False 5G theories fuel network vandalism incidents

8 April 2020


A recent string of vandalism incidents has damaged equipment at mobile network base station sites in the U.K., fuelled by false claims that 5G networks are linked to the spread of COVID-19. Since Thursday last week, at least 20 mobile phone masts have been set on fire or vandalised, The Guardian reports.

Fires were reported at cell tower sites in Belfast, Birmingham, greater Manchester and Liverpool, for example.

The U.K.’s four mobile operators EE, O2, Three and Vodafone issued a joint statement via their trade organisation Mobile UK, about the attacks on their networks:

“Sadly, we have experienced cases of vandals setting fire to mobile masts, disrupting critical infrastructure and spreading false information suggesting a connection between 5G and the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus. Fact.

Not only are these claims baseless, they are harmful for the people and businesses that rely on the continuity of our services. They have also led to the abuse of our engineers and, in some cases, prevented essential network maintenance taking place.”

While the country is on lockdown during the outbreak of COVID-19, telecom engineers are classified as essential workers so that they can go out and continue to maintain fixed and mobile networks to keep the U.K.’s critical infrastructure up and running.

Dangerous nonsense

The government condemned false 5G theories that have led to obstructing engineers from doing their vital work and damaging network infrastructure during a public health crisis. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove called conspiracy theories that linked 5G to COVID-19 “dangerous nonsense,” during the government’s daily coronavirus briefing this week.

At the same briefing, Stephen Powis, Director of NHS England, said: “The 5G story is complete and utter rubbish. It’s nonsense. It’s the worst kind of fake news. And I’m absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency.”

The U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) called on social media companies to stop the spread of conspiracy theories that link 5G to COVID-19. DCMS said via Twitter: “We have received several reports of criminal damage to phone masts and abuse of telecoms engineers apparently inspired by crackpot conspiracy theories circulating online. Those responsible for criminal acts will face the full force of the law…. We must also see social media companies acting responsibly and taking much swifter action to stop nonsense spreading on their platforms which encourages such acts.”

Separating fact from falsehoods

Causal links between 5G technology and COVID-19 defy logic on multiple levels and have been debunked. The technology simply has nothing to do with the virus.

It’s possible that persistent fears about 5G health risks somehow morphed into full-blown conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. But recent tests in the U.K. have shown that 5G radio signals are safe -- emissions fall far below international safety guidelines.In the wake of the recent vandalism incidents, Ofcom’s Spectrum Group Director Philip Marnick explained how it is determined that 5G is safe (see below)

Michelle Donegan is a tech writer who has covered the communications industry for more than 25 years on both sides of the pond. Having worked for various industry titles, including Communications Week International, Total Telecom and Light Reading, she specializes in mobile network technology trends. 

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