Telstra, the largest operator by subscribers in Australia, faced with a spike in misinformation around 5G safety hired a local comic to try to tame the spread of conspiracy theories linking the new mobile standard with Covid-19 (coronavirus) and environmental damage.

Early in 2020, Telstra noted a significant increase in negative 5G posts on its social media channels from groups such as #Stop5G, which it saw when looking at Google search analytics comparing a range of 5G keywords.

Mike Wood, principal for electromagnetic energy (EME) strategy at Telstra, told Mobile World Live that when the pandemic began to impact Australia and lockdown restrictions went into force, some groups started linking the virus to the rollout of 5G, “sparking a domino effect as we saw a jump in search volumes around the dangers and general safety surrounding the new technology”.

In addition to spreading disinformation online, activists damaged five base station sites in Australia. Neighbouring New Zealand faced a string of 17 arson attacks.

The phenomena certainly is not limited to those countries.

In H1 2020, industry association GSMA logged 222 attacks on telecoms sites in 19 countries worldwide. In Europe alone, 11 countries suffered 182 arson incidents, with nearly 50 per cent in the UK.

Early start
Telstra started early to prepare to combat false claims about 5G, since it had experienced some limited backlash from 3G and 4G deployments, Wood reflected.

When it kicked off 5G trials in 2016, the operator began extensive testing of 5G base station sites, with the aim of building up a factsheet on 5G safety, focused on electromagnetic energy (EME) levels, to use in consumer education campaigns to highlight the realities of 5G as well as share with the regulator.

The operator regularly monitors EME levels and is required to conduct EME compliance audits with the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Wood said the company’s decision to make a direct push to address 5G misinformation was prompted in part by revised electromagnetic fields (EMF) guidelines issued in March by International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation, which gave it additional evidence to support its 5G safety claims.

To formulate its communications programmes, it drew on internal research conducted at Telstra Labs on conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking, focusing on cause and effective responses. The campaign was aimed at people unsure about the facts, as its research showed individuals in this category are looking for 5G information. It chose not to target those vehemently opposed to 5G.

“Our intention was to educate those people who sit on the fence and are unsure whom to believe. We know we won’t change the opinions of the hardcore anti-5G group, but for others, we want to acknowledge that there is a lot of misinformation out there and proactively give them the facts about 5G EME,” he said.

Taking a fresh approach from a traditional, straightforward business message, Telstra hired comedian Mark Humphries, a regular on broadcaster ABC, as its 5G chief investigator to produce a five-part series, which ran for most of August on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The humorous episodes have titles such as Does 5G affect your DNA? and Has 5G been tested? (see video below and all the episodes here).

Wood said the campaign was a “huge success” in terms of reach, with a tenfold increase in engagement and response compared with its standard benchmark. “The overall response has been very positive, with many Australian commentators talking up the campaign”, which helps to continue to spread the message.

At end-September, it reached more than 2.5 million social media users: 97 per cent of some 22,500 comments and shares were positive.

Speaking at a mobile industry forum earlier this month, Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association CEO Chris Althaus observed “the 5G conspiracy discussion in the Australian media is fading now and 5G positive stories are starting to dominate”.

The myth-buster campaign was part of a wider effort which includes an online portal, with Telstra’s own findings and additional information from government agencies highlighting the safety of 5G equipment and services.

In mid-October, a group of 15 European Union (EU) member states urged the bloc to create a long-term strategy to counteract the spread of misleading information related to 5G networks. The group also called for an awareness campaign on risks related to human health, offering trusted information based on scientific research.

Wood, who also holds the title distinguished professional, noted Telstra has been asked to present on its EME communications efforts, which has drawn so much attention. Perhaps the EU will be in touch for advice, but will Aussie humour work in Europe?

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.