Fears around new technologies are nothing new, everything from analogue televisions to microwaves have been the subject of some wild claims over the years, but recent arson attacks on phone masts signal a worrying trend for operators who seem to be the latest targets.

Campaigners against 5G technology did not start during Covid-19 (coronavirus) lockdowns. A small number of protesters were visible outside industry events in 2019 promoting their beliefs about health issues related to the new technology, though rather than burning down masts they were seemingly content with giving out leaflets.

With the emergence of false claims of links between Covid-19 and 5G, things have seriously progressed.

Figures provided to Mobile World Live from Mobile UK, which represents the country’s four operators, showed as of 11 June there had been 94 individual arson attacks on telecoms infrastructure and a little more than 250 incidences of abuse linked to 5G conspiracy theories.

Similar attacks, though smaller in number, have been reported by media in a number of countries including the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Cyprus and Sweden.

In early April, the UK’s four operators released a joint statement condemning vandalism to infrastructure and abuse of employees which had been widely reported over the preceding weekend.

However, despite pleas by the operators, a media campaign to rubbish the claims, banning content, statements from authorities and regulatory action, more attacks have been reported.

Local newspapers reported a 5G mast being brought down in late May and a statement earlier this month from Mobile UK noted despite a state-run information campaign “mobile infrastructure and telecoms engineers continue to be targeted”.

Antisocial media
The combination of global connectivity and social media offers an excellent opportunity for those looking to quickly spread misinformation, and it looks like their message was still getting through even after attempts to debunk the myths.

A UK consumer study released by research company Ipsos MORI and King’s College London last week revealed some extremely concerning consumer perception statistics.

Of the 2,254 people polled in mid-May, 8 per cent believed “symptoms that most people blame on Covid-19 appear to be connected to 5G network radiation”.

Additionally, 60 per cent of those believing Covid-19 was linked to 5G radiation cited YouTube as one of their main information sources, compared with 14 per cent of those who thought the statement was false.

Although the study is for one country and a relatively small sample size, it shows a willingness for people to believe what they see online no matter how reliable the source.

Information offensive
Authorities have tried counter campaigns and directed people to websites with facts around 5G, though have also squarely pointed the finger at social media companies needing to do more to help in the fight.

Following the spate of mast attacks in the UK, the GSMA released a statement calling on “internet giants, content providers and social media platforms to accelerate their efforts to remove fake news linking 5G to the spread of Covid-19”.

This sentiment was echoed by European Commission VP for values and transparency Vera Jourova earlier this month, when launching its latest campaign against Covid-19 misinformation.

She warned: “We need to mobilise all relevant players from online platforms to public authorities, and support independent fact checkers and media. While online platforms have taken positive steps during the pandemic, they need to step up their efforts.”

At the same time, Jourova emphasised the importance of freedom of expression and information.

In their defence social media platforms have undertaken a number of initiatives. These include the removal of the YouTube channel of notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke, while Facebook has blocked a number of groups focused on spreading such rumours and Twitter removed various pieces of offending content.

In June, Twitter announced it would add clarifications to posts featuring misinformation on 5G though this falls short of deleting the posts themselves.

Undoubtedly clarifying the facts to people helps curtail these theories, though that really only helps for those who trust whoever is doing the clarifying. Blanket bans on social media are likely to be logistically difficult to say the least.

Sadly you can’t persuade everyone. The best you can do is to ensure the majority of people see these theories for exactly what they are, though given the results of the Ipsos MORI poll, this may be easier said than done.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.