News

How Britain Fell for the 5G Conspiracy Theory

Over 50 masts have been burned or vandalised, while more than 120 telecom engineers have been threatened or harassed. Why? It all started with a man up a lamppost.

by Maria Pope; illustrated by Daniel Strange
29 April 2020, 8:00am

Illustration: Daniel Strange

It started, in earnest, with a lamppost. In April of 2018, a man from the north-eastern town of Gateshead took a ladder and scaled a streetlight before vandalising the very top. According to local newspapers, the man had become convinced that Gateshead Council had placed "5G antenna" across the town's streetlights, and that these antenna were, in turn, "killing everyone".

That same month, Gateshead Council posted an unusual Facebook status. "Gateshead Council DOES NOT use 5G technology in any of its street lights," they announced, adding that "the street lights in Gateshead will not give you cancer" and that "they are not killing all the birds and insects".

Exactly two years later, during the first days of April, 2020, mobile phone masts were set alight in Birmingham, Liverpool and Merseyside. In total, over 50 masts were burned or vandalised in the early April, with arsonists believing that: 1) they were setting fire to 5G masts (they often weren't), and 2) that 5G is a harmful technology that damages human health.

In the 24 months since the Gateshead streetlight was vandalised, conspiracy theories about 5G had flourished and diversified. Some said it caused miscarriages. Others thought it killed trees. More and more came to believe it was linked to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. The lonely lamppost looter was no longer so alone. High profile believers swelled the ranks of conspiracy theorists: actor Woody Harrelson, boxer Amir Khan and reality star Lucy Watson were among the celebrities who began expressing distrust of 5G technology.

On the morning of the 13th of April, TV presenter Eamonn Holmes said on ITV's This Morning that he didn't "accept" the "state narrative" that 5G's link with coronavirus was "not true" (he later clarified that there's "no scientific evidence to substantiate any of those 5G theories").

How did 5G conspiracies take over the UK? Why have over 120 telecom engineers now been threatened and harassed? Who linked the technology to coronavirus, and why did celebrities jump on the supposed connection? Why do some people believe that the entire conspiracy has been confirmed by a £20 note? And what even is 5G anyway? Is it definitely safe?

5g conspiracy theory protest
An anti-5G protest in London. Photo: Kevin J. Frost / Alamy Stock Photo

"5G is both boring as well as super exciting," says Mischa Dohler, a professor of Wireless Communications at King's College London and a pioneer in 5G technology. Dohler explains that despite the technical-sounding name, 5G simply stands for "fifth generation" – it is the latest iteration of wireless tech after 4G, 3G and 2G before it. When 4G was rolled out across the UK in the early 2010s, it enabled us to load things far more quickly on our phones. Dohler says 5G will also increase download speed and allow us to transmit higher quality data, but he is most excited about what he calls "synchronised reality".

"With 5G, there is a 1 to 10 millisecond latency between pressing something and getting a response from the internet. Why is that important? Ten milliseconds is a psychological barrier – we as humans build up emotional bonds with responses that come in 10 milliseconds," Dohler says. In this way, Dohler argues, the technology will improve our experience of the virtual world and bring us closer together.

But how exactly does 5G work? All cellular networks communicate through radio waves, but unlike previous generations of wireless technology, many 5G networks use millimetre waves (mmW), which are higher on the radio frequency spectrum. All radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation, but they are non-ionising, meaning they don't have enough energy to damage our DNA. Higher up the electromagnetic spectrum, the sun's UV rays and X-rays both emit ionising radiation that can damage human health. Though 5G tech sits higher up the electromagnetic spectrum than, say, TV, the radiation emitted is still non-ionising. The range of mmW is also particularly short, meaning extra masts are needed to allow the waves to travel across the country.

"One thing that's a little ironic to me about all this hype around 5G safety is that, at higher frequencies, radiofrequency energy doesn't travel as far into the body. In the mmW band it really doesn't get past your skin," says Christopher Collins, a professor of radiology at New York University, who studies the interaction of electromagnetic fields with the human body. Collins explains the need for more masts is related to this, as "just like the energy can't get into your body, it doesn't pass through walls or even windows as easily". The upside to having more masts is that the energy from each mast does not need to radiate as far.


LISTEN: VENT Weekly, a podcast made by VICE UK and the young people of Brent. In this episode, we discuss coronavirus and the 5G conspiracy theory.


Collins explains that radio waves can have a heating effect that can be harmful to humans, however he says, "Decades of research and basic physics all show this energy is completely safe as long as it is at levels that can't heat you." Across the globe, regulations and laws ensure that telecommunications companies do not exceed these safety levels, and 5G is no different. In April of 2020, Ofcom took electromagnetic field measurements at 22 5G sites across the UK and found the highest 5G emissions were only 0.039 percent of the maximum levels included in the guidelines set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

So what are the conspiracies based on? A study often cited by 5G conspiracy theorists involves cancer and rats. In November of 2018, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) released the results of a study which showed male rats exposed to high levels of radio frequency radiation developed heart tumours. Collins says the research has been "taken out of context" and argues the levels of radiation exposure experienced by the rats is not comparable to that experienced by humans using phones (this sentiment was first expressed by one of the scientists who conducted the study, who in a press release at the time said, "The exposures used in the studies cannot be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cell phone.").

"I always say the consumer has the right to be worried, but at the same time, the consumer has the obligation to get informed," says Dohler, adding that scientists have some culpability for the spread of conspiracies. "People love conspiracies and they don't like this very boring scientific exposure," he says, arguing there should have been better dissemination of scientific material before 5G was released.

"I maintain that we as a scientific community aren't very good in building a beautiful narrative around something which is, frankly speaking, quite boring," he says. "Conspiracies are very exciting. People love it. This is clickbait."

There is no telling why the anonymous Gateshead man scaled a lamppost in April of 2018, but it might have had something to do with another man named Mark Steele. In 2016, Gateshead local Steele was told by a neighbour that newly installed streetlights outside her home were causing daily nosebleeds. Steele began to investigate and came to believe that – despite the council's claims to the contrary – the lampposts housed a 5G network. Steele began to earn a following on social media and is now one of the UK's most active anti-5G campaigners.

Also in April of 2018, Mail Online reported on Steele's claims that the lamps were responsible for insomnia, three miscarriages and the "annihilation" of birds and insects. Gateshead Council's Facebook denial had gone viral – the knock-on effect was dramatic press coverage of an otherwise fringe movement. The Mail's story contained images of two women who claimed to have experienced nosebleeds and insomnia because of the streetlights, but curiously the article itself did not quote the women or reference them by name. Still, according to the website's visible metrics, the article was shared nearly 5,000 times.

Half a year later, in October, Steele was invited to talk at a conference for the Democrats and Veterans Party; a video of his speech on the dangers of 5G was watched widely on YouTube. A month later, a post about dead birds on the Facebook page "Erin at Health Nut News" was shared over 125,000 times. The medical conspiracy blog claimed hundreds of birds had died after a 5G experiment in The Netherlands. Though it is true that mysterious bird deaths had occurred a month earlier, no 5G tests had been conducted in the area at the time.

As with many conspiracy theories, social media and a handful of prominent social media personalities were (and remain) key to the spread of anti-5G conspiracies (in July of 2018, famous conspiracy theorist David Icke first began posting about the technology on his Facebook page, and 5G theories also spread on popular anti-vaccine pages). Asked if he would like to be interviewed about his beliefs for this article, Steele responded via Facebook Messenger: "It's not a belief, it's the science, and those that keep up the deception will face the justice that is coming." In early April, a VICE journalist found that Steele has crowdfunded over £30,000 via his anti-5G posts.

But of course 5G conspiracies didn't spontaneously start with Steele. As the UK's independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact has dutifully documented, there were protests and conspiracies surrounding the rollout of 3G. Dr Oliver Mason, a reader in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey, points out that "cyber-paranoia" is nothing new.

"In the 1900s people thought the telephone would cause people to stop being able to write, increase crime, even lead to brain atrophy," he says. He believes people who are marginalised – such as new agers, ultraorthodox religious people or "simply societal dropouts" – forge their identities by rejecting aspects of modern society like vaccinations, electronics or even cars. He also argues any individual "with a propensity to develop unusual beliefs" (including those with mental health conditions who experience delusions) can "hook" onto current cultural tropes, which are presently more to do with technology than they are, say, religion.

But like 5G expert Dohler, Mason also believes education around new tech is lacking. "5G technology seems to be developing under wraps somewhat, which is probably short-sighted," he says. "'Springing' it on an unsuspecting public can certainly feed conspiracy theories, as we are seeing."

Because of the different psychological motivations of those in the anti-5G movement, there isn’t necessarily one party line beyond a distrust of the tech. Anti-5G blogger "Annie Logical", for example, has dedicated a 5,920-word blogpost to "exposing" Steele. Though she campaigns against 5G and believes it is harmful, in the post she argues that there is definitive proof that there is no 5G in Gateshead lampposts.

Speaking with 5G conspiracists, I see their differences in action. One man became active in the movement by helping to run a Facebook page to stop the rollout of 5G in Glastonbury – in 2019, EE trialled the tech at that year's festival. Though he declined to be interviewed, he referenced "2,000 peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the harmful effects of man-made EMFs" and sent a series of links "which may shed some more light on the subject if you can comprehend the information". Another man, who created a popular Facebook post linking 5G and the coronavirus, theorised the government were trying to depopulate the country before happily declaring his phone has 4G+.

Though conspiracies about 5G achieved momentum over the last two years, it was in the early months of 2020 that the theories really took off. In early April, Facebook began removing pages dedicated to anti-5G conspiracies after the largest group in the UK gained 3,000 new members in just 24 hours. How did we go from a small group of people believing 5G caused cancer in rats and killed birds to a nation gripped by fear that 5G was related to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic?

5g protest
An anti-5G protester in Amsterdam. Photo: Pro Shots / Alamy Stock Photo

There is no one single conspiracy theory about 5G and coronavirus. Some in the anti-5G community, for example, believe 5G damages the immune system and thus facilitates the spread of the virus. Others believe the virus itself is actually caused by the tech. Some believe there is no virus, and it was invented to cover up health problems caused by 5G. Still others believe lockdown is an excuse to cover up the installation of new masts. A message frequently forwarded on WhatsApp claims that the weekly #ClapForTheNHS was designed to cover up the "loud buzzing noise" generated by the government's tests of 5G equipment.

Full Fact began debunking coronavirus/5G conspiracies in January of 2020, when a Facebook post claimed that Wuhan was the very first city where 5G was rolled out and, consequently, the tech had lowered immunity to the virus. The "story" was then covered on far-right conspiracy site InfoWars, where it spread even further. Over the next few months, popular memes showed side-by-side maps correlating 5G coverage and coronavirus infection rates, claiming the former caused the latter. Dohler debunks these posts.

"Kingston upon Thames was one of the very first testbeds for 5G more than a year back – if you look at the statistics of the coronavirus outbreak, Kingston upon Thames is one of the lowest penetration for the population density. Clearly, there's no causality here," he says. "Then there's countries like Iran, who don't have 5G at all and have very severe outbreaks of coronavirus."

Still, these posts remain compelling for many. Just like earlier 5G conspiracies, coronavirus/5G conspiracies spread through social networks. In April, videos and pictures across social media platforms claimed that the British £20 note contains an image of a 5G tower emitting radiation (in actual fact, the picture is of the Margate lighthouse). When I speak with someone who shared a popular Facebook post about the £20 note, I ask who put the secret symbols on the note. "Who do you think? Whoever makes the money!" he laughs.

"I'm getting loads of feedback on it… I was surprised how quick it got out," he says of the post.

After lockdown measures were imposed by the government, these conspiracies only seemed to gain momentum, forcing Michael Gove to declare them "dangerous nonsense" on the 6th of April. The psychological toll of a pandemic and the fact we're now indoors spending a lot more time online undoubtedly led many to lend credence to a theory they may have otherwise ignored – including celebrities. Once celebrities endorsed – or hinted at endorsing – these theories, they gained extra credibility in the public eye. Many can now use circular reasoning to justify their concerns: if there was no problem, why would Eamonn Holmes think there was? "I think it's real, obviously, because why else would people be cutting down the poles?" says the man who shared the £20 note post.

In April, a journalist with Full Fact summarised the spread in an article on the site. "Claims about 5G made up a relatively small amount of our work before the pandemic," they wrote, "but now contributes to a significant number of both the fact check requests we receive from our readers, and what we see on social media."

It's worth noting that just months after a lamppost was scaled in Gateshead in April of 2018, many mainstream publications were questioning the health effects of 5G. Others were spreading claims made by scientists who warned against the tech. Some were covering stories with clickbait-y headlines, like the Metro's "Nobody believes Gateshead Council's 'smoke screen' denial about 5G in their street lights", which at first glance reads like an endorsement of these beliefs. On the 24th of March this year, the Daily Star even published an article headlined "Coronavirus: Fears 5G wifi networks could be acting as 'accelerator' for disease". While social media often gets the blame for spreading conspiracies, the traditional media also plays its part.

Then, of course, there are the Russians. In May of 2019, a report in the New York Times documented how Russian network RT was airing segments linking 5G to cancer, autism, infertility and Alzheimer's, and traced how blogs then disseminated these theories, "seldom if ever noting the Russian origins".

Now that 5G/coronavirus conspiracies have been spread by the heady mixture of social media, traditional media and celebrity media, it's unlikely they will disappear any time soon. If it all seems confusing, that's because it is. Some old school 5G conspiracy theorists are now even claiming that 5G/coronavirus conspiracies are a false flag planted by the government to make their warnings against the health effects of 5G seem dumb.

"I really wish I had a good answer for why we have conspiracy theories like this one," says Collins, the NYU radiology professor. "It's the nature of people to fear the unknown, and it's pretty easy today to spread misinformation designed inspire fear, and even anger, about any number of things that aren't common knowledge… If more of us could choose to gain understanding rather than fear things we aren't familiar with, we'd all be better off."

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