The COVID/5G conspiracy theory has been around since the early days of the pandemic. How did such an out-there idea become so widely known? The dumpster fire that is social media has a fair bit to do with it, with a combination of misinformation (wrong information spread without manipulative/deceptive intent) and disinformation (intentionally spreading wrong information to confuse or manipulate).
There’s plenty of info out there that explains why this conspiracy theory is nonsense, so I’m not going to repeat that. That’s not what interests me, anyway; what gets my mental cogs turning is the way the idea spread and why it was so appealing to people. I think it’s old enough at this point that writing about it probably won’t feed the fire, so let’s dive in.
Cognitive biases and conspiracies
There are a number of cognitive biases that can come into play with conspiracy theories more generally. One is our tendency to underestimate randomness and look for other causes for patterns that we see. This is called illusory pattern perception, or apophenia. We also tend to look for big, complicated causes for big, complicated problems; this is known as proportionality bias. Corona has taken over the world, and the idea that things like that can just happen for no reason may not sit well with people.
Another issue is the illusion of causality, which is the appearance that there’s a causal relationship between things that are unrelated. Just because COVID happened around the same time that 5G was being rolled out doesn’t mean there’s some significant relationship between the two. Plenty of things happen once a day, but the sun doesn’t cause those things to happen by its position in the sky. The illusion of causality also feeds into the false notion that vaccines cause autism, as getting vaccines and starting to display indicators of autism can happen at a similar time in life.
Perceptions of politicians
People are also inclined to be suspicious of “the man,” and it doesn’t help that governments have covered up plenty of things before. In late January 2020, the British government decided to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to participate in developing the 5G network in the UK, going against American recommendations. At around the same time, COVID/5G chatter began to pick up online.
It doesn’t help that there’s been a lot of governmental flip-flopping on public health policies, as it suggests that the people in charge don’t know what they’re talking about. However, politicians making questionable decisions on what to do with information doesn’t mean that the information base generated by researchers is weak.
In many ways, I think Twitter is a platform that tends to bring out the worst in people. The character limit alone takes nuance out of the picture entirely. Twitter and Facebook both played major roles in spreading the COVID/5G conspiracy talk.
A paper published in 2020 looked at a week of Twitter data at the end of March/beginning of April 2020, when the #5GCoronavirus hashtag was trending in the UK. Out of the sample the researchers analyzed, there were three approximately equal-sized groups of tweets: those agreeing with the conspiracy theory, those denouncing-mocking it, and those that weren’t taking much of a stance one way or the other.
Of the top 10 user accounts linked to the spread of the conspiracy tweets, 7 were private citizens, one was a YouTuber’s account, one was a dedicated conspiracy account (@5gcoronavirus19), and #10 was Donald Trump. Trump didn’t actually tweet about 5G, but his account was frequently mentioned by other tweeters, which got those tweets a lot of extra attention.
The most commonly shared link in the conspiracy tweets was to Alex Jones’s site Infowars, which claimed that its 5G nonsense came from “prestigious doctors & scientists.”
Some of the lowlights of the tweets the researchers looked at:
- “5G is the one and only Coronavirus! Radiation from it will easily wipe out the world population. Think! Why did China get rid of their 5G towers? This is why they are now free from the Corona.”
- “Make sure to SMASH THOSE 5G masts up!! #5Gcoronavirus”
The researchers noted that at least some of the 1/3 of tweets that didn’t express an opinion were likely using the hashtag just to take advantage of its popularity. They also pointed out that the large number of mockery/denunciation tweets contributed to the hashtag trending, and helped give it far more notoriety than it ever deserved.
Another paper looked at how the COVID/5Gconspiracy theory moved from fringe to mainstream notoriety on Facebook. The data they had access to, through Facebook’s CrowdTangle platform, reflected information shared on public pages and groups from January 1 to April 12, 2020.
The COVID/5G talk began spreading globally from January 27-February 24, 2020. In the week of February 25, 2020, it really began to pick up, both in the number of people talking about it and the number of languages in which the chatter was happening. The conspiracy theory itself also got bigger, often in diverging directions, and various people like Bill Gates got dragged into it. In mid-March, celebrities started hopping on board the conspiracy train.
From late March to mid-April, things started to get more hands-on, with online calls for arson at 5G equipment sites. In several countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Sweden, fires were started at 5G masts or other damage was done to them. An Australian hot spot for anti-5G activity, Mullumbimby in Northern New South Wales (NSW), already had one of the lowest childhood vaccination rates in that country, so they were primed and ready to jump on the 5G conspiracy train.
Around this time, talk got going about microchips and plans to harm the population with mass vaccinations. There was also an Evangelical Christian-themed cluster of discussions that got going starting in Nigeria. In early April 2020, media coverage picked up, including scientific responses, although the fact-checking in the media may have helped bring the conspiracy theory to more people’s attention. In mid-April, social media platforms like Facebook started cracking down on misinformation. While that did limit the spread somewhat, takedowns also tend to fuel conspiracy thinking that information is being hidden from people.
The researchers noted that there was a clear pattern of the COVID/5G conspiracy theory smoothly piggybacking onto several well-established pre-existing conspiracy themes, including radiation dangers, vaccines, global elites, and China. This takes advantage of confirmation bias, the tendency to believe things that are consistent with beliefs we already have. The people who initially pushed the theory took advantage of the concerns that other social media users already had about safety in the context of the pandemic taking hold and measures like lockdowns being implemented. Facebook’s global reach facilitated the international spread of the theory, and mainstream corrective information wasn’t necessarily making it into the same spaces where the misinformation was spreading.
Stop the COVID cray-cray train, I wanna get off
Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, but this one about COVID/5G was particularly notable in the speed and extent to which it took off. It also impacted people’s actions. It’s one thing to mentally buy into the cray-cray, but it takes it to a whole other level to start getting criminal with it.
Social media can do a lot of harm, but I think that’s mostly because it unleashes some ugly stuff that’s already hanging out in a big chunk of humanity. I don’t think there’s a way to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to social media, and I don’t see the conspiracy-prone aspect of humanity dying down anytime soon.
So what’s the solution? I have no idea. Do you have any ideas?
- Ahmed, W., Vidal-Alaball, J., Downing, J., & Seguí, F. L. (2020). COVID-19 and the 5G conspiracy theory: Social network analysis of Twitter data. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(5), e19458.
- Bruns, A., Harrington, S., & Hurcombe, E. (2020). ‘Corona? 5G? or both?’: the dynamics of COVID-19/5G conspiracy theories on Facebook. Media International Australia, 177(1), 12-29.
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