eyesight, to the negative ecological impact of technology on the natural ecosystem. Many of these communities share a general belief in a global plot to subjugate humanity and are not specifically white supremacist in nature (although they are often, but not always, antisemitic).
Various iterations of the conspiracy are intertwined with beliefs from other established conspiracy movements, including the so-called “anti-vaxxers” who believe that vaccinations do not protect from disease but are used to control and/or kill off the population. The 5G conspiracy narrative purports that the next stage of the attack will involve vaccines, and that the coronavirus “plandemic” is a cover for the global implementation of a vaccine programme that will poison and kill millions.
This narrative is particularly prevalent within more explicitly far-right interpretations of the conspiracy which capitalise upon these fears as a vehicle for antisemitism, conceptualising the vaccine as a dangerous drug developed by Jewish people as part of a eugenics programme aiming to eradicate the white race. Indeed, the narrative being adopted by those on the far right can be thought of as tiered. The most “entry-level” of these relate to fears surrounding potential health risks associated with 5G technology, and as the tiers become progressively more extreme higher levels of the conspiracy stray into overt antisemitism and racism.
5G Mast Attacks and their Link to the Far Right
This belief in the intentional harm caused by 5G has been taken up, and acted upon, at an alarming rate. In the UK alone, at least 20 mobile phone masts were damaged over the Easter weekend, with reports emerging of similar vandalism taking place in the Netherlands and Ireland, among other countries. However, while messages left on the scene of many of these incidents confirm that they were inspired by the conspiracy, little is known about those carrying out the attacks and whether or not they harbour extremist ideas. While they may be far-right activists, there are many other possibilities, including anarchists (who have a track record of damaging telecoms infrastructure), anti-technology groups, or simply individuals purely inspired by the conspiracy theory and acting out of fear.
Whatever the motivations of those carrying them out, these attacks have been welcomed by far-right activists seeking to sow general social unrest and disorder. On fringe platforms like 8kun (the successor site of 8chan which was removed from the Clearnet in August 2019 after it was linked to a series of far-right mass casualty terrorist attacks), a thread has emerged containing a “league table” of communications towers which have been targeted in cities across the United Kingdom, with one user implying that the trend should be turned into a “social media challenge” for activists to post videos of their attacks online.
The spirit of the thread evokes the “gamification of mass violence” trend which journalist Robert Evans suggests emerged on 8chan with users challenging each other to commit increasingly violent mass casualty attacks. Attacks of this kind fit with the broader goals of many factions of the far right pursuing an accelerationist strategy which views current society as irredeemably corrupt. They seek to escalate societal discord and chaos culminating in the eventual collapse of society in order to further their own plans to “bring down the system” and establish some form of fascist ethnostate. Thus, attacks on 5G towers are not only being encouraged online, but have even been embraced by some far-right actors online who do not adhere to the conspiracy theory narrative, but appreciate the anarchic value of the attacks themselves.
Attacks have been particularly welcomed by users on the social media platform Telegram. Research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue shows that during March of this year, Telegram channels associated with white supremacy and racism grew by more than 6000 users, with one white supremacist channel centred on coronavirus-related messaging experiencing a subscriber growth of 800%. In our research on far-right conspiracy channels and chats on Telegram, we found that many of the 5G conspiracy groups we analysed are not openly far right, but they appear to be run by known extremist Telegram users who dress them up as sources of information for those seeking answers. We also found examples of individuals joining discussions in order to find out more about what is “really going on.” In one case a user who expresses both concern and helplessness about the appearance of a 5G tower near their home is encouraged by another to set it on fire and is provided with details on how to effectively do so using household items.
Unlike conspiracy theories such as the “Great Replacement,” which is an influential pillar of far-right thought, conspiracies surrounding 5G technology do not appear to have been originally developed by the far right. Instead they have been adopted from other conspiracy circles because they are compatible with pre-existing far-right ideology and beliefs about a Jewish-controlled dystopian totalitarian New World Order intent on subjugating humanity and the white race in particular. Therefore, Telegram channels of this kind provide an ideal opportunity for actors on the far right to shift the “Overton Window” – the public conception of what is acceptable discourse – by exposing newer users to conspiratorial narratives surrounding 5G, and gradually escalating this discourse into more explicitly racist and antisemitic narratives, subtly pushing their own agenda.
Mainstreaming of the 5G Conspiracy Theory
While it is too early to understand why the conspiracy has spread so quickly, there are a number of possible reasons. Uncertainty and distrust in the midst of a global crisis are ideal ingredients for conspiracy theories, but there are two other components which further help to drive them.
Firstly, the most effective theories are couched in mainstream and “authentic” beliefs or concerns. In the case of the 5G conspiracy, it is riding on the back of understandable and long-standing concerns about the possible dangers of the small amounts of radiation emitted by mobile phones and phone masts. While there is little evidence to suggest this causes illness, it is a question which has been addressed by many mainstream and qualified scientists.
Secondly, the speed at which conspiracy theories are taken up can be accelerated when they are endorsed or toyed with by well-known figures such as celebrities or people who at least appear to be in positions of authority. In the UK over the last few weeks a number of high-profile individuals have expressed concerns about the links between 5G and the health crisis. In April, TV personality Amanda Holden retweeted a link to a petition urging the government to ban the roll-out of 5G in the United Kingdom due to its relation to the spread of coronavirus, before claiming that she did so accidentally after facing criticism. More recently, Eamonn Holmes, a presenter on the popular morning programme Good Morning Britain argued on live TV that what he referred to as the “mainstream media” should not reject the 5G claims because they “don’t know it’s not true.”
Claims like this are even more useful for those disseminating conspiracy theories when they appear to come from official bodies. In May 2018 a former UN staff member named Claire Edwards posed a question to a UN panel in Vienna, which included the organisation’s secretary general António Guterres, expressing her concerns about the dangers posed to UN staff from EMF emitted by Wi-Fi routers and mobile phone boosters set up throughout their offices. She warned that increased human exposure to EMF will lead to a “global heath catastrophe,” also claiming that 5G technology has similar traits to “directed energy weapons” and must be urgently reviewed before being used around the world. The video of Edwards’ contribution at the UN meeting, with its appearance of more mainstream respectability, has since been shared widely in 5G conspiracy circles and has also recently appeared in far-right Telegram channels.
As the conspiracy is amplified by public figures, and seeps further into public consciousness, this provides further opportunity for actors on the far right to utilise this discourse as a vehicle for their extreme ideas. The long-standing conspiracy theory about EMF is among the first of a number of opportunities afforded to them by the pandemic which they have seized upon, but it will not be the last.