As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it becomes abundantly clear that conspiracy theories and misinformation are almost as prone to spreading through the public. Thus far during this global crisis, misinformation like “coronavirus is just the flu/no worse than the flu” to drinking water every 15 minutes will “flush out” the virus, to eat cloves of garlic protects against COVID-19. The latter of which led to a woman being hospitalised in China after eating 1.5kg of raw garlic.
Whilst conspiracy theories may be slightly less dangerous than pure misinformation, they are no less insidious. Some ‘theories’ that have circulated thus far are that COVID-19 is a “bioweapon” that was “created in a lab” — either genetically engineered or incubated in bat test subjects, in the US or in China, depending on who you believe — to it being a “poplation control scheme” devised by Bill Gates of Microsoft.
What is very clear is that the “disease vector” responsible for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy is most certain social media and to a wider extent, the internet itself. It is perhaps ironic then, that the most widespread conspiracy theory and the one that the most people seem to be lending credibility to, is that 5G — the next generation of mobile internet connection that promises faster upload/download speeds through the use of a wider radio spectrum — is either responsible for the illness that is being blamed on COVID-19 or is somehow facilitating the spread.
In fact, news reports this week indicate that some people are taking this fallacious connection so seriously that they are attacking 5G towers and workers. Just this morning Birmingham Live in the UK reported that a 5G mast had been set on fire, whilst a video circulates on Twitter of protesters in Hong Kong tearing down masts.
Whilst it would be easy, and perhaps convenient, to claim this as a new phenomenon, the adoption of COVID-19 as the proof of the “dangers” of 5G is just the latest step in a long smear campaign designed to induce fear about its introduction.
The trepidation around 5G can be traced much further back, beyond its inception, beyond the creation of the internet even. The fear of 5G arises from our fundamental and long-standing misunderstanding about radiation. More specifically about what electromagnetic radiation is, and the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
But before tackling the long history of irrational radiation fear, we should take a look at some extant claims and demonstrate how easy they are to dismiss.
Tracking down Patient Zero
Whilst it would be pretty much impossible to track down the first person who connected 5G and COVID-19, it’s far more feasible to separate out some of the most common claims and analyse them. The first 5G/Coronavirus claim that I personally came across was the idea that there actually is “no virus” and that all the symptoms are a result of 5G networks, so let’s consider that claim to be our “Patient Zero.”
In the above screenshot, it’s clear that the roll-out of different forms of communication are being linked to the prevalence of certain viruses. It would be pretty easy to start any kind of debunking by pointing out that everything we know about the viral theory of disease transmission would have to be wrong to accommodate this conspiracy theory. Thus, before we even start, there’s a wealth of evidence — enough to build the foundation of our entire understanding of disease and medicine — to demonstrate this claim is nonsense on toast.
But, where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s pick apart the claim bit by bit.
Firstly, the suggestion that radio waves were introduced in 1916 is laughable and clearly demonstrates that the people that are spreading this conspiracy have zero idea what electromagnetic radiation is.
Radio waves are simply low-frequency, long-wavelength, electromagnetic radiation — less energetic than infrared. In fact, they carry with them less energy than the visible light we use to see everything around us.
It should be clear then that if radio waves are responsible for a viral disease, the largest contributor to epidemics should be sunlight.
Radio waves didn’t “emerge” in 1916, in fact, the static that you can hear on an unturned radio partly consists of radio waves that date back to shortly after the big bang — emerging from the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) that permeates the entire Universe. The Earth also receives a great deal of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun in the form of radio waves. Thus, any technological developments that utilised radio waves simply added to those natural sources.
Looking past that there is also an issue with the dates being offered in this widely circulated social media post. The first commercial radio transmitters and receivers were developed between 1895 and 1896 by Guglielmo Marconi — with radio being widely used by 1900. Way before 1918 flu pandemic, which lasted until 1920.
The “evidence” put forward by the conspiracy theorists then takes a break of nearly a century until the supposed introduction of 3G in 2003, which is linked to the spread of SARS. The thing is, there were lots of pandemics in this intervening time — Asian flu in 1957 and Hong Kong flu in 1968 for example. These are ignored because they don’t fit the conspiracy theorists’ narrative.
As for 3G, well its rollout took a protracted period of time. Whilst it was indeed serving Europe in 2003, 3G wasn’t rolled out in Asia until 2006. It took until 2007 to get 3G operational in 40 countries, and it wasn’t introduced in Africa until 2012. The SARS pandemic was first identified in China in 2002 — four years before 3G was introduced. It was brought under control in July 2003. There was another smaller outbreak in 2004, again in China, still two years before the introduction of 3G there.
The roll-out of 4G was much tighter, taking from 2008 to 2010 roughly to implement. The Swine flu pandemic began in Mexico in 2009 and was over by August 2010. That means that for Swine Flu there is some correlation. Far more than can be attributed to 3G and SARS, which barely overlaps at all.
We also have to ignore that coronaviruses such as COVID-19, SARS, and MERS are very different than influenza strains, can often cause radically different symptoms and most certainly have very different incubation periods. If these ailments had the same root-cause — ie. low-frequency radiation — we should expect them to be similar.
With all these cases, even if you discount the fact that every epidemiologist, doctor and scientist who works in virology must be “in” on the conspiracy, there still lurks that problem that science attempts to avoid at every turn.
The strands of “evidence” presented to support this conspiracy are very easy to dismiss based on a well known logical fallacy which scientists are always at pains to avoid. A maxim that passed into infamy when a doctor ignored its principles and started a movement that has cost lives across the globe.
Correlation does not equal causation.
The mere fact that two events are correlated does not mean that they are causally linked. A causal link between events has to be established by evidence. To demonstrate this, one only has to see how easy it is to link events like these epidemics to something else unrelated, especially when you omit and distort data. For example, can we really be sure that the American thrash band Metallica aren’t responsible for the epidemics blamed on 5G and other radio wave-based systems?
Picture what follows as a deranged tweet:
“In 1986, Metallica released their masterpiece “Master of the Puppets.” In the same year, America suffered its largest flu epidemic since 1968!
2003, Metallica release the panned “St. Anger” album — SARS happens!
2008, they release “Death Magnetic” shortly after MERS strikes!
And in 2019 the band release “Helping Hands…Live & Acoustic at the Masonic” thus sparking the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneously proving the Masons were behind this all along!”
What I did there was made a correlation using the barndoor effect. Rather than aiming at a target painted on a barn-door, I fired a few random shots into it and then painted a target around the bullet holes. Being a crack shot is easy when you cheat. And this is exactly what the people pushing this conspiracy are doing.
One of the key issues that still motivates the anti-vax movement is the rise in autism cases and how this seems to correlate to the introduction of the MMR vaccination. The connection was initially drawn by Andrew Wakefield in a 1998 paper published in The Lancet and later retracted. Wakefield himself was struck off for the unethical procedures he engaged in to obtain his results, but he has been embraced as a hero by the anti-vax —and some would say the anti-science — movement.
All it takes to launch a conspiracy theory based on correlation is a willingness to distort and ignore data, and to bury the fact you have no actual causal evidence.
Let’s bring the viral theory of disease back into play, and look at a slightly toned-down suggestion, the idea that 5G could be weakening our immune systems.
Understanding Non-ionizing Radiation
Again, the main evidence that has been presented for 5G facilitating the spread of COVID-5G has been the correlation between its rollout, the areas of the world in which it is most used, and the timing and location of COVID-19 outbreaks. We can dismiss this by saying correlation doesn’t equal causation. So what about the suggested mechanisms by which 5G is weakening our immune systems?
The idea that 5G weakens the immune system is very similar to claims of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) in which mild to severe symptoms are connected to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). At the moment the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not consider the symptoms of EHS to be related to exposure to EMF. Likewise, there is no clinical evidence to suggest that 5G can cause harm or weaken the immune system.
Firstly, the human immune system cannot be weakened against COVID-19, for the simple reason that this strain of coronavirus is new, we have no immune response to it. That is what makes it so dangerous, none of our immune systems contain the antibodies for this virus yet.
Secondly, the radio waves that form the basis of 5G are non-ionizing. This essentially means that they don’t have the requisite energy to strip electrons from atoms. This is unlike high-frequency electromagnetic radiation like X-rays or gamma-rays which do have the energy to ionize atoms and thus, damage cells.
When electrons are stripped from atoms — these atoms become ionized. This can be a problem in our bodies because the surface — or valance — electrons of an atom determine how it bonds with other atoms. A change in this respect can change how proteins fold within the body. This might not sound too extreme, but the way a protein folds determines how it functions. Thus, exposure to ionizing radiation can lead to all sorts of nasty effects, including cancer and yes, weakened immune systems.
Again, radio waves don’t have enough energy to do this, but you may well be asking, what if we’ve been exposed to a lot of radiowaves? Surely then there will collectively be enough energy to cause ionization?
The simple answer to this is no. Fortunately, that isn’t how ionization works.
Imagine the valence electron as a rubber duck and the atom to which it is attached as a metal bucket. We start to fill the bucket by pouring water into it — analogous to bombarding our electron and atom with radio waves.
Now in the real world, the water lifts the duck off the bottom of the bucket, and eventually, it spills out. Ionization doesn’t work like this though. With ionization, the electron doesn’t spill out unless the photons that make up these radio waves individually contain enough energy make them do that. It does matter how many photons there are.
Albert Einstein was the first to discover this phenomenon whilst investigating the photoelectric effect. When light hits the surface of a metal, electrons are given off, but Einstein found that lowering frequency of the light cut off the flow of electrons. Yet to his surprise, altering the intensity of light did not cause electrons to stop being released — it just slowed their escape.
So for example, a low-frequency light with a high-intensity shining on the surface of a metal will not cause electrons to flow. Yet a high-frequency, low-intensity light will.
Re-running our bucket experiment, this is like saying the duck stays at the bottom of the bucket unless the water is of the correct temperature to make it rise. No matter how much water pours in, that duck ain’t budging. Bringing the temperature of the water up, spills out the duck at random, it could take a drop of water to do it, it could take a monsoon.
If it seems like this doesn’t make sense, well, yeah. It’s quantum physics. If it confused and terrified Einstein, why should it be comfortable and easy for us to understand?
Finally, we come to the idea that COVID-19 can somehow utilise 5G signals as a method of transport or even communication.
The Daily Star — the UK’s number purveyor of pseudo-scientific junk — this week ran an article that suggested: “viruses can talk to each other” and thus make active decisions about who to infect. The implication is that 5G signals are being used to do this. Full Fact, the UK’s fact-checking website link this bizarre claim to a 2011 paper which suggests bacteria can communicate via electromagnetic signals — an idea that is thoroughly disputed and, as you probably noticed, refers to bacteria not viruses.
The Full fact article also points out that COVID-19 is spreading in areas of the world with little to no 5G coverage. One of the worst-hit countries is Iran, a country with no 5G networks.
This element of the COVID-19/5G conspiracy really goes to the heart of why we need to step on this “theory” hard and fast. We know how COVID-19 spreads and limiting that spread is vital.
The novel coronavirus moves through contact with small droplets when those infected with the virus cough, sneeze or exhale. Smashing down 5G towers will achieve nothing to limit the spread. What will limit the spread is getting people to self-isolate, practice social distance and good hygiene practices when they can’t. Wearing protective gear such as masks and gloves has been shown to have some positive effects.
To get people to do that we must show them that conspiracy theories like those listed — and I hope thoroughly debunked — above, are nonsense. In turn, ensuring that they are listening to good information and not outdated irrational fears about “radiation.”