While the United States and much of the world squat to slow the spread of the novel corona virus, some virus-related conspiracy theories are flourishing. In particular, a conspiratorial false claim that 5G technology is associated with COVID-19 gained ground and accelerated from darkness to the disorganized mainstream by conspiracy theorists who have been chatting about 5G conspiracies for years.
While there is a scientific consensus on the basic medical realities of COVID-19, researchers are still filling in the gaps regarding a virus that no one knew existed five months ago. This relative lack of information paves the way for ideas that are usually relegated to the edge of the Internet to slip into broader talk about the pandemic – a dangerous feature of an unprecedented global health crisis.
According to Yonder, an AI company that monitors online conversations, including disinformation, conspiracies that tend to remain marginalized travel faster to the mainstream during the epidemic.
A company report on coronavirus misinformation said: "In uncertain times, the mainstream accepts unusually conspiratorial thinking, rumors, alarms, or panic" – a phenomenon that explains the movement of misinformation we are seeing now.
While the company estimates that it would normally take six to eight months for a "fringe story" from the edges of the Internet to enter the mainstream, this interval in the middle of COVID-19 looks like three to 14 days.
"In the current infodemic, we have seen conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation spreading across the Internet at unprecedented speed," said Ryan Fox, Yonder's chief innovation officer, to theinformationsuperhighway. He believes the trend is the over-impact of "small groups of hyper-passionate people" on misinformation, like the 5G claims.
While 5G claims about the corona virus are new, 5G conspiracies are not. "5G misinformation from online factions like QAnon or Anti-Vaxxers has been around for months, but they are becoming mainstream much faster because of their connection with COVID-19," said Fox.
The germ for the false 5G coronavirus claim may have been planted in late January in a print interview with a Belgian doctor who, according to Wired reports, indicated that 5G technology poses health risks and may be associated with the virus. Not long after the interview, Dutch-speaking anti-5G conspiracy theorists took up the theory and spread it on Facebook pages and YouTube channels that have already traded other 5G conspiracies. At some point along the way, people in the UK started burning down cell phone towers. Government officials are linked to the viral misinformation, even though they appear to have torn down the wrong towers. "Due to the slow introduction of 5G in the UK, many of the masts destroyed did not contain the technology, and the attacks only damaged 3G and 4G devices," The Guardian reported.
This week, the conspiracy became mainstream and resonated with a group of gullible celebrities, including actors John Cusack and Woody Harrelson, who reinforced the false 5G claims about their big followers on Twitter and Instagram, respectively.
A quick Twitter search shows many variations of the conspiracy that is still in circulation. "… Not everyone can see that 5G was tested for the first time in Wuhan. This is not a coincidence!" Claims a Twitter user. "5G was first installed in Wuhan and now other big cities. Coincidence?,Another asks.
In the past, 5G misinformation had a lot of help. As the New York Times reported last year, the Russian state-owned media company RT America started broadcasting alarm segments for 5G and health in 2018. Up until last May, RT America had broadcast seven different programs that focused on unsubstantiated 5G claims, including a report that 5G towers can cause nosebleeds, learning difficulties, and even cancer in children. It is possible that the currently popular 5G hoax may also be associated with disinformation campaigns, although we are unlikely to learn the details for some time.
In previous research on 5G-related conspiracies, the social analytics company Graphika found that the majority of the 5G online conversation focused on health effects. Accounts that share this type of conspiracy overlap with accounts that push for misinformation about vaccines, flat earth, and chemtrail.
The 5G corona virus conspiracy theory has prevailed, but it is by no means the only pandemic misinformation that has been circulating online lately. From the earliest moments of the crisis, counterfeit remedies and preventive treatments offered fraudsters the opportunity to make money. And even after social media companies have announced aggressive policies against potentially fatal health misinformation, fraud and conspiracies can still appear in AI blind spots. On YouTube, some scammers avoid target words such as "coronavirus" that alert automated systems to sell products such as a powdery supplement that the seller incorrectly claims to be able to ward off the virus. YouTube and other social platforms rely on AI more than ever as their human moderators have been sent home.
Social networks may have enabled most of the COVID-19 misinformation spread on the Internet to be disseminated early, but they do not explain everything. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have already banned the founder of Infowars and prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their platforms in 2018. However, on his own website, Jones claims that products he sells can be used to prevent or treat COVID-19.
The claims are so dangerous that the FDA even issued a warning letter to Jones earlier this week asking him to stop selling these products. An FDA-cited Infowars video instructs viewers who are concerned about the coronavirus to "go to the Infowars store and get some silver that really boosts the immune system and fends off infections."
Since it becomes clear that the everyday disturbances caused by the novel corona virus will probably remain with us for some time, conspiracies and fraud with corona viruses are likely to remain. A vaccine will eventually vaccinate the human population against the devastating virus, but if the history is a clue, even this is likely to feed online conspirators.