As with Van Kerckhoven, many of the conspiracy theories around 5G and coronavirus lean heavily on supposed experts. A video of a lecture given by Thomas Cowan, a physician from California, claims that coronavirus is the result of poisoning caused by 5G. One version of this video, which has been posted to YouTube a number of times, has more than 640,000 views. Another version has almost 600,000 views. Cowan’s talk was given on March 11 at the Health and Human Rights Summit, an anti-vaccination conference, in Tucson, Arizona. The event was headlined by Andrew Wakefield, the discredited British ex-physician and anti-vaccine activist. Cowan’s talk has also been shared widely on Facebook, receiving tens of thousands of shares, comments, and views.

In a Facebook post on March 30, the attorney and anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of former US president John F. Kennedy, also shared the conspiracy theory linking 5G to coronavirus. Global lockdown, he said, was stopping people from protesting to prevent “5G robber barons from microwaving our country and destroying nature.” The post has been shared more than 11,000 times and received almost 8,000 interactions. A video attached to the post that makes similar claims has been viewed almost 500,000 times.

To date, more than 4,800 Facebook posts receiving more than 1.1 million interactions have in some way linked coronavirus and 5G. David Icke, the ex-footballer and prominent conspiracy theorist with more than 240,000 Twitter followers and 782,000 YouTube subscribers, has also uploaded numerous videos and social media posts linking coronavirus to 5G. One, titled “Covid 19 And 5G—What’s The Connection?” has been viewed almost 400,000 times. Social media analysis by fact-checking organization Full Fact has found similar conspiracy theories going viral in France and Greece, racking up tens of thousands of interactions, shares, and views on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. On April 5, a YouTube spokesperson told The Guardian it was taking steps to limit the spread of the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory. The UK culture secretary, Olivier Dowden, has said he will hold talks with the major technology platforms to reiterate the importance of tackling disinformation.

The level of interest in the coronavirus pandemic—and the fear and uncertainty that comes with it—has caused tired, fringe conspiracy theories to be pulled into the mainstream. From obscure YouTube channels and Facebook pages to national news headlines, baseless claims that 5G causes or exacerbates coronavirus are now having real-world consequences. People are burning down 5G masts in protest. Government ministers and public health experts are now being forced to confront this dangerous balderdash head-on, giving further oxygen and airtime to views that, were it not for the major technology platforms, would remain on the fringe of the fringe. “Like anti-vax content, this messaging is spreading via platforms which have been designed explicitly to help propagate the content which people find most compelling,; most irresistible to click on,” says Smith from Demos.

He argues that while social networks have had success in removing content related to terrorism and child sexual exploitation from their platforms, they are continually failing to grapple with disinformation. “The dangerous messaging around 5G highlights the urgent need for a process for identifying and removing harmful misinformation, driven by those who are experts in relevant fields, but also with public knowledge and consent,” says Smith. But, to date, social networks have once again failed to tackle a disinformation crisis running riot on their platforms.

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.


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