5G Conspiracies in an ‘Infodemic’
Justin Waddy analyses the issue at the heart of a politicised pandemic: misinformation. Is it more harmful than 5G?
A pandemic, victimised engineers, leaping flames, phone masts and conspiracy – it sounds like the potential blurb of a third Kingsman film. Unfortunately, it was the reality of the UK over this past Easter weekend, in which approximately 50 attacks took place on phone masts across the region.
Twenty-two of EE’s towers were set alight, 39 BT engineers were attacked, and another 20 arsons occurred against Vodacom’s phone towers. This included one mast which provided mobile data coverage to Nightingale Hospital, Birmingham. The total count of attacked masts, confirmed by MobileUK to Business Insider as approximately 50, was firmly as a result of conspiracies surrounding 5G.
The series of attacks signify the rising danger of conspiracy and misinformation among the Covid-19 pandemic – warned to be a new “infodemic” by the World Health Organisation. The idea that 5G masts emit dangerous radiation isn’t the first conspiracy to rise to popularity throughout the crisis. Unfounded rumours of Covid-19 having a secret cure, being a foreign man-made bioweapon, or a form of population control have been circulating since January. The claim that 5G towers emit harmful radiation is similarly baseless, and the international radiation watchdog ICNIRP have confirmed the technology as safe.
The sharing of misinformation hasn’t been limited to a minority of the public. It has included politicians, diplomats, and celebrities alike. In March, as China-America tensions boiled over – both countries’ officials traded ridiculous insinuations that the virus was manufactured by the opposing nation. The temptation to blame other foreign countries seemed to be irresistible, despite it breaking down relations at a time when global collaboration is of great importance. Leaders, such as the US and Brazilian president, fell guilty to spreading misinformation when they promoted the efficacy of the malaria medication, Chloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. The possible, but clinically unproved, assumption resulted in Facebook removing a video of President Jair Bolsonaro promoting the use of the drug.
It does seem, however, that the development of conspiracies and misinformation during a pandemic isn’t historically or psychologically abnormal. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, Americans believed that German submarines were responsible for the spreading of the Spanish Flu. Our current pandemic provides similarly ideal conditions for misinformation and conspirational thinking to arise. There’s a lack of comprehensive information, a sense of uncertainty, and, as a result of the two former factors, a perceived lack of control. Dr Florian Stoeckel, a lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter, found as part of his 2018 paper that the levels of control individuals perceive to have over their lives is linked to their likelihood to believe in conspirational thinking. His study also shows that beliefs in conspiracy are linked to whether the party an individual supports is in power. Thus, the lack of control people perceive as a result of the pandemic, may be contributing to the rise of ill-founded conspiracies.
Karen M. Douglas, a psychologist specialising in the belief of conspiracies at the University of Kent, explains this further: “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have”. This, in turn, provides feelings of security and increased control, which compensates for the feeling that the world around you is uncontrollable. The negative impacts of conspiracy theories can, however, result in severe consequences. In the case of the recent 5G conspiracy, it’s caused mass damage to the UK’s mobile network infrastructure. Other medical conspiracies, like those surrounding vaccinations, have proved equally as damaging, allowing for potential outbreaks of previously contained diseases.
The problem with misinformation and conspiracies is, however, somewhat solvable. Firstly, institutions should ensure transparency. In the case of Trump and Bolsonaro’s chloroquine blunder, it would’ve been more pertinent for the leaders to point out that the medication has the possibility of being an effective treatment for Covid-19. Whether it empirically is or isn’t an effective treatment is, at this point, wholly unknown. Guidance from governments and organisations on face-masks should do the same, helping the public understand that the justifications behind set guidance changes as empirical studies are conducted.
The development of conspiracies and misinformation during a pandemic isn’t historically or psychologically abnormal
Secondly, though a more long-term, utopian goal, governments should investigate the effectiveness of developing competencies in cognitive processing throughout the public. Cognitive sophistication, the quality of one’s reasoning, was shown to be a negative predictor of Covid-19 misconceptions in a recent, but non-peer reviewed paper. There is disparity over whether cognitive sophistication truly acts as a negative predictor and, thus, this step should only be taken once there is clear research indicating how and whether cognitive sophistication can be improved across a population.
Finally, fact-checking outlets, such as Snopes or Africa Check, should continue their work, as they provide important tools which help the public to evaluate truth claims made by politicians, political parties and other prominent individuals or organisations. This can help curb misinformation, and provide rebuttal against prominent conspiracy theories during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whilst conspiracies are likely to continue throughout the pandemic, remember to be mindful of information consumed and shared. We should let fiction remain fiction.