5G or not 5G – Why is there a question?

As the old saying goes, a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Of course, that saying was coined in a less enlightened age; with the advent of the Internet and superfast mobile communications, a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has even got out of bed and had its first coffee. The conspiracy theory industry has expanded massively in the communications age, and the advent of Covid-19 has proved a potent accelerator for all manner of bizarre theories. In times of catastrophe, it seems that people find conspiracy theories comforting in a way; to claim that the government, or someone else’s government, or the Illuminati, are responsible for our current travails is perhaps easier than facing up to the terrifying fact that we are, and always will be, desperately vulnerable to the random vagaries of the natural world.

One of the biggest conspiracy theories that has gained considerable traction during the pandemic has been that, or rather those, related to 5G mobile networks. The Internet and Twittersphere are awash with blogs, articles and comments explaining that the new mobile network is everything from a mechanism to kill off half the population to a means of guiding in an invading fleet of aliens. In this article we’ll take a look at the most common theories and why they are so much bunkum (although who’s to say that your correspondent isn’t in the pay of the government, or the alien invaders, or both).

Before we address the principal conspiracy theories, perhaps it would be useful to quickly review what 5G actually is. 5G (fifth generation) is a new standard for mobile communications, currently being rolled out globally. It’s already available in most major cities, and the network will continue to expand over the next few years. 5G is able to work much faster than 4G networks, with far greater bandwidth; it is anticipated that ultimately it should be able to provide 10 GB per second download speeds. It achieves this by using higher frequency radio waves than mobile networks use at present; the problem with these high-frequency waves is that they transmit over a shorter range than current frequencies, so more antennae are needed, closer together, hence the massive roll-out of new infrastructure that has recently been taking place. The new technology opens up many new possibilities that were previously limited by slower transmission speeds, for example wearable health monitors that can monitor all the body’s vital signs in real-time and alert the user and healthcare providers to any problems.

Although the technology is massively complex, the principle is quite simple – basically 5G is a faster mobile network. So why are so many people putting in orders for tinfoil hats to avoid its malign influence? 

One of the less bizarre claims is that 5G can damage your health. Throughout history new forms of communication have often been suspected of this; at the start of the last century, some people refused to have wireless sets in their homes on the basis that radio waves could cause cancer, and in the 1980s when mobile devices first became available it was rumoured that they would lead to an unprecedented outbreak of brain cancer due to the radiation they emit. 5G is essentially accused of the same crime. Unfortunately the conspiracy theories have misunderstood the difference between ionising radiation and non-ionising radiation. Ionising radiation, such as that emitted by uranium, for example, has sufficient power to disturb the orbit of electrons in an atom and thus damage molecules. In human beings, this can cause cancer and other diseases. Non-ionising radiation, however, only has the power to agitate atoms, creating heat that can be used for transmissions, e.g., radio waves, but they cannot fundamentally alter the structure of matter. All mobile communications use non-ionising radiation.So much for reasonable concerns. 

Now let’s get on to the fun stuff. One of the most prevalent theories is that 5G is somehow responsible for the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, Covid 19. The science behind this is shaky to say the least: most claims revolve around the concept that 5G damages the immune system to the extent that a common cold, which is what conspiracists claim Covid 19 is, can have the devastating effects with which we are sadly all too familiar. This claim is bolstered by the “fact” that Wuhan, centre of the pandemic outbreak, was also ground zero for the first testing of a widespread 5G network. There are a trio of objections to this theory: firstly, Covid 19 is not a common cold virus but part of the deadly family of coronaviruses that includes SARS and MERS; secondly, as noted above, the radiation emitted by 5G masts is not capable of altering human cellular structures; thirdly, although Wuhan was undoubtedly one of the first Chinese cities to get a 5G network, so were Shanghai, Beijing and most other major urban conurbations in the country. Historically minded conspiracists have claimed there is an historical precedent for this, claiming the deadly Spanish influenza outbreak in the second decade coincided with the rollout of the first major commercial wireless network; unfortunately Spanish flu emerged in 1918, with the first radio network being rolled out in 1920.

Another “out there” claim about the correlation between 5G and Covid 19 is that the latter was created by global governments in order to enforce lockdowns during which the former could be secretly installed. This claim seems somewhat tenuous in light of the fact that the infrastructure for 5G has been rolling out globally since early 2019, that 5G phones are available from all telecommunications companies, and literally thousands of public planning applications have been made for the installation of new masts. If this is a government secret, it’s a very badly kept one (mind you it wouldn’t be that surprising given their sieve-like propensities.)

Some conspiracy theorists have eschewed any attempt to find a scientific basis for objections to 5G, simply stating that it is some form of science-fiction death ray that governments are going to use to thin out the population in order to solve global warming (for some reason Bill Gates and George Soros are often claimed to be at the forefront of this). One astonishing example of this theory being accepted was at the 2019 Glastonbury Festival, where the local parish council blocked the installation of temporary 5G antennae intended to boost communications for festival attendees. According to conspiracy theorists, Glastonbury was to be a vast testing ground for the new death ray. It is somewhat hard to imagine how the government would have explained away 200,000 dead trustafarians at a live televised event, but doubtless they had plans in place (as if; one of the more amusing aspects of conspiracy theories is that they attribute almost superhuman powers of logistics and planning to individuals and organisations that clearly couldn’t plan their way out of a wet paper bag).

One of the more plausible theories related to 5G is that it can damage the natural world, and birdlife in particular. It has been demonstrated that substantial electrical installations can sometimes interfere with birds’ navigation systems etc, and it has been claimed that mass death events have occurred in the proximity of 5G testing installations. One of the most frequently-referenced incidents was in the Hague, Netherlands, in October 2018, where 297 dead birds were found. Although undoubtedly tragic, unfortunately no 5G testing was taking place in the area at that time. In fact, mass death events with birds are not that uncommon; birds that fly in large flocks can often be disturbed by the presence of raptors, causing panic within flocks and mass collisions leading to deaths. These events have been reported since long before the advent of 5G, or indeed any form of electronic communication.

The final notable conspiracy theory is that 5G is being rolled out so that governments can subject their citizens to ever closer surveillance. The simple fact of the matter is that governments do use mobile works to monitor their citizens, and always have; however, even with 4G, intelligence agencies admit that they have far more data than they can possibly monitor even using the best computer technology currently available. Why a government would wish to add more noise to its surveillance operations, making it more difficult to extract information about terrorists and other malefactors, is not clear.

Of course there is one conspiracy theory related to 5G that is completely true: this is that it has been invented to make us buy more expensive stuff (5G networks will need new handsets, they won’t operate on 4G devices) and sign up for ever more expensive telephone contracts on the basis that it will hugely improve our lives if we can download an episode of Game of Thrones in thirty seconds instead of two minutes. That’s absolutely true and part of one of the oldest conspiracies known to humanity, stretching back to the times when a Neanderthal first swapped an animal hide for some attractive pebbles; it’s called capitalism.

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